Sugars, Demystified: What to Eat, and Why

When you look at a nutrition facts panel, there is one devilish line that seems simple, but causes stress and anxiety for millions of Americans: Sugar.

Talking about sugar and health requires a nuanced message. We can’t demonize all carbohydrates – we couldn’t survive without them. But we do know that too much sugar is a bad thing: The World Health Organization recently recommended that adults get less than 10% of their daily calories from added sugars. Meanwhile, there are many different types of sugars – natural, refined, and added are just some of the descriptors we regularly hear – and yet, it’s not clear from nutrition panels or the popular press if it actually matters where our sugar comes from, or if all sugar is unequally unhealthy.

So today, let’s dive in to the world of sugar, and I’ll share what can you do today to make healthier sugar choices.

The basics

“Regular” sugar is sucrose – it’s made up of a 50/50 mix of glucose and fructose. It’s a simple sugar, meaning that it is rapidly digested and absorbed in your body and causes insulin to be released from your pancreas.

Starch is a more complex carbohydrate, but ultimately, our bodies break starch down into sugars, causing that increase in blood sugar and insulin.

People are concerned about sugar because consuming too much sugar of it is linked to insulin resistance, diabetesinflammation, and obesity.

However, nutrition scientists make a distinction between naturally-occurring sugars and added sugars, and for good reason.

Naturally-occurring sugars

All foods that have carbohydrates technically have sugar, but this does not make them unhealthy! Milk, yogurt, and beans are all high-protein foods that also have some sugar or starch in them. Fruit also naturally comes with a bunch of sugar, but is still a very healthy snack.

When sugar comes packaged within a whole food, there are a other nutrients – protein, fat, and fiber – that slow your digestion of the sugar and slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream. Slowing down this release of sugar is good because the slower you release sugar into your bloodstream, the less insulin your body needs to pump into your blood stream. Slower insulin release can help prevent insulin resistance and subsequent diabetes.

Getting your sugar from whole foods means you also get tons of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients along with the calories. Research has shown that the complex mixture of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients found in whole foods might be the key to reaping the benefits of these vitamins.

So when you look at a nutrition label and you see some grams of sugar on the package, it does not mean that the product has to be avoided, it might just mean that that the food naturally has some sugar present.

Added sugars

Added sugars are the ones that are, perhaps obviously, added to products to make them sweeter. Examples of added sugars are putting honey in your tea, or fruit juice in a meat marinade, or sugar in a cake.

Added sugars are not pure evil, but the fact is, we as Americans get way too much of them. In addition to the added sugars in traditionally sweet products like sodas, flavored milks and yogurts, cakes and breads, there are added sugars in products we wouldn’t think of as “sweet”, such as salad dressing, tomato sauce, or crackers. Because so many foods these days come with added sugars, it’s easy to consume more added sugars than is healthy.

Unfortunately, the way nutrition facts panels are currently set up, you can’t tell the difference between naturally-occurring sugars versus added sugars very easily. If you want to see if a product has added sugar, you need to check the ingredient label.

This sounds simple enough, but there are more than 50 ingredients that essentially are the same thing: sugar! Here are some other names for sugar: any products ending in -ose (like glucose, fructose, dextrose, mannose), syrups, juices, honey, brown sugar, corn products (like corn syrup), and these others.

Speaking of honey and maple syrup…

Unrefined sugars

The main benefit of unrefined sugar is that, like naturally-occurring sugars, unrefined sugars also contain vitamins and minerals. Though unrefined sugars are still considered an added sugar, they are a sweet extract from a plant used without additional processing besides boiling or drying. Unrefined sugars can be a great source of important minerals like iron, calcium, and magnesium. Plus, some studies have shown that unrefined sugars like coconut sugar may have a lower glycemic index than regular glucose, meaning that you don’t get as big of an increase in blood sugar when you eat it.

I love unrefined sugar for the depth of flavor they provide to my baked goods. Molasses, maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar all have slightly different flavors that make each product unique and delicious.

Some other unrefined sugars include muscovado, honey, molasses, and maple syrup.

Refined sugar

This is your table sugar, your rice syrup, and brown sugar. The sweet extracts from the plants have been milled and processed to remove all of the vitamins and minerals (kind of like the process to make white flour). Thus, refined sugars have the only nutritional benefit of providing calories. They don’t have the vitamins, phytonutrients, or fiber you would get from whole food sources, and thus, provides no real benefits for our diets (besides deliciousness).

What about fruit juice?

A lot of products claiming to be “naturally sweetened” are just sweetened with fruit juice. While this sounds great, these products contain just as many calories as products sweetened with regular sugar. If you actually mash bananas or include the skin of apples in the baked goods, some of the fiber and other benefits of the fruit are introduced to the product, but it’s important to realize that sweetened with fruit juice doesn’t make it a “healthy” product.

Let’s talk about calories...

Calorically speaking, sugar is sugar, whichever source it comes from. Unrefined or refined. Naturally-occurring or added. However, there are other benefits to using unrefined sugars in your baking, namely, that unrefined sugars also include vitamins and minerals. Also, because unrefined sugars are more flavorful, and you can often use less than you would for regular refined sugars.

What you should do from here

  • Even if they have the same number of calories, getting your sugar from whole food sources is always preferable to adding sugar. When your sugar comes from whole food, you get protein and fiber as a part of the package, slowing the release of glucose into your blood and helping you stay fuller for longer.
  • It’s a great idea to avoid added sugar from drinks like soda, fruit juice, or flavored milks. When you drink (versus eat solid food), your brain doesn’t trigger the fact that you’re consuming calories in the same way you do when you eat, and you are more likely to overeat at your next meal.  
  • Always (!!) check your ingredient labels for added sugars, even if you wouldn’t expect it to be sweetened.
  • And, learn to love unrefined sugars when you bake. Check out my double ginger vegan molasses cookiescarrot quinoa muffins, or soaked granola to get started.

Hopefully this post cleared up some confusion about sugar, so now I’d like to hear from you: do you try to limit added sugars in your diet, and if so, how are you doing it?


Samantha Attard, PhD, is the founder of Happy Healthy Human, where ambitious adults can get tailored wellness services, find trustworthy health information, and connect with like-minded individuals. Sam is a wellness coach, yoga instructor, and works with companies to improve employee engagement and wellness.

Learn more about her blog and business here.

Samantha Attard

Samantha is a wellness coach, health consultant, and yoga instructor. She provides ambitious adults with personalized nutrition and yoga so they can be their most creative, productive, and happy selves.