Have you ever wondered how much sugar and what type of sugar you should be having, or if some sugars are healthier than others? This post is for you!
Does the type of sugar we consume really matter? Or should we only be eating sugar from natural sources and using honey and fancy agave syrups instead of white sugar? Let’s have a look at how our body processes sugar to see if some sugars are better than others.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, also known as a macronutrient. Carbohydrates are the human bodies preferred source of energy which is used to carry out most of our physiological functions. To understand the difference between sugars, we need to understand how carbohydrates differ and are processed in the body. We can split carbohydrates into three categories: Polysaccharides, monosaccharides and disaccharides. Most of a carbohydrate is in the form of starch which are long chains of linked glucose molecules that are a storage form of fuel. Your body breaks down these chains into smaller sugars that can be used by your cells.
The science of carbs
Monosaccharides in the form of sugar have one molecule, often referred to as a “simple sugar”. They are the building blocks that form complex carbohydrates. Examples of monosaccharides are glucose, fructose and galactose. Disaccharides have two molecules and include sucrose, also known as table sugar, maltose and lactose, which are usually found in dairy and germinating grains like wholegrain wheat and oats. Polysaccharides are a long chain of monosaccharides linked together by something called glycosidic bonds. Polysaccharides are our complex carbohydrates and include starch, glycogen, cellulose and chitin. Foods that contain polysaccharides include starchy carbohydrates like potatoes and rice or foods containing fibre like lentils and chickpeas. Polysaccharides are broken down into monosaccharides and disaccharides to be absorbed. That is not to say that all carbohydrates are broken down in the body only as sugar, as that would be an oversimplification, however, when we consumer some sugar in its natural or added form, be it a piece of fruit or white sugar sprinkled on our cereal, it will eventually be processed in the body to become a monosaccharide or disaccharide.
This is where things start to get a bit more interesting
Fructose, sucrose and glucose are found in fruits and some vegetables. They are also found in honey and common table sugar like granulated and caster sugar. A big argument in the health and wellness industry is whether natural sugars are better for you than common table sugar or other added sugars. For example, should we all be switching out our white sugar for honey and agave nectar? Or should we not be using added sugar at all and aim to get all our sugar from whole foods like fruit? Quote: The human body cannot differentiate between naturally made sugars and added sugar There is one key fact to understand about sugar. The human body cannot differentiate between naturally made sugars and added sugar. All sugars will follow the same metabolic pathway once we consume them. So, when we look at sugar for what it is, there is not necessarily one sugar that is better than another. However, a piece of cake and a banana are not nutritionally equal, so rather than thinking of sugar being good or bad, we need to look at our diet as a whole picture and focus more on the amount of sugar we are consuming and the quality of the food source and if that food source helps us meet any other nutritional needs. A good way to think of sugar is as intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic and extrinsic sugar and how much sugar we should have
Intrinsic sugars are a natural part of the food, such as the sugars in whole fruits and vegetables. When we refer to natural sugar, we are referring to sugar in its whole, unprocessed form like an apple or banana. Extrinsic are sugars added to the food like in cakes and fruit juice, but also in honey, syrups and table sugar. Extrinsic sources of sugar can be developed from natural sources, but still count in our added sugars as they have been removed from their original source and added to make a new product, like coconut sugar and agave syrup. NHS guidelines state that adults should have no more than 30g of added sugars a day and this should make up no more than 5% of your daily caloric needs. Although sugars occur naturally in things like milk, fruit and vegetables, we do not need to cut these foods down due to all the other nutritional benefits they provide like fibre and water and because they are less calorie dense, it is harder to overeat them. Added sugars are also often found in products that are calorie dense and high in fat. In moderation, it is perfectly healthy to allow yourself these foods, but there are health risks to be aware of with a high sugar diet, such as obesity, tooth decay, cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. This raises the question of whether natural sugar products or sugar alternatives are any better for our health?
Natural sugar and sugar alternatives: are they better?
