Don’t eat too much sugar, they tell us, but enjoy all the fruit you want!
But wait—doesn’t fruit include sugar?
It does, but there is a big difference between natural fruit sugar and processed sugar, or “added sugar” as it’s often called.
What is the Difference Between Natural Sugar and Processed Sugar?
Natural sugar is any sugar that occurs naturally in whole food. This includes the natural sugars in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
Processed sugars (also called “refined” sugar or “added” sugar) are added to the food after the fact, to make it taste different than it would in its original form. They are made mainly from plants but are often processed in some way so they can easily increase the sweetness of another food.
Added sugars come in many varieties, and include all of the following:
- Granulated sugar
- Brown sugar
- Maple syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Syrup (including corn syrup, malt syrup, high-fructose corn syrup)
- Words ending in -ose (including dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, trehalose)
Are Natural Sugars Better than Processed Sugars?
The simple answer to this question is “yes,” but let’s examine why.
When you consume sugar in a piece of whole fruit, you’re eating not only the sugar but the fiber and other nutrients as well. These other nutrients slow your digestion of the sugar in the fruit, which can help prevent blood-sugar spikes and weight gain. It also helps you feel fuller longer.
The main difference between eating fruit and eating foods with added sugars lies in how your body metabolizes them. Whereas the body breaks down whole foods more slowly, it breaks down refined or added sugars very quickly. This causes insulin and blood sugar levels to skyrocket and over time, can lead to overweight and blood sugar problems.
This rapid breakdown of refined sugars also affects your appetite. Whereas you will feel satisfied after eating a piece of fruit, if you drink a sugar-sweetened beverage instead, you’re unlikely to feel full afterward and may eat even more.
Does Your Body Know the Difference Between Natural and Processed Sugar?
Sugar is sugar where the body is concerned, but what matters is what else you’re eating with it. If you eat a beet or an apple, you’re not getting just sugar—you’re also consuming all the other nutrients in that food including fiber, water, fats, and proteins. This makes that food a healthy part of a nutritious diet.
When you take sugar out of context, however, that sugar becomes devoid of all the health-enhancing properties that were in the original food. It no longer contains any nutrients that can benefit your body and instead contributes only empty calories that do nothing but expand your waistline.
You may ask, “But isn’t sugar attached to other ingredients in a processed food like cereal?” Here it helps to differentiate between sugar that’s part of whole food and sugar that is added to a list of other ingredients to create a final product.
The sugar in cereal, for instance, is added to a pot that also contains grains and flavors. That sugar is still isolated, however, because it’s not linked to those other ingredients, so it will still break down quickly in the body.
The sugar in fruit has not been separated from the other molecules in the food, which means the body must work harder to break that food (including the sugar) down. That helps prevent all the negative effects that sugar can create.
Too Much Sugar Linked to Health Problems
Harvard Health calls too much added sugar “one of the greatest threats to cardiovascular disease.” They reference a study published in 2014 in which scientists found that those eating a high-sugar diet were at a greater risk of dying from heart disease. “Basically, the higher the intake of sugar, the higher the risk for heart disease,” said study author Dr. Hu.
Consuming too much sugar can also raise blood pressure, increase chronic inflammation, contribute to weight gain, and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease. All of these, in turn, are linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Excessive sugar in the diet has even been associated with an increased risk of cancer. Research in over 430,000 people found that added sugar consumption was linked with an increased risk of esophageal cancer, pleural cancer, and cancer of the small intestine.
How Much Sugar is Too Much?
Unfortunately, the intake of added sugars has increased by more than 30 percent between 1977 and 2010. The Hippocrates Institute states that each U.S. citizen eats about 100 pounds of added sugar each year, up from about 40 pounds in 1900.
It’s not all our fault. Manufacturers have increased the sugar content of many foods like condiments, soups, bread, beer, sauces, and yogurt. Meanwhile, sugar-sweetened beverages, breakfast cereals, and fruit juices are packed with added sugar, and these are popular items in many households.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that Americans keep their intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of their total daily calories. An average 2,000 daily calorie diet would include only 200 calories from added sugars.
The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests an even lower amount, stating that men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or about 150 calories) of added sugar per day, with women consuming no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams or about 100 calories).
In comparison, American adults consume an average of 77 grams of sugar per day—more than three times the recommended amount for women.
Why Fruit is Healthier Than Sweetened Desserts
Because of its naturally sweet taste, fruit is the healthiest type of dessert you can have. Not only does it break down more slowly in the body than added sugar, but it is also likely to contain a much lower concentration of sugar than any other type of dessert in which the sugar has been added.
Keep in mind that while fruits and vegetables are always healthy, the same doesn’t apply to fruit and vegetable juices. These have had the fiber removed, so the body breaks them down much more quickly, resulting in the same problems that sugar-sweetened beverages present.
In general, always choose whole fruits and vegetables for the optimal healthy diet.