Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Not All Sugars are Created Equal

"I heard bananas aren't healthy because they are high in sugar."

"I had no idea there was so much sugar in milk; we've stopped drinking it."

"I've cut out all the sugars - especially fruit because it can make you fat."

These are three, honest-to-goodness real comments I heard from people recently, based on information they have seen on television, read online or heard from a friend. Unfortunately, they are all misinformed comments.

But who can blame people for being confused? Sugar is the evil food of the moment. Vilified to no end. Any food with the word "sugar" attached is instantly avoided. And it has become a big subject of discussion in my classes, as well as in casual conversation among family and friends.

But......not all sugars are created equal. Let's try and clear up some confusion.

There are two primary sugars that a consumer needs to be aware of - naturally- occurring sugars (primarily found in fruits, milk products and small amounts in veggies) and added sugars. Both are broken down during digestion basically the same way then used by your body for energy or stored as fat.

However, there are several, nutritionally important differences between the two.

Naturally-Occurring Sugars
These are found in whole fruits, milk and in vegetables (in limited amounts). Naturally-occurring sugars are an integral part of the food and have not been added in production or processing. Fruits are rich in fructose while milk is rich in milk sugar, or lactose. When consumed both are broken down into glucose during digestion, which is the basic fuel for your body.

All healthy individuals can eat fruit daily without fear of consuming "too much sugar". The only exception is if you have diabetes. People with diabetes must keep careful track of any sugar they consume, no matter what the source.

When you eat fruit you do consume fructose - a sugar. And some fruits are higher in fructose than others (grapes, pineapple and yes, bananas, for instance). But, even fruits high in fructose are still much healthier to consume than food with the same amount of added sugar.

An average piece of fruit (one apple or banana) or serving of fruit (about a cup) has anywhere from 5 to 20 grams of fructose. Compare that to a 12-oz regular can of Coke at 40 grams of added sugar (mostly high fructose corn syrup).

With the fruit, you eat not only less calories, but lots of good-for-you nutrients like fiber, water, vitamin A and vitamin C. The fiber slows digestion which helps you feel fuller and more satisfied. The fruit fructose is broken down slower and is eventually released to your bloodstream over a longer period of time. This slow release keeps your body from experiencing that sugar spike which would happen if you drank the Coke. A sugar spike forces your body to act rapidly to clear the huge amount of digested sugar arriving in your bloodstream all at once. Basically, this is why you feel that surge of energy and then the inevitable crash associated with sugary treats and drinks.

Don't get confused if you see the word "fructose" as an ingredient in a processed food. Companies are using fructose and its derivatives more and more as a sweetener - but consuming it in packaged goods is NOT the same as consuming it in nature's fresh fruit package.

Also, if you're into fruit juice, carefully read labels. You might be getting vitamins C and A, but certainly not the fiber, satiety or slower digestion benefits from fresh fruit. And many fruit juices use added sugars to boost sweetness.

Milk Products
Lactose is the naturally-occurring sugar found in milk and milk products. When you drink milk (preferably skim, with less fat and calories) you are drinking a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D and phosphorous - all important for healthy teeth and bones. But be wary of yogurts. Some of them have so much added sugar you might as well call it a dessert; get plain yogurt instead and add fresh fruit for sweetness.

As a side note, those who lack the ability to digest and break down lactose are lactose-intolerant and have to find alternative sources of calcium and vitamin D. And people with diabetes must also keep track of their milk sugar intake same as they do with fruits.

Added Sugars
Added sugars are just that - sugars that are added to products during processing to enhance taste and sweetness. They are primarily found in processed and packaged goods. Added sugars themselves have no nutrient value; they contain calories and are broken down into glucose but possess no vitamins, minerals or any other healthy attributes for your body.

Table sugar, corn syrups, sweeteners, and a host of others have crept into our food supply at an alarming rate - especially into foods that would surprise you. And they are not the same as naturally-occurring sugars and should not be lumped into the same category.

You must read ingredient lists to find out what foods contain added sugars. See my earlier post "Sugar In Disguise" to learn all about added sugars and how to spot them on food labels.

So, are the comments at the start of the post are true or false? Well, as you may have learned, they are both true and false!
  • Bananas are high in naturally-occurring sugar, but are a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin C and B-vitamins.
  • Milk does contain milk sugar but is also full of protein, vitamins and minerals essential to bone, muscle and oral health.
  • And fresh fruit does contain sugar - but consumed daily, it has the ability to make you healthier, not fatter like consuming multiple foods with added sugar certainly can.


  1. My wife didn't let me have pepperoni on my pizza the other day. I really like pepperoni on my pizza. What is wrong with pepperoni?

  2. I am simply out of words after reading your blog...Managing Diabetes