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Sugars vs. Added Sugars

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Catherine Pelone

Catherine Pelone, MS, RDN, LDN, received her BS in Applied Nutrition from NCSU and her MS in Nutrition and Dietetic Internship at Meredith College.

Within the last decade, sugar has been labeled the black sheep of the nutrition world, but many are unsure which sugary foods to be concerned about.

Sugar 101

Dietary sources of sugar can be divided into two groups: sugar intrinsically found in food and sugar that is added during processing.

Whole foods that are carbohydrate-based such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy, all contain naturally occurring sugars. Although these foods provide some amount of sugar, they pack a nutritious punch. Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains are good sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Dairy is a great source of protein and calcium.

Insert the dreaded "added sugars"! These are sugars food manufacturers intentionally add to processed foods to make them more desirable or to prolong shelf life. Common culprits: soda, fruit drinks, pasta sauce, flavored yogurts, cereals, and bars. Consuming these American mainstays add an average of 24 teaspoons of sugar per day to adults’ intake.

Processed foods do not need as much time “processing” in the body and thus digest and absorb quickly. This causes a spike in blood sugars and a subsequent crash. However, whole foods require more time to fully digest and are absorbed slower, which provides the body a consistent supply of energy.


How does added sugar affect health and chronic disease risk?

One obvious answer is weight. Processed foods laced with added sugars usually are high in total fat and calories, which contribute to weight gain and decreased overall health.

Another answer lies in the way the body metabolizes sugar. Over time, a diet high in added sugars can cause the pancreas, which produces insulin, to become overworked and fail to regulate blood sugars properly. Poorly controlled blood sugar is the foundation of diabetes.

Other organs also play a role in the metabolism of sugars. The liver converts excess amounts of specific sugars to fat and either stores them in the liver or releases them into the bloodstream. This can result in a “fatty liver”, inflammation, high triglycerides, and high cholesterol.

Be sugar savvy

In response to research and a growing group of sugar-concerned consumers, food manufacturers use a litany of names to disguise their use of added sugars. For example, natural sources of sugar (such as agave, honey, sugar in the raw, maple syrup, and coconut sugar) are often hidden in popular foods, but are still considered added sugars. Currently, the only way to know if a product has added sugars is to read the ingredient list, but a better option is on the horizon. The new nutrition facts label will be rolling out soon which includes a new section where food manufacturers must report in grams how much sugar was added to that product. Ultimately, the recommendation is to limit added sugars to 6 teaspoons (25 grams) a day.