When it comes to added sugar, less is more. But what’s the real difference between naturally occurring and added sugars? And what actually happens to our bodies when we overdo the sweet stuff? We asked registered dietitian Anthea Levi, RD, to break down everything you need to know about added versus natural sugars.
Natural vs. Added Sugars – What’s the Difference?
There’s more to consider than just the grams of sugar listed on a nutrition label. After all, the 19 grams of sugar in a cookie aren’t the same as the 19 grams of sugar in an apple.
The sugar in your favorite cookie is considered added sugar. Added sugars are exactly what they sound like: sweeteners that have been added to a product. The sugars found in whole foods like fruit or yogurt, on the other hand, occur naturally. Fructose is the primary sugar found in fruit, while lactose occurs in traditional dairy yogurts. Sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are technically naturally occurring, but are considered added sugars when used in food products.
Another difference between natural and added sugars has to do with processing. Ingredients like cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup undergo significant manipulation — from drying and extraction to refining, crystallization, and more. The fructose found in an apple is entirely unprocessed.
What’s more, the added sugar in cookies doesn’t deliver any nutritional benefits. The ingredient is typically combined with refined (i.e. fiberless) flour that’s rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. The result? A spike in blood sugar levels that’s quickly followed by a crash.
While we ingest sugars like fructose when we eat an apple, we also get gut-friendly soluble fiber from its peel, antioxidants like quercetin and vitamin C, and a hit of hydration thanks to its high water content. Soluble fiber also helps to slow down the body’s absorption of sugar, meaning we don’t get that same post-cookie crash when we eat a piece of fruit.
How a High-Sugar Diet Can Impact Your Health
It’s news to no one that overdoing the sweet stuff can lead to adverse health outcomes like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. But why exactly does this happen? Normally, the body absorbs simple sugars like glucose and shuttles it into cells via the hormone insulin. Think of insulin as the key that unlocks cells and allows sugar to enter so it can either be used as energy or stored as future fuel.
A high-sugar diet can cause these mechanisms to get out of whack. Excess sugar consumption can overwork the pancreas as it tries to pump out more and more insulin to deal with the influx of sugar. Over time, our cells may also grow less responsive to the hormone. The result is a double whammy: insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar due to dwindling pancreatic function. Cue the fatigue, carb cravings, and potential weight gain.
To make matters worse, blood sugar disruptions aren’t the only harm associated with high-sugar diets. Emerging research suggests that the regular consumption of pro-inflammatory foods packed with added sugars could potentially increase our risk of a whole host of health conditions, from acne and depression to fatty liver disease and dementia.
Added Sugar is…Everywhere
In case you missed it, a typical flavored yogurt can pack an astonishing 18 grams of added sugar per serving. For reference: the American Heart Association recommends a max of 25 grams per day for women, so you’ve already had more than two-thirds of your recommended sugar for the day before lunch.
Friendly reminder: one serving of Lavva Yogurt contains 0(!) grams of added sugar. Its 7 grams of natural sweetness come from whole foods like coconut, plantains, and berries.
If you’re looking to drive down your added sugar intake, beware of these sneaky sources at the store:
- Tomato sauce
- Breads and crackers
- Salad dressings
- Peanut butter
- Breakfast cereals and instant oatmeals
The Bottom Line
Don’t get us wrong: we’re all for an intentional indulgence. But when it comes to the foods you eat daily (think: yogurt or milk), minimizing your added sugar intake is a smart move. Not only will you drive down your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, but you’ll also keep your energy levels steady and your skin smooth. Count us in.