Before anyone ever knows anything else about being healthy, we all learn one thing first – “sugar is bad for you.” Whether it’s your grandma telling you it will rot your teeth as you chew your giant lollipop or your mother taking your Halloween candy; it’s one of our most taught lessons and yet one we certainly never embrace. Most of us don’t have emergency preparedness kits for when disaster strikes (or even a flashlight sometimes), but there’s certainly an emergency stash of chocolate somewhere in the house. Because you never know when a sugar emergency will strike, right?
Sugar is linked to dental corrosion (your grandma was right), diabetes and even cancer. But ironically, our entire body relies on sugar. Carbohydrates supply the much-needed energy your body’s vital functions. Think of it like gas for your car. As there are different kinds of gas, there are also different types of sugars. Each one is treated and behaves differently within your body.
So what exactly is considered natural sugars? Natural sugars are sugars that are found, well, naturally. This includes fruits, veggies, and honey.
Glucose – refers to “simple” sugars, found in all foods that have carbohydrates. Glucose can be found in mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, etc. Glucose is vital to life and is in every single living molecule. It is also produced by your body and easily broken down by every cell in your body.
Fructose – another “simple” sugar, it’s also referred to as fruit sugar, because its main source is fruits (and also honey). Fructose is a bit harder to break down, as only your liver breaks down significant portions of it.
Refined or Processed Sugars
Processed sugars are natural sugars that are modified, combined and processed by us to make something with regular flavor and texture, such as white sugar.
Sucrose – combines (half) glucose and (half) fructose to become a “complex” sugar. Typically it’s extracted from sugar-beet plans or sugar cane to make your typical table sugar.
Other Types – High fructose corn syrup, agave syrup, molasses etc.
What’s the Difference?
You can’t really pit the two groups against each other as it would be (sometimes literally) comparing apples to apple juice. The main difference between natural and processed sugars is how each one delivers glucose and fructose. For example, fruits are not just fructose in different shapes. They also contain a pile of nutrients, vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. Whereas your typical table sugar doesn’t.
Having this full package allows your body to slow down the absorption of fructose. It’s also much harder to overdose on fructose in 10 apples, compared to drinking 10 apples worth of fruit juice as you’ll feel fuller with the former. When you pour too much gas in your car, it spills over and out of the gas tank. When your body gets overloaded with fruit sugar, the liver can’t use it all and it gets stored as fat. Over time, this can have serious implications for your health.
As for glucose, your body loves it and digests it with ease. However, unlike fructose, glucose affects your blood sugar levels. Too much glucose and your body sends out a distress signal and your pancreas may overproduce insulin and actually cause low sugar levels. This is why after eating a lot of candy or sugar you typically crash. Having too little glucose is not good either, as you are depriving the natural processes within your body of the energy it needs.
Processed sugars combine these two and typically leaves your body overwhelmed as most people fail to maintain the recommended levels. Just how much sugar do we eat? In 1822, the average American consumed 45 grams of sugar every five days. Today, that’s equal to one can of soda. And today, Americans consume 765 grams of sugar every five days. Why is that? Sugar is in almost every single processed food. The recommended amount is 36.5 grams a day for men and 25 grams a day for women.
Is Coconut Sugar a Better Alternative?
So given all these facts you may naturally wonder, is coconut sugar better than my regular table sugar? In a way, yes, it can be. Coconut sugar, for example, has a lower glycemic index (means it raises blood sugar slower). Coconut sugar may also contain nutrients, so it isn’t the just plain combination of fructose and glucose. However, given all that, it’s not a miracle food. It still contains nearly the same amount of fructose, so it can still cause problems if not consumed in moderation.
Sweetness in Moderation
So while we’d like to say “natural sugars” are better than “processed sugars”, it’s not that simple. Fructose can be just as harmful by itself as it is when it’s combined into sucrose. What matters is the intake, which is how much your body actually uses it and in what form it’s delivered. It’s fair to say that too much of fructose, glucose or sucrose will result in health issues. It’s best to avoid added sugars and forms of sugars like high fructose corn syrup and agave syrup. They deliver vast amounts of fructose and glucose at once and don’t specify what ratio of glucose to fructose they use. To get the fuel that your body needs its best to get the purest and most simple form of carbohydrates and get it from fruits and vegetables. Not only it will prevent you from overdosing on sugar but it will also deliver some other much-needed nutrients.