Sugar. It’s everywhere. It’s addictive. It’s something we often crave… but it’s come under fire lately as a major health concern when consumed in certain formats and/or large quantities. But, is all sugar unhealthy?
To discover the answers, we asked January Newland, a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, to share insights on the many different types of sugar, and how they are metabolized by our bodies:
All forms of sugar are simple carbohydrates. Once ingested, they are broken down by digestive enzymes into their most basic molecules: glucose and fructose.
Here’s the deal: whether it’s a spoonful of white sugar or an apple, those main sugar components are always there, in only slightly varied ratios. Even classic carbs like breads and beans, veggies from asparagus to zucchini, and our favorite fruits—they all break down and give us that duo of molecules we use for fuel: glucose and fructose.
Glucose is our body’s preferred source of energy; once digested and delivered to the bloodstream, glucose is useable by every cell. When consumed in higher quantities than we need for immediate use, glucose can be stored in the liver and muscle cells for use later. And when our muscle and liver storage is full, excess glucose hanging around will be converted into triglycerides and stored as fat.
Even though a wide array of foods all eventually turn into glucose for energy, how our bodies break down the sugar from that spoonful of white granulated versus the apple is very different!
Let’s take that spoonful of sugar, in your morning coffee. Imagine it entering your empty stomach. Since it’s already a fairly pure form of glucose and fructose, the glucose gets shuttled immediately into the bloodstream for use as energy. With nothing else to digest, that glucose rush to the bloodstream can feel like a significant surge of energy. And, depending on the size of your spoonful, your body mobilizes a hefty dose of the hormone know as insulin. Insulin takes on the task of regulating blood sugar and storing excess glucose. Once you’ve felt a big rush of sugar energy, it’s pretty likely that it will be followed by an energy crash.
Now, let’s consider the apple. It enters your stomach and begins digesting in the same way. But wait! There’s a lot more going on here. An apple has nutrients, antioxidants and fiber, all of which slow down the digestive process, and thus, slow down and even reduce the amount of glucose moving steadily into the bloodstream. Foods containing fat, protein or fiber will have this same sugar slow-down effect.
The apple for the win! With much more nutritional benefits from the fiber and antioxidants, and much less strain on the bloodstream/insulin system, you’ll feel less rush and crash, and a more steady energy.
If all sugars are not exactly equal, how do we find the healthier “good guys,” and which types should we be wary of?
Ideally, avoid processed, refined, and non-organic sugars. These usually come from sugar beets or sugar cane, which are often treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The sugar is processed in huge machines; boiling, spinning, filtering, separating, and treating with agents that create a uniform product. After all of this, there are no real nutrients left. Just empty calories.
Kick to the curb: All white sugars, and even brown and raw are processed this way. Add to the list cane sugar, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, sucrose, demarara, turbinado, and agave.
In small doses, the effects of granulized sugar (plus, if it’s organic) are definitely less dramatic on the body, especially when consumed in combination with healthy fats, proteins or fiber, to lessen the impact on blood sugar levels.
When including sugar, look for whole, real, unprocessed foods that contain naturally occurring sugars, and skip the mechanical or chemical processing.
Fruit is one of the best sources of naturally occurring sugar. Dates and apple juice, with real food sugars, make our YES list.
Honey is another great choice; look for organic and raw. Honey comes straight from nature, and contains beneficial trace minerals and nutrients, no refinement required.
Thumbs up for pure maple syrup, molasses and coconut nectar as well. Although some loss of nutrients can occur in processing, they are good options for finding that real-food version of sugar.
The real-food sugars, in their forms closest to how nature makes them, can be a healthful addition to an active lifestyle!