A Guide to Natural, Refined and Added Sugars

Sugar is widely demonized but a lack of understanding of different sugars and their roles on diet has led us to discount foods we should be encouraging. Here’s dietitian Ro Huntriss with what you need to know.

Dietary sugar intake is continually at the forefront of the UK’s media and it is often demonized for its detrimental effects on health. From headlines warning of its addictive nature to studies linking it to various chronic diseases, sugar in all its forms gets a bad reputation. However, a crucial distinction that often gets lost in the noise is the difference between natural, refined, and added sugars.

This lack of understanding between the different types of sugar and where they are found often leads to the demonization of all foods that contain sugar, some of which we should be encouraging.

Let's find out about the different types of sugar, where they come from, how they affect our body, and how to navigate the consumption of foods containing sugar for a healthy lifestyle.

Refined sugar vs natural sugar

While it's undeniable that excessive consumption of refined sugars can pose health risks, lumping all sugars into the same category overlooks the nuanced roles they play in our diet and our bodies.

Refined sugar

Refined sugar or added sugar is sugar that has been heavily processed and mainly comes from sugar beets, cane, and corn. Food manufacturers often add this type of sugar to processed foods and drinks. Refined sugar can also be added to food during cooking or preparation. This type of sugar is classed as free sugar. The sugar naturally present in honey, syrups, nectars, unsweetened fruit juices, vegetable juices and smoothies is also classed as free sugar.

The UK government recommends that intakes of added and free sugars should not make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day which, for adults, is the equivalent of around 30g sugar or 7 sugar cubes.

Natural sugar

Natural sugars on the other hand are those found in whole fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. The sugar found in these foods does not count as free sugar. The sugar in these foods comes packaged alongside essential nutrients and fiber which are integral to a balanced diet. Foods that contain natural sugars play an important role in a healthy and well-balanced diet.

Refined sugar against natural

A diet high in refined sugar is associated with increased risk of obesity which can lead to a number of health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Whereas diets that are high in foods which contain natural sugars such as vegetables, fruit and dairy are not associated with obesity or chronic disease, in part due to the wider nutrients they contain.

Why we should stop demonizing natural sugars

Reducing intake of foods that contain natural sugars means that we are also reducing our intake of other nutrients. Of course, like anything, we don’t want to eat anything in excess, but most of the Western population have low intake of fruit and vegetables so at a population level we do not want to reduce this further.

Fruit, vegetables, and dairy are nutrient-dense and are rich sources of essential nutrients such as vitamins and antioxidants which are crucial for supporting overall health, immune function, and vitality.

Fruits and vegetables contain fiber which plays an important role in healthy digestion, consuming fiber supports stable blood sugar levels helping us to feel full. Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables can help you reach the recommended 30 g of fiber per day.

Sugar is a source of energy for the body and the brain; natural sugar provides this energy source in a sustained way - it has a lower glycemic index than refined sugar meaning it is released more slowly so it can sustain energy levels for longer.

In the UK, it is recommended that one should consume at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables per day. A glass of unsweetened fruit juice still counts as one of your 5 a day however due to the sugar being counted as free sugar, limit juices to one 150ml glass per day. Milk and dairy products are a great source of protein and calcium and can form part of a healthy balanced diet, just remember to opt for unsweetened dairy products.

The verdict on added sugar

When sugar is added to food, we are not adding any health-promoting nutrients, all we are doing is adding calories, in essence, empty calories. Furthermore, these are calories that don’t fill us up so soon we want more, meaning that we are likely to consume more calories than we require, certainly if we want to get all the nutrients we need too.

The main consequence of eating too much refined sugar, aside from dental issues, is weight gain. Weight gain leads to obesity and obesity-related disease.

To optimize our health, adults should aim to reduce consumption of free sugars or added sugars to below 30 g/day. Free sugars are often found in foods such as sweets, cakes, fizzy drinks, juice drinks, biscuits, and chocolate and these are the foods we recommend cutting down on.

How to cut added sugar from your diet

Cutting down on added sugar intake can help reduce your risk of chronic disease in the future, reduce the risk of obesity, and avoid tooth decay. When trying to reduce your sugar intake try setting yourself small but achievable goals and follow our top tips.

  • Identify when you may get a sugar craving and find an alternative food or activity to do at this time. For example, if you get a craving for something sweet after dinner swap it for a piece of fruit
  • Swap milk chocolate for a small piece of dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains much less sugar than milk chocolate, this way you can still get your chocolate fix with much less sugar.
  • Swap sugar-sweetened drinks to low sugar options such as water, fizzy water, herbal teas, or fruit-infused water.
  • Breakfast cereals are often high in added sugar, swap these for lower-sugar options such as a wheat biscuit cereal, porridge, or overnight oats. Add sweetness to your breakfast with fresh fruit rather than sugar.
  • Get wise with labels. Look for ‘no added sugar’ on the label, if sugar of any kind or any of its derivatives e.g, syrup, glucose, fructose, dextrose, nectar is high up the list this means it is one of the primary ingredients.
  • Swap any sugary snacks such as biscuits or sweets for fresh fruit, unsalted mixed nuts or plain popcorn.

Remember you do not need to remove foods containing sugar completely from your diet. Foods containing natural sugar are beneficial to our health and play an important role in the diet. A small amount of foods high in free sugars can have a place in a healthy balanced diet but it is important to consume them in moderation within the context of an overall nutritionally-balanced eating pattern to support our overall health.

Words: Ro Huntriss

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