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Everyday on social media or email, readers ask me about sugar. I talk often about my healthy living tips and recipes especially on Instagram or Snapchat (username alexisroch).
So, what is the deal with added sugar vs natural sugar?
This is the ultimate chemistry guide to help you narrow down what you are using, eating, and what is the best option.
Now, if you don’t have a clue about chemistry, you are in the right place! Our chemistry hacks are made specifically for ANYONE to understand and learn from. We break is down in layman’s terms!
I am not a nutrient or dietician, but I did have the opportunity to learn about sugar in the body when I studied biochemistry. It was incredibly fascinating how sugar molecules work and how they look too.
PIN THIS: Added Sugar vs Natural Sugar
In chemistry, there are two main forms of sugars: monosaccharides and disaccharides. We could talk for days about the chemistry in these carbohydrate forms, but this is a chemistry hacks post, so we are going to focus on the essentials to help you understand what is best for you!
In this category, there are three main types of sugars.
This is important for the body, and what the body uses for energy. Nearly all carbohydrates contain glucose like fruits, breads, and vegetables.
Also known as fruit sugar, but found in different things even honey.
Found specifically in all mammal’s milk.
Mostly found in sugar cane. Table sugar is in this category. It is a combination of the two monosaccharides glucose and fructose.
Also present in mammal’s milk.
Usually found in starchy foods like barely, potatoes, legumes, and corn.
Chemist Note: The body must break down disaccharides into monosaccharides to digest.
Now let’s talk about added sugar vs natural sugar.
You will notice the monosaccharide category is the easiest to absorb since the body can put it right into the blood stream. Most of your natural sugars are in this category.
When you eat a piece of fruit, it contains a small amount of fructose which the body uses for quick energy.
There is an incredible amount of chemistry involved in sugars. Not only their chemical structures, but also how the body processes and breaks down each sugar. It is very in depth! So, instead of getting to far into that, I want to share with you more details about added sugar vs natural sugar.
Sugar that comes straight from the source are sugars in fruit, honey, and vegetables. No sugar is added to these items, it is all naturally occurring.
Dairy products, if organic, also contain natural sugars like the galactose mentioned earlier.
When you add sugar to a baked good, a drink, or when you eat something from a package, those are sugars that have been added.
It is the added sugar that you need to be careful about.
Even if you are adding organic sugar or coconut sugar to something, it is still added sugar.
What to Look for on Labels for Added Sugar
If you are looking at labels and notice your food has sugar in it, you can look at the ingredients to find out exactly where the sugar comes from.
Here is a few things to look for in added sugars:
- White granulated sugar
- Brown sugar
- Anhydrous dextrose
- Corn Syrup
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
You might think that many of these terms were mentioned above as natural sources of sugar like fructose. It can still be added to foods for sweetener. If you notice words that mention the actual food like banana, dates, or apples, that is natural.
I have also recently noticed labels that now have a section below sugars that says “added sugar” like below:
This was on a bag of regular potatoes I bought a few weeks ago!
The biggest problem with sugars is many are highly processed and full of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Another problem is the amount of sugars we consume.
When I use honey, I make sure it is raw and unfiltered to get the added benefits for inflammation. Read this post for details on the science behind honey for your health.
Honey also has a low glycemic index.
You may notice that in many baked goods I mentioned coconut sugar. Coconut sugar is a natural sugar from coconuts, but you have to be careful about this too. Many brands are processed, so it is important to find an organic, non-gmo one.
Coconut sugar is also known to have a low glycemic index. Low glycemic index means the blood sugar doesn’t spike because it is metabolized more slowly. This article from Dr. Axe mentions coconut sugar might be good for diabetics too.
The same is true for maple syrup. Maple syrup has a low glycemic index making it popular for many diets like Paleo.
Other Sugar Forms
There are a few other sugar forms including raw sugar (turbindo sugar), rock sugar, and brown sugar. All these forms are chemically the same as regular table sugar. Raw sugar is slightly less processed than regular, but that is the only difference.
Sugars from fruit are always the best choice because they are completely natural. I shared this post a few months ago about protein bars. Readers were always writing me to ask about protein bars and if any were healthy. One of my favorites is Lara bars and Rx Bars, but it might surprise you to read the label. It seems like a high sugar content for such a small bar.
But when you look at the ingredients, it is completely natural with only a few listed items. Below is an example:
The sugar in these bars comes from dates. Dates are a really sweet fruit with a great flavor, so the sugar is only from fruit.
I still limit sugars in general. I love fruit, but I don’t go overboard on it. From a chemistry standpoint, sugar is sugar chemically.
What to Avoid?
Anything with high-fructose corn syrup is probably one of the worst sweeteners. Corn in general is highly processed, and HFCS is even more processed. It has a large amount of sugar and has been modified to be cheaper and stretched further for use. In an article from CBS news, they mention “High-fructose corn syrup is made from corn that has been processed first into corn starch and then into pure corn syrup.”
Agave syrup is another highly processed sweetener with just as much sugar as high fructose corn syrup. The agave plant has beneficial elements to it, but gave syrup is highly processed, so all those benefits are gone by the time you get the syrup. Read more detailed tips from Wedmd on agave syrup.
Always talk with your doctor about your dietary needs too. If you have a metabolic disorder or diabetes, watching your sugar intake is really important, even natural sugars.
If you are just wanted to be healthier, start with removing added sugar from your diet (packaged foods, baked goods).
I know this will be a big question, what about zero calorie sweeteners? Stay tuned for a chemistry inspired post on this!