The Bitter Sweet Truth about Sugar

There are so many conflicting claims about sugar, and navigating through the inconsistent (and sometimes scary) marketing headlines can be confusing. What do we really know about sugar, according to science- based research? First, let's cover the basics.

Different types of sugars are used in the many processes of food production, as well as in our own kitchen. There are many factors that differentiate the types of sugars used, and it all boils down to how the sugar is digested and metabolized in the body. Sugars are digested and absorbed to provide the body with energy used to get up in the morning and do everyday tasks. During digestion, sugars are broken down into different forms that each consist of certain roles with the same goal: to convert and distribute the energy throughout the body. The basic forms of sugar in food is comprised of glucose, fructose, and sucrose. All three forms are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and grains. The chemical structures of each form of sugar can be processed and added to different kinds of processed foods to enhance flavors and improve textures. Some processed foods that contain different types of sugars include candy, chocolate, ice cream, fruit juice, baked goods, and all other guilty pleasures in life. Here are the staple differences between fructose, sucrose, and glucose.

Glucose naturally occurs in fruit, whole grains, legumes, and a wide range of vegetables. It is the body’s preferred carbohydrate-based energy source. Glucose can be metabolized by nearly every cell in the body and is needed for proper organ function. Glucose is immediately absorbed into the body, and broken down to be stored in the pancreas.

Fructose occurs naturally in fruits, some root veggies, cane sugar, and honey. Fructose needs to be processed and stored in the liver as a backup energy source. Once the livers storage capacity if filled, then excess fructose is converted and released for storage in fat cells and muscle. It is the sweetest tasting of all types of sugars.

Sucrose is originally extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets. Sucrose is scientifically defined as table sugar and actually consists of a combination of glucose and fructose. Unlike glucose and fructose, sucrose must be broken down into a similar form before it is absorbed and used in the body. Specific enzymes released in the small intestine within the digestion splits sucrose into glucose and fructose, and are then metabolized separately.

Processed Sugar vs Natural Sugar

Processed sugar can come in different physical structures due to production and refining processes. The processing levels can transform the original structure of sugar found in plants, into several types of powders, granules, and syrups. While these more generic sugars are labeled accordingly on nutrition labels, there any many hidden types of sugars added in processed and packaged foods. The average American eats around 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day. * Processed food companies use hundreds of inconspicuous names on food labels to hide different types of added sugars. Some examples of these names used include: Maltose, sucanat, dextrose, corn syrup, concentrates, crystallines, dextrin, inverted sugar, evaporated juice, panela, rice syrup, malt syrup and our personal favorite, high fructose corn syrup. Refined and processed sugars are metabolized in the body differently than natural sugars found in whole foods like fruit and are recognized to the body as back-up fuel sources. The body stores these sugars in fat and muscle cells, which accumulate over time and cause damage to the body. Consuming processed foods with added sugars can spike blood sugar levels which exhaust the pancreas, leading to an increase in insulin levels. High processed sugar levels also contribute to unhealthy heart health and inflammation, due to overloading the liver.

Natural sugar derived from whole foods is necessary for optimal everyday function and energy production. Fruit, vegetables, dairy products and grains that contain small amounts of natural sugar also contain an abundance of important nutrients. Whole foods like fruits are antioxidant powerhouses, that fight to reduce cell damage and benefit the immune system. Vegetables contain incredible amounts of essential minerals, that play a large role in regulating blood flow and brain function. Whole foods also contain fiber, which is essential for proper digestion and hormone production in the pancreas. When the body is absorbing the sugars through whole foods, it’s also absorbing the amazing nutritional benefits that they provide. These natural sugars are metabolized in their true forms (glucose, frucstose and sucrose) and are distributed throughout the body the way they were deigned to. There are some sugars that are considered “natural”, because of the limited amount of processing they go through in production. Some common examples are Stevia leaf, chicory root powder, coconut sugar, agave nectar, and monk fruit powder. While these are great alternatives to generic processed sugars like white sugar, they are still metabolized in the body as what they are: a processed sugar.

Sugar is a complicated, long-winded topic that has been debated for centuries. In the health and wellness world that we live in today, the discussion on the detrimental effects processed sugar has on the body is in everybody's ear. Similar to processed foods, processed sugar has been shown to lead to insulin resistance, imbalance hormone levels and lower immunity. Consuming foods that are whole, and as close to its natural form makes a large difference in everyday health. Applying the common phrase ”everything in moderation”  is not something that should be dismissed as a cliche, either. Understanding sugar’s chemical structure and how it is digested in the body will help us navigate through confusing marketing headlines, and more importantly - shape our understanding of how sugar affects our health.