Research synonyms for sugar and you find “sweet” and “dearest.” But ask most fad diet enthusiasts, and they will associate sugar with “evil,” “toxin,” and even “poison.” Too much of anything is no good, but vilifying this carbohydrate without distinguishing between natural sugar and refined sugar has gone too far. Here’s the real skinny on sugar.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source and essential nutrients for our brains. Sugar is the simple form of carbohydrates. Natural sugars can be found in whole grains, but they’re mostly in fruits and vegetables in the form of fructose. The difference between fructose in fruit compared to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in sweetened beverages is the concentration. While a 20-oz bottle of cola contains 36 grams of fructose, an apple contains 12 grams of fructose per serving, and a serving of strawberries contains 4 grams. This means that you would need to eat 3 apples or 9 cups of strawberries to equal the amount of sugar in a soda.
There is also an added benefit to eating fruit beyond the energy — whole fruit provides us with vitamins A & C, minerals, and fiber. Fiber slows digestion, aides in regulating blood sugar, and removes cholesterol from the body. A balanced diet should contain a variety of fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors. Aim for 2-3 servings of each, every day.
Any food made from a part of its original form is considered refined. Refined sugars originate from the sugar cane and sugar beet, but they can also be derived from corn (HFCS). This type of sugar is added to sweetened beverages, cakes, and candy. It is also added to breakfast cereals, bread, and yogurt. Refined or added sugar is used in the body for energy, just like natural sugar, but when you eat it in concentrated amounts, it cannot be immediately used by the body. Then your body stores it as fat. Regular consumption of refined sugars can cause an imbalance in blood sugar, swings in energy levels, weight gain, and an increased risk of chronic disease. To reduce these effects, added sugars should be minimized in the diet. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recently added a recommendation specifically regarding added sugar — limit it to 10% of your daily calories.
Not all sugar is created equal. Looking to avoid chronic disease? Choose whole foods more often — including fruits and vegetables — and reduce your consumption of added sugar by enjoying unsweetened beverages and reading food labels. Knowing the skinny on sugar will help you make informed choices when choosing foods to consume for optimal health.
By Beth Rosen, MS, RD
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.