The Differences Between Natural Sugar and Added Sugar

Natural sugar and added sugar are chemically the same compounds but with different health effects. Learn more in the following article.
The Differences Between Natural Sugar and Added Sugar
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 20 March, 2023

Added sugar is one of the great enemies of nutrition experts. It’s an ingredient that can harm health when consumed in large quantities. In fact, it’s linked to an increased risk of developing metabolic-type diseases. However, it’s present in excessive doses in most diets.

Now, not all types of sugar are the same. For this reason, we’re going to explain the differences between added sugar and the natural sugar present in many foods. Although the structure is similar from a chemical point of view, the effect on the body is completely different.

Natural sugar is present in many foods

The first thing we want to make clear is that natural sugar is a compound that’s part of a large number of foods of plant origin, such as fruits. It’s also found in dairy, in the form of lactose. It’s not linked in any case to an increased risk of developing chronic or metabolic-type diseases, as it’s buffered by the fiber and proteins that these products contain.

In fact, increasing the presence of vegetables in the diet is associated with better health, as stated by research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology . Mortality from any cause is reduced when the consumption of foods of plant origin is increased, in part due to the concentration of antioxidants in them.

It’s important to note that the main problem with sugar is its speed of absorption. Being a short-chain carbohydrate, it quickly passes into the bloodstream, causing an increase in the release of insulin to compensate for this effect. If this is repeated regularly, resistance to this hormone could develop in the medium term, this being the prelude to diabetes.

Now, when fiber or protein is put into the equation, the situation changes. The gastric emptying rate is reduced and, therefore, the impact of glucose on blood glucose levels is less. Therefore, the intake of simple carbohydrates isn’t as harmful as long as a sufficient amount of elements that modulate the digestive process are consumed together.

Added sugar is harmful

Added sugar isn't good for your health.
Unfortunately, many of today’s most widely consumed bakery products contain a high amount of processed sugars.

Added sugars have a totally different impact on the body. In the first place, these elements are usually included in industrial, edible, ultra-processed products that already stand out for their concentration of inflammatory substances, such as trans fatty acids. At the same time, they’re included in recipes in excessive amounts, which has a significant impact on blood glucose levels.

According to research published in the journal BMJ, the consumption of ultra-processed substances frequently increases the incidence of many complex diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases. There’s also an increased risk of cancer, as tumors have inflammation and oxidation as underlying mechanisms. A high intake of added sugar could have a lot to do with all of this.

Also of particular concern is the added sugar in beverages, such as sugary soft drinks. These are poor-quality processed products. When consumed in liquid form, carbohydrates are assimilated faster, so that the entire process discussed above becomes even more aggressive.

In fact, there’s significant evidence that the inclusion of soft drinks in the diet increases the risk of developing obesity and metabolic problems. The best tool to ensure a good state of hydration is water. This is something that must always be taken into account. Whole milk can also work in certain contexts, but it’s always best not to abuse sugary drinks. The fewer the better.

Now, there’s more disagreement when it comes to juices. The effect of these could be similar to the case of soft drinks. However, there are no trials that compare whether the impact on the body is greater or less. It could be slightly attenuated by their concentration of phytochemicals with antioxidant capacity.

Are artificial sweeteners a good solution to eliminate added sugar?

Due to the notoriety of added sugars, the inclusion of artificial sweeteners in many recipes has been suggested to limit the impact on blood sugar and to reduce the calorie content of edibles. However, the effects haven’t been as desired. First of all, these items continue to be included in the context of low-quality products with lots of trans fats.

At the same time, studies have shown that their regular administration causes alterations in the composition of the intestinal microbiota, which produces health problems in the medium term. Not only is the absorption of nutrients affected, but even mental health could suffer. This is due to the close, two-way connection established between the gut and the brain.

Not all sweeteners are considered harmful. There’s a small group known as natural sweeteners that may be a good substitute for added sugars. Among all of them, we can highlight stevia as the best representative. It’s an element that comes from a plant and that has a sweetening power several times higher than that of sugar.

However, it’s not easy to find pure stevia commercially. In many cases, it’s reduced with other artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, which significantly reduces its healthiness. It’s crucial to carefully observe the labels to be able to choose a quality compound that can be included in the preparation of homemade sweets.

The need to limit the presence of sweets in the diet

Despite all that has been said about added sugars and natural sugars, in recent years, the theory has been developed that just by activating the sweet taste receptors in the mouth, the synthesis and release of insulin could already be favored. This would be especially harmful in sedentary people, as the lack of physical activity promotes the development of metabolic diseases and hinders the sensitivity to the hormone.

For this reason, the need has been suggested to reduce the presence of sweets in the diet, whether they have natural or artificial sugars or sweeteners in them. Instead, the consumption of other fresh foods with high nutritional density is suggested, such as meats, fish, vegetables, eggs, and dairy products. All of them contain compounds that are necessary to achieve a good state of health.

When it comes to including carbohydrates in the diet, it’s always beneficial to opt for the long-chain, complex type. These are gradually absorbed and ensure the maintenance of energy for a longer time. In the same way, they’re usually accompanied by fiber, a substance that’s key to preventing ailments such as constipation. This is confirmed by research published in Nature Reviews.

Fruits would be an exception to all of this. They concentrate fructose inside and have a sweet taste. However, their phytochemical content makes them highly recommended foods, as they’re capable of fighting oxidation processes. Through the neutralization of free radicals, a multitude of chronic and complex pathologies can be prevented, according to a study published in Infectious Disorders Drug Targets.

Can you eat fruit between meals?

A basket of fresh fruit.
Despite the fact that fruits contain natural sugars, it’s best to limit their consumption to certain times during the day.

A frequent question in the context of nutrition consultations has to do with the possibility of consuming fruit between meals. This food has a sweet taste and natural sugars. However, their water content is significant, and not all fruits have a high dose of fiber.

The truth is that fruit is a very beneficial food at any time of the day. As we’ve mentioned previously, its presence in the diet is associated with a better state of health. Of course, it’s preferable to include these foods in the diet during the day, even between meals.

Eating fruit at night could have less positive effects on the functioning of the body, as carbohydrate metabolism becomes less efficient when the sun goes down. Besides the case of athletes, who may need these nutrients at the end of the day, it’s best to prioritize proteins and low-glycemic vegetables at dinner and afterward.

In the same way, when consuming fruit, it’s always preferable to eat the whole piece. Taking advantage of the juice alone or crushing it could waste or deactivate the action of the fiber, which would generate a greater impact on the glycemic level. Blood sugar could rise, and from then, on you could experience progressive insulin resistance.

Everything changes in athletes

Almost everything we’ve recommended is applicable to sedentary people. When we talk about athletes, the situation can vary. In this case, a contribution of added sugar is needed, especially in the moments before and after the activity. Simple carbohydrates serve as an energy substrate for intense activities, and can also promote recovery processes.

In fact, most sports drinks have these elements inside. It’s absorbed quickly and helps prevent the onset of fatigue in the context of activity. However, they’re not very suitable liquids for the sedentary population, as their impact on metabolism could be significant.

The effects of natural sugar and added sugar are different on the body

Added sugar and natural sugar have very different effects on the body, despite having similar chemical structures. The foods in which they’re found and the nutrients they provide are capable of modulating their impact on physiology. As a general rule, the consumption of sugars naturally present in food wouldn’t be considered harmful.

It should be noted that variety is one of the pillars of a balanced diet. For this reason, it’s important to increase the spectrum of foods consumed and not abuse a specific group in order to ensure the proper functioning of the body in the medium and long term. This way, many chronic and complex diseases can be prevented.

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