Like the word “fat,” “sugar” gets a bad rep in our society. Technically, sugar is the simplest form of the macronutrient carbohydrate. Since carbs are critical for the body, then eliminating sugar from your diet is not only discouraged but it’s practically impossible.
When various types of sugar, including white sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, cane sugar, maple syrup, honey, and molasses are in their simplest form, they are for the most part, nutritionally equal. Fructose, the sugar found in fruit, is comparable along with lactose, the sugar found in dairy products. In regards to fruit and milk, however, the additional benefits of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber give these options a leg-up on “nutritional charts.”
So Why The Bad Rep?
The nutritional characteristics of sugar begin to change with processing and refining. High fructose corn syrup (AKA “corn syrup” or “corn sugar”) is a food additive that came to the market in the mid-1900s. It’s added to many packaged foods as an economical sweetener that also helps to increase shelf life. Some research has shown that corn syrup, especially when consumed in excessive amounts, may negatively impact long-term health. Since corn syrup often hides in foods that are not even considered sweet (ie. sauces, condiments, marinades, savory fillings) and is the sweetener of choice in many sweetened beverages (ie. soda), it can be easy to unknowingly overdo it.
Fast forward several decades and the general recommendation for Americans to “reduce added sugars” was introduced in the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines. But it wasn’t until 2018, when the USDA changed the Nutrition Facts Label to require that companies report “added sugars” in their foods, that consumer awareness sky-rocketed.
In regards to packaged foods, the FDA defines “added sugars” as those added to foods during processing (including sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices). Similar to high fructose corn syrup, added sugars are often added to packaged foods not just for flavor, but also for improvements in texture and shelf life.
Oh No! I’m DONE with Added Sugars!
Hold up! Though added sugars offer no real nutritional benefit, they need not be completely eliminated from our diet. Total elimination of added sugar is practically impossible and can lead to obsessively restrictive disordered eating habits. Oftentimes, people forget the word “added” and focus heavily on “sugar.” Let’s not demonize something that happens to make food taste yummy!
And something to keep in mind: the authors of a 2020 study explain that there doesn’t seem to be published evidence demonstrating an association between diabetes and the intake of total sugar, added sugar, or table sugar. Fun fact, research shows that intuitive eating is associated with better management of diabetes. So, when it comes to the research, we have to be more critical. To learn more about how to better understand nutrition research, check out this article.
…But What About Stevia?
Non-nutritive (0-gram sugar) sweeteners are increasingly available and nowadays, commonly added to packaged foods. While these alternatives allow for a sweet flavor without the added calories (or impact on blood sugar), they can create a false sense of sweetness, especially when used in excess. Though the research is not yet conclusive in human studies, it can be argued that how the body and brain respond to non-nutritive sweeteners is very complex. Here’s an example:
Splenda is 600 times sweeter than regular sugar. Ideally, if one is using the sweetener, they should need a much lesser amount of Splenda than that of regular sugar. Many consumers, however, replace standard sugar with artificial sweeteners in a 1:1 ratio. Can over-consuming these sweet flavors (whether from artificial sources like Spendla or “natural” sources like stevia) contribute to a diminished tolerance for less sweet foods (ie. fruits and veggies)?
Okay, Stick To The Real Stuff… But Isn’t Sugar Addicting?
No. Humans are naturally equipped to prefer sweet flavors, and yes, food does increase the release of dopamine in the brain. However, these survival mechanisms are natural biological responses that drive our motivation to eat. Though we live in a world of excess, our body doesn’t know that. It’s equipped to survive famine!
There is no substantial evidence that sugar is addicting. On the contrary, there are studies to show that food restriction is likely to cause overeating! And get this… studies have shown that when observing brain scans of dieters versus non-dieters, food restriction (among dieters) INCREASES the brain’s response to certain foods, namely sweet foods. In other words, it was found that dieters have an increased reward response to eating sweets. Simply put: food restriction (not sugar) drives overeating. To learn more about food addiction, check out this article.
DON’T FEAR SUGAR. Be mindful of sources of added sugar. Use the nutrition facts label and ingredients list. When possible, choose foods that are sweetened with less-refined sources like dried fruit, cane sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey, and molasses. These are all generally comparable to white granulated sugar, which is another *sweet* option.
One last note, If you have a pre-existing medical condition like diabetes, then you’ll have to be extra mindful of these sources as they will impact your postprandial blood sugar. Reach out to a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, specifically a Certified Diabetes Educator to learn more.