Sweets, cakes, processed foods, ready meals… one of the reasons that we think of treats like these as unhealthy options is their high levels of refined sugar. Over recent years, the media has turned it into a buzzword and demonised it as the root of many health problems. But just what is refined sugar, and how is it different from the sugars you’d find in fruit, for example? What is it that makes it so bad for us?April 08, 2021 6:03 pm March 18, 2021 11:33 am
What is refined sugar?
The easiest way to think of refined sugar is to picture the paper bag in your pantry. Anything you can buy under the name of ‘sugar’ is refined sugar. This includes any type of processing (for example granulated, caster or icing sugar).
There is some confusion about whether brown sugar is refined, but unfortunately it is. The only difference between white and brown sugar is that brown sugar contains a small amount of molasses. This is a dark-coloured thick syrup which is a by-product of sugar processing.
It has no nutritional advantages over white sugar.
Refined sugar comes from either the sugar cane or sugar beet plants. During processing, sugar producers heat and purify the juice of the plant to make molasses. They then treat it further to produce sugar crystals.
One other type of refined sugar to mention is corn syrup. Lots of manufacturers use this in processed foods, especially in America. Producers make it in a similar way to sugar from sugar cane or beet, but the base ingredient is corn.
How is refined sugar different from naturally occurring sugars?
Naturally occurring sugars make an appearance in lots of different types of whole foods. For example, fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products all contain naturally occurring sugars.
In essence, refined sugar and naturally occurring sugars are made of the same stuff. They all use the same building blocks, which are single sugar molecules (monosaccharides).(1)
These are glucose, fructose (found in fruit) and galactose (found in dairy). They are molecules which contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, arranged in slightly different ways.(1)
For example, the sugar in fruit is fructose.
White processed sugar contains sucrose, which is a disaccharide made of one fructose molecule and one glucose molecule. Lactose, a sugar in milk, is a combination of glucose and galactose.
However, your body breaks down all refined and naturally occurring sugars to produce monosaccharides (glucose, fructose or galactose), regardless of where they come from.
So there’s no difference?
There may be little difference in the actual sugar molecule, but there is a huge difference in how your body processes and absorbs refined and natural sugars.
When you eat a piece of fruit, for example, you are eating a lot more than just sugar. You’re also eating lots of fibre, vitamins and minerals, all of which are beneficial to your body.(2)
With refined sugar, you’re not getting any nutritional benefit at all beyond the energy provided.
Meanwhile, other nutrients in the fruit make it harder for your body to access the sugars within. As we’ll see, this is a good thing.
Think how much work is involved when you eat an apple: you have to chew the fruit to break it down into pieces, then your body has to use various processes to get past the fibre to get to the fructose.
As a result, the sugar enters your bloodstream much more slowly, avoiding sugar spikes which can later leave you feeling tired, cranky and hungry again.
Now compare that to adding a teaspoon of sugar to your tea or coffee. There’s essentially no work involved in getting to the sugar, so it goes straight into your bloodstream.
Right. Smoothies only for me, from now on….
Hold your horses! Unfortunately, there’s more to consider when it comes to naturally occurring sugars.
Let’s go back to that apple. As we know, it’s harder for your body to absorb its sugar. Plus, the fibre in the apple helps to fill you up, making sure that you don’t overeat.
As a result, an apple will provide you with a manageable amount of sugar which will hit your bloodstream steadily, over a long period of time.
The result? You can use this sugar as a healthy energy source.
However, if you throw that apple in a smoothie maker or a juicer, you’re getting your blender to do a lot of the hard work for you.
The blender breaks down much of the fibre of the fruit, making the natural sugars more accessible.(2)
What’s more, when you drink a glass of smoothie or fruit juice, you’re essentially consuming several fruits. Likely, significantly more than you would eat whole. This means you may be consuming a lot more sugar than you think.
Plus, as with fruit juice you’re not getting the filling benefits of all that fibre, you’re likely to still be hungry afterwards. (At least with a smoothie you’re getting some fibre too.)
Smoothies and juices can definitely be good for you in moderation, as they still contain the healthy vitamins and minerals of the fruits. However, you should be aware that they’re not as good for you as the whole fruit, and can still result in sugar spikes.
"In the United States, the average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons of sugar daily - vastly more than the recommended amounts of less than nine teaspoons for men and six teaspoons for women."
Why do we love sugar?
