Sugar is definitely the ‘villain du jour’, with headlines proclaiming that sugar is toxic and something we need to ‘cleanse’ ourselves of. But is all sugar created equal? What’s the difference between added and natural sugars? We asked the expert, Abby Langer, Registered Dietitian in Toronto, here’s what she had to say:
It’s not a secret that people eat too much added sugars. These are the sugars that are found in foods such as sweets, fruited yogurt, and hiding in items such as salad dressings and spaghetti sauces. Added sugars are just that – they have been added by the food manufacturer to influence taste, texture, color, or shelf life – and are not naturally-occurring in that food. Added sugars can be listed as over 50 different ingredients on a food label: sugar, dextrose, maltose, molasses, and corn syrup are just a few examples. One of the largest sources of added sugars in our diets is sugar sweetened beverages, which have been associated with obesity when over-consumed. We also understand that overconsumption of added sugars causes weight gain.
What are Natural Sugars?
But what about natural sugars? How do you find those on a label, and are they as detrimental to our health as added sugars? Natural sugars have two forms – fructose, which is found in fruit, and lactose, which is found in milk. Unlike added sugars, natural sugars are found naturally occurring in foods, and are accompanied by other nutrients such as protein, fiber, and antioxidants. The presence of these other nutrients makes all the difference when we talk about natural versus added sugars. Unfortunately, Canadian nutrition labels do not currently distinguish between natural and added sugars. Therefore, one way to overcome concerns about added sugars is to simply enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables instead of more processed snacks/foods.
In my practice as a dietitian, I sometimes have clients tell me that they’re trying to avoid fruit or that they’re afraid to eat fruit because of the sugar. This seems to be a popular misconception that has only gotten worse with all the negative talk about sugars. But again, we need to distinguish between added sugars and natural sugars. We know the sugar in fruit, fructose, comes as a package deal with the fruit’s fiber and antioxidants. Eating sugar in the presence of fiber will help to slow the sugar’s absorption into the bloodstream and also will help you feel fuller for longer. The antioxidants in fruit are proven disease fighters which can’t be replaced by any sort of vitamin pill.
Remember that any ‘diet’ that recommends avoiding a certain food group (like fruit, for example) is simply not realistic. A healthy diet has a wide variety of foods and doesn’t vilify any food, especially one that’s unprocessed and whole.
The bottom line on fruit:
- Get 2-3 servings every day. A serving of fruit is ½ cup of cut fruit or berries, or 1 medium piece.
- Choose brightly coloured fruits – the bright colours are the result of the antioxidants in the fruit, which are disease-fighters.
- Diets that recommend cutting out fruits because of their natural sugars don’t take into account the fact that fruit is full of fibre, antioxidants, and vitamins. The fibre in fruit slows the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream, helping to avoid the ‘sugar rush’ that comes from foods with added sugars, like candy or sweetened drinks.
- If you’re concerned about your sugar intake, focus on reducing your intake of added sugars. Replacing processed sweets with naturally-sweet fruit is a fantastic way to do this.
ASK THE EXPERT: Registered Dietitian, Abby Langer
Abby has a has a private nutrition counselling practice in Toronto, Canada. She also is a regular HuffPost blogger and has been featured in radio, print, and television media in both the US and Canada.