Are you thinking about quitting sugar? If so, you’re not alone. At one point or another, many people decide to eliminate sweets. They want to “get healthier,” or manage their weight. But what does the science say? Is sugar really that bad for you? What about the alternatives? Lets break it down!
There are three types of simple sugar, also called monosaccharides. These are glucose, fructose, and galactose. Monosaccharides are the most basic units of sugar that occur naturally in our foods. Monosaccharides can exist on their own, or can bind with each other to form larger units, called disaccharides. Many fruits, vegetables, and other plants naturally contain a mixture of monosaccharides and disaccharides.
Natural sugars are present within whole foods, such as fruit. Foods that contain natural sugar also contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Refined sugars are removed from whole foods, and are highly processed; they include no vitamins or minerals.
Added sugars are not naturally occurring in the foods containing them; they can be natural or refined.
Natural added sugars include honey, agave nectar, and maple syrup, among others. They are minimally processed, and retain many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (1). While you may hear these foods called “natural sweeteners,” they they are technically sugars, as they contain mono- and disaccharides. Refined sugars include table sugar, cane juice, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, among others.
When it comes to added sugars, most people believe natural is better than refined. However, while natural sugars do contain nutrients, you would have to consume extremely large doses to reap any nutritional benefits (2). Natural sugars may also cause less drastic blood glucose spikes than refined sugar, but again, the difference may only be significant in large amounts (3).
Natural sugars may also have a lower glycemic index value than refined sugars. While research on the health impacts of the glycemic index is controversial and limited, high glycemic foods may have an impact on development of acne. For more on this topic, see our post on sugar and breakouts.
All-in all, although natural sugars may only offer small benefits when compared with refined sugars, the less processed the food, the better.
WHAT IS ARTIFICIAL SWEETENER?
Artificial sweeteners are sugar-free, laboratory produced substances; they are many times sweeter than sugar. Saccharin (Sweet and Low), acesulfame (Sunett), aspartame (NutraSweet, equal), neotame (Newtame), and sucralose (Splenda) are the only five FDA approved sweeteners (4).
Artificial sweeteners, also called non-nutritive sweeteners, are virtually calorie free. This can be due to one of two reasons: 1) they are used in such small amounts that their calorie content is negligible, or 2) they cannot be absorbed into the body (5). However, while these sweeteners are generally lower in calories, they may have other side effects.
Over consumption of such sweet foods may desensitize consumers to sweet tastes over time. As a result, consumers may gradually find other, healthier, foods less appealing. Consumers may also develop an increased desire for sweet tasting foods, resulting in an increased intake of nutrient poor foods (4). Although more research is needed in humans, animal studies suggest artificial sweeteners may also result in decreased sensitivity to leptin– a hormone that controls appetite. (6)
Artificial sweeteners are often considered beneficial for diabetic populations, as they are generally believed to have a smaller impact on blood sugar when compared with sugar itself (7). However, recent studies suggest that artificial sugars may actually increase insulin resistance (8,9).
WHAT IS NATURAL SWEETENER?
Natural sweeteners are plant substances. Stevia, monk fruit, and sugar alcohols are some well-known examples of natural sweetener.
Stevia, sold under the name Truvia, is a plant native to South America. It contains sweet compounds called “steviol glycosides.” Stevia is not fully digested or absorbed in the GI tract and therefore, has a very small caloric impact. Research suggests stevia intake will not raise blood sugar levels; however, research on stevia’s effect on weight management and appetite is inconclusive (10).
Monk fruit is an Asian plant that contains sweet compounds called “mogrosides.” Monk fruit is not fully digested or absorbed in the GI tract and therefore, has a very small caloric impact. While little research is available regarding the impact of monk fruit on appetite and weight management, monk fruit is believed to produce a smaller increase in blood glucose when compared with sugar (11). While monk fruit has been widely researched in animal populations, research on human subjects is limited.
Fruits and vegetables contain compounds called polyols, or sugar alcohols. The most common sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, and erythritol (12). They are digested slowly, and may impart a smaller caloric load (13). However, beware that sugar alcohols may cause GI distress. While the long-term impact of sugar alcohols on health is not well understood, sugar alcohols may have a reduced impact on blood sugar, as they are not completely digested (12).
BOTTOM LINE – IS SUGAR REALLY THAT BAD FOR YOU?
In large quantities, sugar can negatively impact health. However, in the grand scheme of things, adding a teaspoon to your morning coffee is unlikely to derail an otherwise healthy diet.
Research shows artificial and natural sweeteners may positively impact blood glucose control, compared with sugar; however, they may have additional side effects that can impede weight management. For this reason, we recommend skipping the sweeteners.
The Bottom Line?: Choose natural sugars, and eat them in moderation.
Note: If you have diabetes, consult your doctor or dietitian for specific recommendations. In some cases, sweeteners may be beneficial.
ONE MORE THING – LETS TALK PACKAGED FOODS
Now that we know the basics, let’s discuss the foods that contain added sugar and sweetener.
Take a look through your cabinets. I bet you’ll find plenty of items that contain natural or added sugar and sweetener. Did you check the yogurt, condiments, sauces, drinks, granola, and packaged snacks? These are just some the common culprits. We may not expect them to contain sugar and sweetener, yet they do! Yikes!
But why does this matter? Well, its important to recognize that you can consume a lot of sugar, even if you aren’t adding honey or table sugar to your morning coffee! Therefore, if you’ve decided to cut back on the sweets, take a look at what you’re eating in those packaged foods, and account for it in your daily intake. Better yet, eliminate the packaged foods all together!