Once upon a time, our love for sugar served an evolutionary purpose. Food was scarce, and if we were lucky enough to stumble across a tree laden with fruit, it would have been an advantage to gobble up as much as possible.
Over time, we adapted to love sweet tastes (which often, if not always, indicate a high energy food source) and also to be able to store the sugar we ate in the form of fat. That way, when harder times came, we had energy reserves to draw upon.(3)
The trouble is that nowadays, sugar isn’t scarce anymore. In fact, it’s available just about everywhere, in foods you’d never even expect it to crop up (in savoury ready meals, for example).
That, combined with our undying love for the taste of sugar, means we’re eating far too much of it. In the UK, 61.3% of adults, 74.9% of children and 82.9% of adolescents consume more than the recommended daily maximum of free sugars.(4)
In the United States, the average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons of sugar daily – vastly more than the recommended amounts of less than nine teaspoons for men and six teaspoons for women.(5)
Why is too much sugar so bad for us?
Now, to the crux of the matter: why we should be conscious of our sugar intake.
Eating too much sugar can lead to health problems, such as:
- Weight gain: sugar provides you with a lot of additional calories, which can lead to weight gain if you’re not burning them off through exercise.
- Tooth decay: several scientific studies have linked sugar consumption with a higher incidence of dental caries (cavities). It’s important to note that a recent review of these studies said that natural sugars from fruit, grains and dairy did not make a significant contribution to tooth decay.(7)
Other illnesses linked to sugar
More controversially, eating too much added sugar has been linked to the following diseases:
- Obesity: The causes of obesity are complex and likely to involve a number of factors such as overall calorie consumption and a lack of exercise, but many scientists have pointed to excess sugar as a contributing factor.(6)
- Type 2 diabetes: excess sugar consumption may play a role in type 2 diabetes (it is not linked to type 1). That said, there is some debate over how much sugar contributes to the risk. For instance, people who eat a lot of extra sugar are more likely to be overweight, and overweight people are more likely to get type 2 diabetes. However, it’s not clear how much sugar specifically is to blame.(7)(8)
- High blood pressure and cardiovascular disease: Some studies have found that greater sugar consumption may increase your risk factors for poor cardiovascular health. However, some scientists contest the link between sugar and cardiovascular disease.(10)
What is muddying the waters?
There are two main reasons for the controversy over sugar’s health effects.
Firstly, we know that lots of diseases are more common in people who are overweight. As we’ve discussed, eating a lot of high-sugar foods can cause you to gain weight. However it’s not clear if it’s the excess weight, sugar, or some other factor which is directly responsible for causing the disease.
As a result it’s quite tricky for scientists to say definitively that sugar (rather than simply being overweight) is the root of the illness.
Secondly, quite a few of the studies on sugar’s effects on health are sponsored by companies which produce high-sugar products. As such, they may have a vested interest in undermining the link between sugar and poor health.
If a study has been sponsored by a company such as this, the author should disclose it in a ‘conflict of interest’ section (usually towards the end of the study). It’s worth taking any such research in context.
Are there any good ‘unrefined’ sugars?
Lots of health bloggers and chefs have recently started exploring making foods using ‘natural sugars’. Examples include honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and fruit purées, such as apple sauce.
While these options may be slightly better for you, they certainly don’t count as a free pass.
Honey, for example, is very high in sugar but has a slightly lower glycemic index, meaning you absorb its sugars more slowly.
Raw honey might also have some nutritional benefits thanks to vitamins, enzymes and antioxidants. Maple syrup and coconut sugar both contain useful minerals.
However, they’re all still free sugars, so you should eat them in moderation.
Where does that leave us?
If, by this point, you’re a little confused about sugar and its role in our health, you’re not alone.
To simplify everything we’ve discussed, there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that consuming lots of refined sugar is bad for you. There’s no evidence that it’s good for you.
Natural sugars in whole foods such as fruit, grains and dairy are not likely to cause you health problems. However, processing them (in smoothies or fruit juice, for example), makes their sugars more easily available to your body. This can lead to the negative effects mentioned above. Try to stick to whole foods with no added sugars, like our Activated Coconut and Cacao Energy Balls, or our Apple, Chia and Nopal Granola.
If you’re going to make a dish which needs sweetening, consider using honey or maple syrup instead of refined sugar. They’re slightly more nutritious, but beware: they’re still high in calories.
Or, to leave you with one key take-away from all our investigations: if you’re craving something sweet, head to the fruit bowl, not the biscuit tin.
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