Natural and refined sugars –
There are a lot of questions surrounding this topic.
Are natural and refined sugars they the same thing? What’s the difference? Is one better for you from the other?
To begin answering these questions, we have to understand first what sugar even is.
What is Sugar?
First – what is sugar?
Sugar is a compound that comes in many different forms, but to make it easier to understand – sugar is a simple carbohydrate.
Simple carbohydrates are easily absorbed by the body’s digestive system and afterward are used to produce energy.
Sugar is a natural substance found in many foods and animal byproducts. But these natural sugars can be processed down to a refined substance.
Giving us – natural and refined sugars.
Does Sugar Play an Important Role in the Body?
Actually, sugar does play a very important role in the body.
Carbohydrates such as sugars are actually very important fuel sources for the body; especially for the brain and red blood cells..
When consumed, sugar is converted into ‘glucose’– a simple carb molecule that is easily absorbed by the body. Glucose is the only form of carbohydrates the red blood cells and brain can process into energy.
From there, it travels through the blood stream where it is delivered to body cells. In the cells, sugars are used to provide energy for protein production. They can also be stored for later use.
Natural vs. Refined Sugars – What’s the Difference?
Natural sugars are naturally occurring carbohydrate compounds. They are found in most fruits, vegetables, and other food products like grains, honey, and dairy.
Because they are found in foods, consuming natural sugars come along the with benefits these foods provide, like – vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Refined sugar – or ‘white’ sugar – is the result of processing natural sugars down to the most simple form.
The most common form of refined sugar is sucrose, which is also known as ‘table sugar.’ This type of sugar is processed from the natural sugars of either sugar cane or beets.
Refined Sugar’s Impact on Your Health
Along with sodium, refined sugar is one of the most common additives we find in our foods today.
A majority of the time, its also called ‘added sugar.’
Although the simple carbohydrates of sugars are an important energy source for the brain and body, too much can cause negative impacts on your health.
Excess added/refined sugar in the diet can spiking the blood sugar and cause damage to the blood vessels (1). Excess sugar can also be ‘stored’ for later use – aka: turned in to stored fat, which can cause potential weight gain.
Natural Sugar and Sweetener Alternatives
In place of refined sugars, there are several natural sugar and sweetener alternatives available for use instead.
They can be slipped in place to sweeten your tea and coffee or also any of your favorite at-home recipes.
Some natural sugar options include (2):
- Agave nectar
- Maple syrup
- Coconut nectar or sugar
These alternative natural sugars come supplemented with natural vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Alternative sweeteners that are naturally derived from plants and fruits are also a replacement for refined sugars. These are popular because of their low calorie content.
Examples include (2):
- Sugar alcohols (Xylitol or Erythritol)
- Monk fruit sweetener (Lou Han)
Are Natural Sugars Really Healthier then Refined Sugars?
There are many benefits that natural sugars have over refined sugars.
Including, low calorie content and being coupled with other beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.
However, excess natural sugars can cause harm to the body when consumed excessively. Just like refined sugars. They can raise blood sugar levels, cause damage to the blood vessels, and increase weight gain.
This is especially common when overeating natural sugar substitutes like honey, molasses, agave, etc.
Also, natural sweeteners have at times been found to cause stomach and intestinal issues, including – gas, bloating, diarrhea, and digestive discomfort (2).
Overall, natural sugars provide more overall benefits then refined sugars. But even these must be consumed in moderation.
Limit Your Sugar Consumption
Simple sugars are essential to our body being able to function properly – especially the brain and the red blood cells.
However, consuming excess refined or natural sugars can lead to the same negative health outcomes –blood sugar spikes, blood vessel damage, and weight gain (1).
To avoid these undesirable effects, consuming sugar moderately is vital.
Be aware of when you are consuming added sugar. The most common foods sugar is added to are:
- Jams and sauces (like Ketchup)
- Juice and sports drinks
- Dairy products
- Baked goods
Instead, practice low-sugar habits. Try these alternative swaps (2):
- Eat plain yogurt with real fruit
- Try homemade salsa as a condiment instead of store-bought sauces
- Drink coconut water instead of sports drinks
- Eat fruits and berries as dessert
Following these examples can help you enjoy sweet treats while maintaining your good health, too.
Author: Allison Lansman, RDN, LD