An Integrative Dietitians Guide To All Things Sugar

As an Integrative Dietitian, one of the most common questions I get ask from clients, friends, and family is how to distinguish which sugars can have more positive effects on our health than others. While sugar has been deemed the nutrition villain of the past few years (and partially for good reason), in my perspective we have taken the anti-sugar debate a little too far, making consumers confused and unsure where to turn.

Our goal really shouldn’t be to have zero sugar in our diets - that is unrealistic. Instead, the goal should be to better understand the amount of sugar we consume on a daily basis and where we are getting it from. That is why I am so excited to join forces with ALOHA, breaking down all things sugar, and showing you that, just like ALOHA does, using a little bit of the real thing is much better than tricking your taste buds and body with something artificial.

First, let’s start by going through some of the most common sugar terms and varieties you are most likely to see, so that in the future you can have a clear understanding of your choices when it comes to the sugar you consume in your daily life.

What Is The Difference Between Natural, Added, and Artificial Sugars?

Natural Sugars
To put it simply, natural sugars are sugars that naturally occur in fruits, dairy products, grains, and vegetables. Some examples of these naturally occurring sugars would be fructose in fruit, such as apples or dates, or lactose found in milk or yogurt. These sugars make up various types of carbohydrates, which are an essential macronutrient, and part of a balanced diet.

Added Sugars
Added sugars are sugars, which are added during the processing of a food product. Even naturally occurring sweeteners such as honey, coconut sugar, or sugars from a fruit concentrate are considered added sugars when they are added into a food that they did not naturally occur in. The average American currently consumes ~22 teaspoons/per day of added sugar, which is more than triple the standard recommendation of ~6 teaspoons/per day by the dietary guidelines. However, with that said the goal really shouldn’t be to consume zero added sugars (that is nearly impossible), but instead to become more aware of how much you are consuming and how often.

Artificial Sugars
Lastly, artificial sugars are synthetic food additives that are added to food with the purpose of sweetening without added calories. They are much sweeter than regular table sugar ranging from 300 to 600 times sweeter. Even stevia, a “natural” sweetener (which is derived from the stevia plant) is 200 times sweeter than that of regular table sugar. These sweeteners are commonly added to supplements, gum, and low-sugar processed foods to increase the level of sweetness without having an impact on blood sugar and the caloric content of the food they are being added to.

Side Effects Of Artificial Sugars

While artificial sugars may sound amazing, overtime their intense level of sweetness can cause a decreased sensitivity to naturally sweet foods. For example, someone who has been consuming artificial sweeteners regularly for an extended period of time may not be able to identify the sweet flavor in a carrot or an apple. The consumption of artificial sweeteners has also been linked to increased sugar cravings, which is just one reason why artificial sweeteners have actually been linked to weight gain. Additionally, artificial sweeteners have been connected to digestive distress and can further exacerbate issues in people with IBS or other GI concerns.

My General Recommendations

Overall I do not think that anything good comes from fearing sugar, including added sugar. I would always recommend that my clients choose products that have a little bit of the “real thing” added to improve flavor, and sweetness rather than choose an artificial sweetener. Some of my personal go-to sweeteners that I use when sweetening my own food, and that I recommend my clients look out for when choosing a packaged product are coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey, and dates. If you are using these sweeteners in their raw, organic forms they are all less processed than traditional table sugar, and in the case of coconut sugar will have less of an impact on your blood sugar given its lower glycemic index.

Overall, there is no point in fearing sugar, however I hope that consumers start becoming more aware of the amount of added sugar in their diet, and begin to choose better options that are free from artificial ingredients.

[1] Yang, Q. (2010). Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 83(2), 101.