Natural sugar found in the fruits and vegetables we eat does not count as a part of our recommended added sugar intake, whereas snacks like protein bars and crisps do. This does mean that if you are trying to reduce your sugar consumption, snacking on fruit and veg instead of processed foods, or sprinkling your cereal with banana for added sweetness rather than added sugar, does have its obvious benefits. These foods are also full of important fibre and micronutrients that are beneficial to our health. So, when deciding between snacking on a piece of fruit or a chocolate bar, it is still best to go for the fruit, despite whether they contain the same amount of sugar and calories. This alludes to how you can be in a healthy weight range and still be very unhealthy internally, but that is a conversation for another day! Sugar alternatives are still sugar, however there may be some additional benefits in their micronutrients. Things like coconut sugar and honey do still need to be counted in your added sugars for the day and eaten in moderation, but they can contain trace amounts of micronutrients like magnesium, B vitamins and niacin. When deciding between something like agave syrup, honey or golden syrup and table sugar, if you already have a healthy, balanced diet, it doesn’t really matter which you go for if you are still getting everything your body needs in your other meals. You can have your cake and eat it. Or, if you are trying to improve your diet, you may find it beneficial to incorporate more sugar alternatives if it helps you to make better food choices overall. It is also important to think of the regularity that you include these things in your diet as added sugar should form a very small part of your diet. However, there are scenarios where sugar alternatives and natural sugar can get a bit more complicated, and the lines can be blurry1, especially when we think about the glycemic index of a sugar. Let’s dive into that quickly.
The Glycemic index and why it is important in the sugar argument
The glycemic index (GI) is a system used to rate foods containing carbohydrates, like sugar. It shows how quickly each food effects your blood glucose levels when the food is eaten on its own. Blood glucose levels matter, because when your blood glucose is too high, it can cause significant damage to the body from cardiovascular disease to kidney issues. In those who are diabetic or prediabetic, it is extra important to manage blood glucose levels, including avoiding low blood glucose as well as high. Foods lower on the GI index are metabolised more slowly and cause a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels. This doesn’t mean all low GI foods are healthier, because foods like watermelon are high GI and very good for you and crisps can be low GI but have little nutritional value. However, for some people like diabetics and prediabetics, sudden spikes or dips in blood sugar can be life threatening as it effects insulin production, which in turn influences how the body uses glucose and fat. You might be wondering what this has to do with whether sugars are better than each other? The sugar fructose, a monosaccharide, metabolises differently to glucose in the liver and doesn’t cause as high of an insulin spike when consumed as a natural sugar such as in fruit or veg form, so in this scenario natural sugar is better for diabetics and prediabetics. Fructose should not be mistaken for high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is not the same as fructose. It is a mixture of fructose and glucose formed by an enzymatic process from glucose syrup from corn. It is usually added as sweetener in a lot of fast foods and when metabolised in the liver, it can promote fat synthesis and lead to weight gain.
So, are some sugars better than others? Well, it totally depends on the person and their individual circumstances, health and diet. Natural intrinsic sugars in the form of whole fruits and vegetables are an essential part of a balanced diet and something everyone should aim to include, and they do not contribute to your daily sugar recommendations. Added extrinsic sugars are certainly something to be mindful of though. For the average person, it isn’t the biggest issue if you prefer a teaspoon of sugar or a teaspoon of honey in your tea, as if your overall diet is good, it will have little effect on your health. You may get trace amounts of micronutrients in the honey, but if you are getting these micronutrients in your diet elsewhere then it really does not matter, except for preference of flavour or in prevention of certain health conditions like diabetes and prediabetes. If you want chocolate syrup on your pancakes, go ahead! Just make sure that it is not at the expense of other vital nutrients. However, the amount you are having is also key regardless of how otherwise healthy your diet is. If you are always choosing cupcakes over apples or covering meals in added sugars of all forms, it is possible that you run the risk of overindulging or experiencing deficiencies in your diet as well as pushing up your blood glucose levels, which brings with it the risk of prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. Keeping an eye on packaged food labels that have sneaky hidden sugars can help, such as yogurts, bread, cereal and premade sauces that contain a lot of unnecessary added sugar. Too much of anything can be unhealthy though, so we do not recommend that you run out and eat 20 bananas or 5 tubs of strawberries. A good diet is a balanced once and that can look different for everyone, but as a general rule if you are eating really well 80% of the time, you can afford to have the treats for the other 20% of the time.
If you are ever in doubt about your diet or health, we always recommend speaking to a registered dietician, qualified nutritionist or medical professional to rule out any health conditions. If you want to learn more about how you can look after your health and wellbeing, check out the Health Hub Health Journal