The Health Impact of Natural Sugars

Is sugar by any other name still sugar?

For anyone who has been following my blogs, or done their homework on healthier eating, it should be evident that added sugars and their omnipresence in the Western diet are the root cause for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

But what about sugars found in natural foods, or products that boast having natural sugars in them? Do these have the same harmful effects as processed sugars?

There were a couple of recent occurrences that compelled me to dig deeper on this subject because my initial thought is that sugar is still sugar and I was not quite sure if our bodies' metabolisms can differentiate one from the other.

  • A good friend of mine was eating a raw protein bar, and as I commented on the sugar and net carbs in those bars, he responded that the sugar was natural and that makes it "okay."

  • When visiting a family member who has become a total health nut in recent months, I discovered a half gallon jug of grape juice on her weekly shopping list. I am sure that the sugar in this juice is no better than the sugar found in Kool-Aid®, yet she may believe that it is okay to drink because the label says 100% juice.

Here is the first question: is 10 grams of natural sugar the same as 10 grams of refined sugar?

The answer would be yes, except that natural sugars found in whole foods like fruit are digested more slowly thanks to the high fiber content and other nutrients. Added sugars sit in the bloodstream, convert to fat almost instantly and increase the risk for obesity and diabetes when consumed regularly.

There is that raw bar that contains natural sugars, but they add up to more sugar and more calories than candy bars! Unless you are running several miles each day these bars are more risk than reward. In short, protein bars are nonetheless a manufactured product, and nutritional benefits are stripped during the process.

To elaborate further on this point, let us examine the easier target – natural sugars found in packaged and processed foods and beverages, and marketed as "healthy."

Agave Nectar
This trendy ingredient appears in organic cookies, energy bars, smoothies, frozen desserts, and other "health halo" foods. It is low in glucose and hence, does not spike blood sugar levels. It also contains insulin and other helpful fibers and nutrients. These benefits sound great except for two big problems.

First, agave nectar loses its nutritional benefits when it is processed to make a final product. Second, agave nectar is exceptionally high in fructose.AdobeStock_132213927 agave and maple syrup-739051-edited

It is 85% fructose, which is higher than plain sugar. When consumed in large amounts, agave nectar can cause dangerous increases in long-term blood sugar levels, which can likely result in type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, as well as fatty liver disease.[i]

Agave Nectar is part of a new wave of sugar substitutes lauded as "natural" like Stevia (that appear in energy drinks and other health halo beverages) are a bigger health risk than the artificial sweeteners. To learn more on this topic, check out my blog on the farce of sugar substitutes.

Maple Syrup
Maple syrup has a significant amount of fructose (about one-third of overall content), and while it contains more minerals than added sugars, the benefits are very minimal unless you plan on consuming a lot of syrup.

NOTE: I am talking about "pure" maple syrup, which is more expensive than the maple-flavored sugar waters that the leading brands put on the shelves.[ii] 

iStock-183354852 pot of honeyHoney
Honey is filled with antioxidants as well as compounds with anti-inflammatory benefits, however, when it is heavily processed (like most honey packaged at the store or appearing in manufactured foods), it loses all of these unique nutrients, and the benefits are no longer there. 

To reap the health benefits, you would have to use raw honey, but just like with pure maple syrup, you would have to consume a lot of it (more than 250 calories per day). Raw honey has been recommended for type 2 diabetics to use in place of sugar because it has enzymes that break down naturally in the body and it can stabilize and even lower blood sugar levels (especially when taken with diabetes medications).[iii] It should be consumed in cautious moderation as raw honey has more calories than sugar.

100% Fruit Juice
Fruit juice with "naturally occurring sugar" has as much sugar and calories as soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. These juices may start out as 100%, but once squeezed from the fruit, it is stored in oxygen-depleted tanks and loses much of its natural sweetness.  Manufacturers compensate for this by adding "flavor packs." The other nutritional properties also become minimized during the processing, to the extent that you are better off consuming actual fruits for your Vitamin C, fiber and other health benefits.[iv]

Now for the $64,000 question: What about naturally-occurring sugar found in fruits?

Naturally-occurring sugar is still sugar and over-consumption can pose specific health issues, but I guarantee you that apples and oranges are not the driving force behind the obesity and diabetes pandemic. Here is why.[v]

iStock-114329412-148794-editedFruit, dairy, and some veggies contain natural sugars, but they also possess nutrients that influence how your body breaks down the sugar. For example, apples, raspberries, and blueberries have a high fiber content that slows down digestion after consumption to ward off blood-sugar spikes; and the protein in plain Greek yogurt helps your body process the natural sugar at a healthy pace.

On the other hand, added sugars cause inflammation and turn to fat so quickly that they offset the body’s ability to regulate blood glucose levels. The same can be said for processed foods promoting natural sugars and sweeteners.

Because whole fruits are high in fiber, our bodies are well equipped to handle the small amounts of fructose found in fruit.[vi]

Try these tips for healthier eating that cuts out the bad sugars.

  • Avoid juices and make homemade smoothies – the greener the better.
  • Eat dried fruit in small portions as the drying process causes the sugars to become highly concentrated.[vii]
  • Read the labels as all packaged products are required to list added sugars separately.
  • Remember when shopping that the more processed the product is, the less nutritious it is regardless of the type of sugar it has.
  • Pay close attention to bread, tomato sauces and salad dressings that have added sugars hiding in the ingredients mix.
  • Focus on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and legumes that can be enjoyed raw if you do not have time to cook.

How to Eat with Diabetes


Sean Browne

Sean Browne

Former Chief Revenue Officer, CCS Medical

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