Natural vs. refined sugars: what’s the difference?
We are always hearing on the news the negative effects of eating too much sugar in our diets, it affects our health in many negative ways. Sugar, in all forms, is a simple carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose and uses for energy. Too much sugar causes your body to produce vast amounts of insulin which moves the sugar into your fat cells! It also puts masses of pressure on your body’s main organs, affecting your heart which has been shown to cause coronary heart disease or your pancreas which can be overloaded in producing insulin which leads to diabetes. These are just a few of the evils caused from consuming sugar.
But the effect on the body and your overall health depends on the type of sugar you’re eating, either natural or refined.
Natural sugars are found in fruit as fructose and in dairy products, such as milk and cheese, as lactose. Foods with natural sugar have an important role in the diet of cancer patients and anyone trying to prevent cancer because they provide essential nutrients that keep the body healthy and help prevent disease.
Refined sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, which are processed to extract the sugar. It is typically found as sucrose, which is the combination of glucose and fructose. We use white and brown sugars to sweeten cakes and cookies, coffee, cereal and even fruit. Food manufacturers add chemically produced sugar, typically high-fructose corn syrup, to foods and beverages, including crackers, flavoured yogurt, tomato sauce and salad dressing. Low-fat foods are the worst offenders, as manufacturers use sugar to add flavour.
The hidden sugars are hard to spot and need extra investigation on the back of the food or drink through its ingredients. Most of the processed foods we eat add calories and sugar with little nutritional value. In contrast, fruit and unsweetened milk have vitamins and minerals. Milk also has protein and fruit has fibre, both of which keep you feeling full longer.
How the body metabolizes the sugar in fruit and milk differs from how it metabolizes the refined sugar added to processed foods. The body breaks down refined sugar rapidly, causing insulin and blood sugar levels to skyrocket. Because refined sugar is digested quickly, you don’t feel full after you’re done eating, no matter how many calories you consumed. The fibre in fruit slows down metabolism, as fruit in the gut expands to make you feel full.
But there’s a caveat. Once the sugar passes through the stomach and reaches the small intestine, it doesn’t matter if it came from an apple or a soft drink.
How much sugar is already in your blood will determine how the body uses the sugar. If you already have a lot of sugar in your system, then what you just digested will form either fat or glycogen, the storage form of glucose that’s used for quick energy. It doesn’t matter if it’s junk food or fruit.
We eat more refined sugar today than our parents and grandparents did three decades ago, which has resulted in increasing obesity rates among adults and children. Obesity has been associated with certain cancers. On the flip side, fruits high in antioxidants such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and apples may reduce your cancer risk. The fibre in fruit, found mainly in its skin, suppresses your appetite to prevent overeating and weight gain.
We recommend eating whole foods that are low in refined sugars. Whole foods refer to foods that are either unprocessed, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, or minimally processed, such as whole grains.
“The big picture is being a healthy weight and making healthy food choices. It’s about eating a diet with whole foods, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates like quinoa rather than white bread, and non-starchy vegetables. Focus on making good food choices every day on a consistent basis, not on the one piece of cake you had as a treat.”
- Cut out the foods and drinks that we know contain sugar = Fizzy drinks (there are 44 table spoons in a large coke), sweets, cakes, pastries, ready meals and high street coffees.
- Get rid of the sugar that’s hidden in food and drinks – these are foods that have sugar in them to make them taste better or to replace fat in low fat options. Examples: low fat yogurts, bacon, bread, dried fruit (prunes, dates), cereals, crackers and salad dressing which can contain just as many grams as any obviously sweet treat.