Grocery Shopping Guide: Sugars
When you go into a store, how many different sugar options do you notice? It seems as if people are becoming more and more aware of the importance of their health and the things they need to do to improve it. However, bombarded with information, oftentimes they find themselves lost and are not sure what is right/wrong or what is true/false. If you want to learn the science behind sugar, you are in the right place!
To understand sugar, we are first going to review some terms we have all (probably) learned in a Biology or Chemistry class. If you never took these classes or you zoned out because it was boring, stay with me, and I promise you, it will be short and sweet!!
What are Carbohydrates?
Macronutrients are nutrients that your body NEEDS to be able to function properly and maintain its structure. (1) They have the prefix macro because they are needed in larger amounts. The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fats.
Carbohydrates are considered the main energy source. (2) We classify carbohydrates into two categories: simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates include monosaccharides and disaccharides, while complex carbohydrates encompass all polysaccharides (starch, fiber, and sugar). Depending on how sugars are connected together, we use prefixes (a word placed before another word) such as mono, di, tri, oligo, ... poly. Why is this important? Well, we will be talking about different types of sugars, and structure is one of the things that helps us differentiate them.
Now, let’s talk about energy. A calorie is a unit of energy. Different carbohydrates provide different amounts of energy. Per 1 gram of carbohydrate, we get 4 calories. (1) This is the energy that our bodies cannot live without!
The specific form of carbohydrates we will be focusing on today is sugars, more specifically, natural, added, and sugar substitutes.
Natural Sugars vs Added Sugars
Natural sugars can be naturally found in fruits and vegetables, nuts, and dairy products. Natural sugars include glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose, galactose, and maltose. (3) These are all simple carbohydrates (monosaccharides and disaccharides).
According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), added sugars are “sugars that are added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), syrups, naturally occurring sugars that are isolated from a whole food and concentrated so that sugar is the primary component (e.g. fruit juice concentrates), and other caloric sweeteners.” (5)
Different names for added sugars:
- Table sugar
- Brown sugar
- Turbinado sugar
- Powdered sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Invert sugar
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Maple sugar
- Agave nectar
- Date sugar
- Brown rice syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Coconut palm sugar
- Malt sugar
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Cane juice
- Can syrup
- Malt sugar
- Malt syrup
- Raw sugar
- Crystalline fructose
- Corn sweetener
- Barbados sugar
- Barley malt
- Beet sugar
- Carob syrup
- Castor sugar
- Demerara sugar
- Golden sugar
- Grape sugar
- Refiner’s syrup
- Sorghum syrup
** also occur naturally
Sugar substitutes are divided into 3 groups: sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, and novel sweeteners. (4) Sugar alcohols are synthetic sweeteners that are frequently used in processed foods. They are known to cause bloating and gas. Artificial sweeteners are chemically-engineered sweeteners that do not contain nutrients. FDA labeled artificial sweeteners as food additives. Novel sweeteners are plant-derived sweeteners and are more similar to natural sugar sources. (4)
Different names of sugar substitutes:
- Acesulfame K
- Allulose (novel)
- Monk fruit (novel)
- Stevia (novel)
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
- Tagatose (novel)
The Best vs. The Worst
Now that we have gone over various different names for sugar and its substitutes, how do we know which one is the best? Well, for starters, know that everything should be consumed in moderation. Just because apples are considered healthy does not mean that we should eat them in excessive amounts. Overconsumption, no matter if the food we are eating is nutritious or not, can lead to weight gain and many chronic diseases.
However, in order for our body to function properly sugar is a NECESSITY. We need it to survive because it provides energy. (6) The question remains: are certain sugars healthier than others?
0 calories ≠ healthy
Although both natural and added sugars are processed the same way in our body, the foods that contain natural sugar also tend to contain certain nutrients and fiber. (6) Added sugars, on the other hand, do not provide any health-promoting nutrients. Many sugar substitutes have ZERO calories and they do not raise blood glucose levels, but the important thing to remember is that 0 calories ≠ healthy. Believe it or not, because of their potency, Splenda (600 times sweeter) and other artificial sweeteners can overstimulate sugar receptors and limit tolerance for food that is more complex; additionally, some studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners can disrupt the balance and reduce the number of good bacteria (7, 8)
What about people struggling with diabetes? According to Harvard Health, it is preferred for people who suffer from diabetes to eat foods that are higher in fructose rather than glucose. This is because fructose does not increase blood glucose or insulin levels. (6)
Grocery Shopping Guide Tips
You are walking around your local grocery store and wondering what to buy and what to eat to fuel your body properly but also to avoid unnecessary sugar. What do you do?
- Avoid processed and refined foods as they are usually full of added sugars and artificial sweeteners (your favorite chips have sugar too!!!)
- Turn to natural sources of sugar, such as whole fruit (bananas, berries, oranges, apples, etc.) rather than buying energy drinks, juices, and sodas
- If you are going for low-calorie sweeteners, choose novel sweeteners as they are plant-derived and are generally regarded as safe, according to the FDA (4)
- Avoid buying dressings as they are full of sugar, sugar substitutes, and other harmful ingredients; instead, make them on your own!
- Know that it is okay to eat sweets once in a while; MODERATION is key!