Refined sugar intake is linked to conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Yet, it’s found in a variety of foods, making it particularly challenging to avoid.
Moreover, you may wonder how refined sugars compare to natural ones, and whether they have similar health effects.
This article by Pritish Kumar Halder discusses what refined sugar is, how it differs from natural sugar, and how to minimize your intake.
How is refined sugar made?
Sugar is naturally found in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and even nuts and seeds.
This natural sugar can be extracted to produce the refined sugar currently so abundant in the food supply. Table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are two common examples of refined sugars created this way.
The table sugar, also known as sucrose, is typically extracted from sugar cane plants or sugar beets.
The sugar manufacturing process begins with washing the sugar cane or beets, slicing them, and soaking them in hot water. Which allows their sugary juice to be extracted.
The juice is then filtered and turned into a syrup that’s further processed into sugar crystals that are washed, dried, cooled, and packaged into the table sugar found on supermarket shelves.
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a type of refined sugar.
The corn is first milled to make corn starch and then further processed to create corn syrup.
Enzymes are then added, which increases the content of the sugar fructose, ultimately making the corn syrup taste sweeter. The most common type is HFCS 55, which contains 55% fructose and 42% glucose — another kind of sugar. This percentage of fructose is similar to that of table sugar.
These refined sugars are typically used to add flavor to foods but can also act as a preservative in jams and jellies or help foods like pickles and breads ferment. They’re also often used to add bulk to processed foods like soft drinks and ice cream.
Refined vs. natural sugars
For several reasons, refined sugars are generally worse for your health than natural sugars.
Foods rich in refined sugars are often heavily processed
Refined sugars are typically added to foods and beverages to improve taste. They’re considered empty calories because they contain virtually no vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, fiber, or other beneficial compounds.
Moreover, refined sugars are commonly added to packaged foods and drinks, such as ice cream, pastries, and soda, all of which tend to be heavily processed.
In addition to being low in nutrients, these processed foods can be rich in salt and added fats, both of which can harm your health when consumed in high amounts.
Natural sugars are usually found in nutrient-rich foods
Sugar is naturally found in many foods. Two popular examples include lactose in dairy and fructose in fruit. From a chemistry perspective, your body breaks down natural and refined sugars into identical molecules, processing both similarly.
However, natural sugars typically occur in foods that provide other beneficial nutrients.
For instance, unlike the fructose in HFCS, the fructose in fruit comes with fiber and a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds.
The fiber helps slow how quickly the sugar enters your bloodstream, reducing your likelihood of blood sugar spikes. Similarly, lactose in dairy is naturally packaged with protein and varying levels of fat, two nutrients also known to help prevent blood sugar spikes.
Moreover, nutrient-rich foods likely make a greater contribution toward your daily nutrient needs than foods rich in refined sugars.
Not all natural sugars are equally good
Though natural sugars are generally considered more beneficial than refined sugars, this doesn’t hold true in all cases. Natural sugars can also be processed in a way that removes virtually all of their fiber and a good portion of their other nutrients. Smoothies and juices are good examples of this.
In their whole form, fruits offer chewing resistance and are loaded with water and fiber.
Blending or juicing them breaks down or removes almost all of their fiber, as well as any chewing resistance, meaning you likely require a larger portion to feel satisfied. It also removes some of the vitamins and beneficial plant compounds naturally found in whole fruits.
Other popular forms of natural sugars include honey and maple syrup. These appear to offer more benefits and slightly more nutrients than refined sugars.
However, they remain low in fiber and rich in sugar and should be consumed only in moderation.