Sugar is Sugar is Sugar… or Is It?

Has anybody else gone down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out what sugar is okay and which ones should be avoided?  How about when a package says, “no added sugar”, or “no refined sugar”, do you really understand what it means?  Or what about the packaging that says “paleo friendly” … I mean that is basically a health food, right? (What you cannot see is me sitting here and chuckling a little bit as I write this.) Marketing tactics, along with every influencer sharing their uneducated nutrition advice, have overly complicated rather simple ideas, so let’s break some of this down.  I am going to break down what some of the different verbiage (relating to sugar) on a label means and why not all sugars are the same. 

Starting off, what is with all of the labeling?  These big companies know how to get us with catchy wording.  So many people see phrases like, “no refined sugars” or “paleo friendly” on a label, and instantly think, “Oh, this must be a good choice, right?”.  Wrong!  Nothing about any of those terms necessarily means healthy, and the manufacturer is counting on you acting on your first impulse of thinking this is a health food.  Refined sugars are any sugar that has gone through processing; think along the lines of white sugar.  Interestingly enough, by definition, NO raw sugar is sold in the United States.  Sorry, that ‘Sugar in the Raw’ you love is not so raw.  So, if a label says, “no refined sugar”, that simply means there are not any processed sugars, but there can be things such as honey, maple syrup and agave (to name a few) used to sweeten these products.  These are the products that may also claim to be “paleo”, but remember, that does not mean they are healthy.  While many people think that these “natural” sweeteners are superior, the body does treat them similarly to refined sugars, and I will explain more about this in the next section.  If a label says, “no added sugar”, this simply means that, aside from naturally occurring sugar found in the ingredients of this product, no additional sugar was added.  Check out the label below for a great example of this.  This label shows an RX Bar that has 0g of added sugars, but total sugars is 13g.   Where does the sugar come from?  In this product it is naturally occurring sugar that comes from the dates in this bar.  Much of the advice out there now involved avoiding added sugars.  So, when you are looking at the label, look for the line that says “Added Sugars” to determine if this may be a good choice or not.  If there is not an “Added Sugar” line, then you will have to sift through the ingredient label.  Remember, ingredients are listed by weight, so if sugar is in the first few ingredients, you may want to choose something else.  Also, remember that sugar has many aliases, so be aware of some of those hidden names of sugar. 

Next, let’s talk about why not all sugar is the same.  I eat an apple every night, like clockwork, and it is always a little shocking to see that my apple has about 20 grams of sugar in it!  But my apple also has lots of vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber, all of which change the way that my body processes that apple.  All of these additional nutrients change things, such as the rate at which my body digests it.  Without going in to too much detail, this can make a big difference.  In short, my body absolutely processes the 20g of sugar in my apple differently than the 20g of sugar in a candy bar.  This may be why many of the recommendations gear towards avoiding added sugars- because they are usually void of fibers, vitamins and minerals that may complement them and aid in proper digestion and absorption.  So, what if I ate a snickers bar every night instead of an apple?  Well, that buys me a solid 20g of ADDED sugar with relatively no fiber, vitamins, or minerals.  As you can imagine that sugar is going to hit my system hard and fast, and I am not really gaining anything from it. 

While all of this sugar talk can be confusing, just remember that, for the most part, added sugars are the ones that the recommendations say to avoid.  These are easily found on the back of most labels.  And yes, unfortunately, no matter how “natural” your sweetener is (honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.), it is still an added sugar and it should still be limited.   At the end of the day, if you put a teaspoon of white sugar in your coffee vs a teaspoon of maple syrup, your body will not know much of a difference between the two.  But, if you eat an apple vs a snicker bar, your body will definitely know the difference!  So, while the saying, “sugar is sugar” does not cut it for me, I think that saying, “added sugar is added sugar” sounds more accurate! Feel free to shoot me a message with any questions you might have!

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