I get asked a lot about sugar. What are acceptable sugars, which should you avoid, how much sugar is too much sugar. It can all be really confusing.
First, sugar is just the category heading for all sweet things. There are sub-categories such as naturally occurring sugars, refined sugar, artificial sugars, and natural sugar additives.
Examples of each include:
- Naturally occurring sugar: lactose (found in milk and dairy products), and fructose (found in fruits)
- Refined sugar: cane sugar
- Artificial sugars: sucralose, aspartame, high fructose corn syrup
- Natural sugar additives: stevia, monk fruit, honey
It’s important to have a working understanding of the different names because it will be important to know when you’re reading food labels. Most people I meet just read the ‘Total Sugar’ line of the nutrition label and only base their decisions on that. That method may be a bit misleading – and a better way of doing it is to read the fine print.
The fine print of the label is the ‘other ingredients’ section. This is the section where it discloses all the things that went into this product. They are in order of volume, with the first ingredient being the most prominent in the product. It’s in this section where you’ll be able to determine what ingredients in here contribute to the ‘total sugar’ line, and what kind of sweetener did they use?
If you’re buying yogurt for example, there will be some grams of sugar on the label purely because of the naturally occurring lactose in the milk. What is most important though, is that you read the fine print and you’ll instantly know if those grams of sugar are just from the lactose or if there’s added sugar! If there is added sugar – what is the source?
Then you get to make the decision, is this sweetener bad for my health? Say that yogurt has added honey. Is this the same as being sweetened with cane sugar? High fructose corn syrup? Our scientific literature is saying there is a difference.
Sugars to avoid:
High fructose corn syrup
HFCS is made from corn, which is readily available in large quantities in the United States today. After processing, It can have up to 55% fructose, which gives it that ultra-sweet flavor. Fructose isn’t metabolized the same way as glucose. After absorption by the gut, it makes a beeline for the liver where its broken down and stored as fat tissue. That fat is not just the kind growing around your midsection, it’s also the kind that can gunk up liver causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Consumption of high amount of fructose can also decrease the function of your pancreas and directly cause insulin resistance. I probably don’t have to say much more because odds are you’re already on the HFCS-hating train!
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
Back when most of the medical community believed that the over-consumption of calories and lack of exercise was the reason people were gaining weight, and developing metabolic syndrome the release of this “no-calorie sweetener” must have been such a huge excitement. However, since its release in 1974 it’s been a topic of controversy, with the manufacturers even being accused of falsifying data that allowed it to be approved by the FDA.
Research is now finding that Aspartame is toxic to the brain, causing seizures, brain cell death, depression and irritability. But its effects aren’t just limited to the brain – it has been implicated in fatty liver disease, diabetes, and creating gut dysbiosis.
Needless to say, let’s avoid this one, and its alias Acesulfame Potassium.
Did you know Splenda is made by chlorinating sugar? When it is consumed, you break down and separate the the sugar from the chlorine molecules, but there’s no studies out there that shows how much of that chlorine is excreted by the body. While this may be a “no-calorie” option for sweetener, the chlorine significantly reduces thyroid function and slows metabolism.
Raw sugar, that originally started at sugar cane or sugar beets, and has been refined and stripped of all its molasses. Eliminating the molasses, gives it that white appearance and at this point we commonly call it table sugar!
Table sugar has one of the highest glycemic effects of all the sweeteners on this list, causing your blood sugars to spike quickly and fall quickly. Table sugar has been implicated in the cause of inflammation, hormone dysregulation, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and so much more. It’s a no-brainer this one is on the avoid list!
Sugars you can to consume in moderation:
Humans have been eating honey for thousands of years, and while too much of a good thing can be bad, compared to its sugar counterparts on the above list – its dramatically better.
Honey is still made up of glucose and fructose (less percent fructose than HFCS) however, if you’re eating it in its raw form it still contains some of the enzymes and probiotics that are eliminated during the refining process.
Eating raw honey that is from your geographical location can also provide a multitude of other health benefits including combating seasonal allergies.
Fructose is the naturally occurring sugar that is found in fruit. However, when you’re eating the whole fruit you get all the extra health benefits of phytonutrients, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and nutrients that go along with it.
Before I give you a free pass on fruit, I’d like to point out that each fruit comes with its own glycemic index. The glycemic index assigns a numerical score to food based on how high it spikes your blood sugar. Fruits such as watermelon and pineapples spike your blood sugar faster than cherries and plums.
Stevia comes from the plant Stevia rebaudiana that has been used in South America for years to add sweetness to their food. As the ‘all natural’ craze gets to be in full effect, companies are capitalizing on this opportunity to put out their own version of the products.
Stevia is a perfect example of this. Stevia has 2 main parts: stevioside and rebaudioside. Stevioside is sweet but has that bitter aftertaste you may have heard about, and rebaudioside is even sweeter without the bitter aftertaste. Brands such as Truvia process the plant and extract only the rebaudioside portion.
When using Stevia, strive to use the whole plant versions of the product and of course always in moderation.
Sugars such as xylitol and erythritol are zero-calorie sweeteners, that have little effect on your blood sugar which makes them a good alternative to using refined sugars. A common complaint with sugar alcohols is that they cause gut upset – which makes sense since they are absorbed by the gut.
So you can see now how just reading the ‘Total Sugar’ line of the nutrition label can be midleading. Finding out exactly what the product is sweetened with should be weighted more in your decision to buy the product or not. As always, it’s best to limit the amount of sugars you consume – both natural and artificial.
Cheers to eating foods that don’t have labels –
Dr. Cassie Wilder
Dr. Cassie Wilder is a registered Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) and founder of MIMC. Her passion is empowering her patients through education, understanding, and support through their healing journey. After graduating from Iowa State University with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology and Health, Dr. Wilder earned her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences, a fully accredited and nationally recognized institution in Phoenix, AZ. During her clinical training, she received extensive hands-on training with many leading experts in the field of functional medicine and developed a passion for treating hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and adrenal fatigue.