We've all heard that "sugar is bad for you," but does that mean all types of sugar? There are, after all, two main types of sugar--natural and refined--but how different are they? Below are some key facts to know about the difference between natural and refined sugar, and how they impact your health.
Let's Start with the Basics
All sugars are a form of carbohydrate, which is an organic compound that provides fuel for the various processes of your body, including nerve and brain function. One gram of sugar provides your body with 4 calories worth of energy in the form of a natural chemical known as glucose (a.k.a. blood sugar).
Simple carbohydrates break down quickly in your body (which can cause spikes in your blood sugar), while complex carbohydrates are broken down over a longer period of time. Because of the effect that simple carbs can have on your blood sugar, most nutritionists recommend that the majority of the carbohydrates in your diet be complex carbs instead of simple carbs. Generally speaking, foods that contain natural sugars are considered to be complex carbs, while foods containing refined sugars are regarded as simple carbs.
What is Natural Sugar?
As the name implies, natural sugars are those that naturally occur in various foods; for example, lactose is a natural sugar found in milk, and fructose is a naturally occurring fruit sugar.
Bear in mind that fructose is not the same thing as high fructose corn syrup; while their names are similar, they are quite different in terms of their nutritional value. While fructose has a low glycemic index (i.e., producing a slow rise in blood glucose and blood insulin), high fructose corn syrup is a processed sugar with a very high glycemic index, which means that it can produce erratic spikes in blood sugar levels when consumed.
The reason for this is that the human body breaks down high fructose corn syrup in a virtually identical manner as to how it breaks down refined sugar. As an inexpensive sweetener, high fructose corn syrup is found in thousands of everyday foods, so if you see it on the ingredients list of a grocery item, be sure to keep in mind that the effect it has on the human body is worlds apart from that of fructose.
Other natural sugars include those that are produced in nature, such as maple syrup, agave nectar, stevia, and honey. Perhaps the most notable benefit of natural sugar is that it breaks down slowly in the body, which helps to keep blood sugar levels stable. Foods such as fruits and vegetables contain natural sugar, and they are also rich in vitamins and minerals, making them a prime choice for a healthy diet. In addition, fruits and vegetables contain fiber, which slows down the digestion of their natural sugar content, leading to more stability in blood sugar levels.
What is Refined Sugar?
Refined sugar, also referred to as processed sugar, is known scientifically as "sucrose." This type of sugar is the product of a refining process in which raw sugar cane or sugar beets are shredded, filtered, purified, boiled, and then further processed into a granulated form. The result is what is commonly known as "table sugar."
Virtually all of the nutrients that are naturally available in the raw cane and beets are completely lost during the refining process. What this means is that refined sugar is essentially devoid of any nutritional value, and does little more than add extra calories to your diet.
Unfortunately, most of the sweet foods and drinks that we consume such as sodas, cereals, candy bars, snack cakes, etc., are sweetened with refined sugar. The processed sugar found in foods like these can spike your blood sugar in short order, causing the infamous "sugar high" followed by the subsequent crash. Once you've crashed, you feel tired and lethargic, which prompts your body to crave more simple carbs to get you up and running again. This turns into a vicious cycle that wreaks havoc on your body through excessive highs and lows in blood sugar levels. As you can imagine, nutritionists commonly recommend keeping these types of foods to a minimum.
Natural vs. Refined Sugar: The Choice is Clear
Americans eat more refined sugars now than ever before, which no doubt has contributed to the increasing rate of obesity among adults and children. Interestingly enough, obesity is commonly linked to a variety of life-threatening cancers, including prostate, breast, colorectal, uterine, and pancreatic.
Conversely, a diet that is rich in natural sugars--think strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples, and blackberries--has actually been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. Not only that, but the fiber contained in many fruits and vegetables helps you to feel more full, which is one of the keys to help prevent overeating.
If you're looking to make a positive change in your diet, try adding whole foods that are low in processed or refined sugars, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Do your best to make healthy food choices every day with every meal, and you'll reap the benefit of choosing foods that truly nourish your body versus those that simply taste good, but offer little to no nutritional value.