The 411 on Sugar

Contributing Author: Isabelle Wilson

Remember the low-fat diet craze of the 90s? Well, I don’t think anyone would argue that right now we are in a low sugar diet craze. Products we know and love for their sweetness are offered in “no added sugar” or “less sugar” varieties, from yogurts to cereal to chocolate bars. This post will break down the ins and outs of sugar: what sugar really is, how it works in your body, the difference between “added sugar” vs “natural sugar”, and if artificial sweeteners are all they’re cracked up to be.

Where does sugar come from? The white sugar that you have in your kitchen comes from the sugar cane plant. It’s gooey and sticky when it’s first extracted from the plant, then it is refined into what we recognize now as table sugar. You may have heard that sugar breaks down into a molecule called glucose. Glucose is a vital source of energy; it is the fuel that your body runs on to not only do your daily activities but to keep your brain and your other organs up and running. Consuming sugar is not the only way that we get glucose; our body breaks down all carbohydrates into glucose for energy. So, when you eat a carbohydrate containing food like fruits, vegetables, grains, or dairy, you break those carbohydrates down into glucose to be used by the muscles, liver, and brain. Carbohydrates come in different forms; maybe you’ve heard of them as “simple” or “complex.” Simple sugars are quickly digested and absorbed; they are usually associated with the “sugar high” we see in kids (but in reality, eating sugar does not cause hyperactivity…more on that in another post). Think lollipops, marshmallows, or fruit snacks. Complex carbs, while still carbohydrates that break down into sugar, contain longer starch molecules that take the body longer to break down and delay a blood glucose response. And often, complex carbohydrates contain other nutrients, like protein and fat, that further delay glucose absorption. Think whole grain crackers, brown rice, and quinoa.

Sugars can be added to food or occur naturally in food. Natural sugars are the types of sugars found in fruits (fructose), grains (glucose) and dairy (lactose). Sugars found naturally in foods are generally packaged up with other nutrients like fiber, water, and vitamins and minerals that help to keep us happy and healthy. On the flip side, added sugars are sugars that are not naturally found in a product but are added to that product during processing. An example of a product with added sugar would be prepackaged maple brown sugar oatmeal; while oats themselves contain natural sugar, the sugar added to make it taste like maple brown sugar is, as stated, added sugar!

So what about artificial, or “fake” sugars? Artificial sweeteners are found in most products that say “diet,” “zero sugar,” or “no added sugar.” More “natural” sweetener alternatives are really popular now, like stevia and monk fruit. One of the draws for people to eat foods with artificial sweeteners is that these products are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, so much less can be used which lowers the calorie content of products significantly. In our diet and thinness obsessed culture, I can see how this is appealing. However, lower calorie does not mean “healthier,” and this is an important distinction to make. While in moderation artificial sweeteners probably won’t cause any negative health outcomes, they are not a cure-all. With that said, there are a few situations where artificial sweeteners might be a better decision like for people with type two diabetes. Artificial sweeteners won’t spike their blood sugar the way that normal cane sugar does. For someone just looking to decrease their added sugar intake, I like to encourage them to train their taste buds to enjoy flavors that are less sweet, like choosing water or seltzer over diet soda or plain yogurt flavored with cinnamon and fresh fruit over an artificially sweetened yogurt.

If you want to learn more about sugar, I go into a deep dive on it on my podcast. You can listen to that at !

Until next time!

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