Sugar is an ingredient we all know that we should be eating sparingly — too much sugar is never good for you. But there are actually two very different types of “sugar”: natural sugar and added sugar. So what’s the difference between the two? And is one healthier for you than the other?
[Read: 5 Common Mistakes To Avoid When On A Sugar Free Diet]
The Difference Between Added Sugar And Natural Sugar
Added sugar includes any sugars or sweeteners that are added to foods during processing or preparation (such as putting sugar in your coffee, or eating flavored yogurt, or adding sugar to your cereal). You’ll see them on the ingredients list as: brown sugar, pure cane sugar, turbinado sugar, raw sugar, molasses, maple syrup, honey, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, agave, evaporated cane juice, and high fructose corn syrup – to name a few.
Note: while sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and molasses are less processed than the other sugars on this list and their raw/organic forms do have additional health benefits, in your body they act just like white granulated sugar would in terms of raising your blood sugar.
Naturally occurring sugars, on the other hand, are sugars that are part of a whole food: like the lactose in milk, or the fructose in fruit.
The kind of sugar that you want to limit in your diet are the added sugars — since these sugars provide unnecessary calories and no helpful nutrients. Natural sugars act differently in the body thanks to the protein, fiber, and water content accompanying them in a whole food, and are lower on the glycemic index than added sugars (which basically means that your body doesn’t absorb the sugar as fast, and your blood sugar doesn’t “spike” and then “crash” as a result). And therefore, natural sugars are better for you than added sugars: e.g. it’s much healthier to eat 1 cup of plain unsweetened yogurt vs. 1 chocolate bar.
Unless you’re a diabetic, you don’t need to worry too much about naturally occurring sugar in whole foods like fruit and plain dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk). While these naturally occurring sugars aren’t bad for you, with any food, you should still monitor portion size. So even though the protein in dairy, and the fiber + water in fruit helps your body to absorb the sugar slowly and steadily, going overboard and eating 10 fruits a day would be too much natural sugar in your diet. 2-3 servings of fruit per day is a good amount for most healthy adults; and for dairy, as long as you’re choosing plain, unsweetened dairy like regular milk, plain yogurt, cheese, etc. the lactose (natural sugar in dairy) is not bad for you. I generally don’t “limit” my intake of natural sugars – I’ll choose fruit for dessert or a snack and get my 2-3 servings a day that way.
Note: For added sugars, nutrition experts recommend limiting added sugar to 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men.
The great thing is, you can actually satisfy your sweet tooth with natural sugars and then you really don’t need to rely on added sugars for sweetness!