For decades, dietary fat was blamed for many of our health woes; however, today, the research clearly shows that sugar is much more of a health threat than fat. With so many kinds of sweeteners available, you may be asking yourself: are some better than others? The answer is yes! There are important differences between naturally occurring sugars, added sugars, and sugar substitutes. Understanding these differences can help you make choices that are better for your health.
Not all sugar is bad. Some very healthy foods, like fruits, are high in naturally occurring sugars. But because that sugar comes packaged with fiber, it is released slowly and provides the body with a stable supply of energy, along with a bevy of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. That’s what makes an orange a healthier snack than a candy bar. (It’s also what makes orange juice not so healthy, because the fiber has been removed but the sugar remains.)
Added sugars are those that are added to foods or beverages in processing. In contrast to natural sugars, foods with added sugars are often high on the glycemic index, meaning they cause rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar. This sugar roller coaster can lead to unhealthy cravings and even to metabolic problems like diabetes.
The most important thing that needs to be said about added sugars is that we eat too much of them — way too much. Added sugars occur in foods you’d suspect, such as soda, ice cream, cookies, and pastries. But they are also commonly found in foods we don’t even think of as sweet, such as crackers, pasta sauces, salad dressings, and condiments like ketchup or barbeque sauce.
The 2014 documentary Fed Up reported that 80 percent of items available in American grocery stores contain added sugars. No wonder they’re hard to avoid! The best way to control your intake of added sugars is to choose less processed foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, and to become a careful reader of labels on the processed foods you do eat. Added sugar goes by many names such as dextrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, and invert sugar.
Some added sugars such as cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, molasses, and date sugar are more nutritious than white table sugar, because they are less processed and retain trace minerals. However, they are still high on the glycemic index, so they cause the same blood sugar spikes and drops as sugar does. They should be used sparingly.
There are many kinds of non-caloric artificial sugar substitutes, but many people find they have an unpleasant aftertaste, among other concerns. Sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and mannitol, do have calories and can affect blood sugar, but less so than table sugar. Even better are natural, plant-based, non-caloric options such as monk fruit extract and stevia, which are happily low on the glycemic index too. Juice Plus+ Complete nutrition bars and drink mixes both feature stevia, along with other sweeteners, such as brown rice syrup, cane sugar, and honey.
How do you control the amount of sugar in your family’s diet? See our tips on how you can help reduce the consumption of added sugars!