Ask the Dietitian: What's the Difference Between Added and Natural Sugar?

What’s the deal with all they types of sugar out there? Are all sugars created equal? And are all sugars bad?
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Q:  What’s the deal with all the types of sugar out there? Are they all created equal?

A: Simply . . . no, all sugars are not created equal. But learning how to identify the different types is where it gets complicated.

Added Sugars

Whether it's run-of-the-mill granulated white sugar, high fructose corn syrup or something that sounds fancier, such as turbinado or raw sugar – these are all sweeteners. These ingredients are added to foods as they are processed or prepared. The distinct flavor and degree of sweetness will vary, but no matter which type you're dealing with, these sweeteners are a pure source of carbohydrate and have about 15 calories per teaspoon. When hefty doses of these types of added sugars are eaten, it can lead to weight gain and poorly controlled blood sugar levels.

The most significant sources of added sugar in the American diet are baked goods, candy, ice cream, soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks.

Natural Sugars

Despite what food marketers might lead you to believe, there are only 2 forms of natural sugars – the kind found in milk (lactose) and the kind found in fruit (fructose). These types of sugar are also purely carbohydrates but from a nutritional standpoint, the food sources in which they are found have a lot more to offer. Milk and fruit provide other important nutrients like protein, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber – you'll be hard pressed to find any of these nutrients in candy, cookies and soft drinks. As an additional bonus, fiber and protein take longer to digest, causing a less dramatic spike in blood sugar. They also make you feel fuller for longer, providing a greater satiety value.

Food Label Confusion

One of the biggest conundrums surrounding the sugar debate is deciphering where sugar is coming from on a food label. The total grams of sugar listed in the nutrition facts doesn't differentiate whether the sugars are coming from added or natural sources. The only thing a savvy consumer can do is read the ingredient list. Since ingredients are listed in descending order, folks can determine where the majority of the sugar in that food is coming from.

Bottom Line: Check ingredient labels – choose mostly foods where natural sugars outweigh the added ones.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana's full bio »

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