Nov 8, 2022 The Lowdown on Sugar

Everything you need to know about the sweet stuff we love to hate—and hate to love.

We all know that sugar is bad for us—right? Not necessarily. Sugar is not inherently bad, but it is often misunderstood.

“Sugar is essential in the sense that carbohydrates—the main source of energy in our bodies—are made up of sugar/starch that is broken down into glucose,” says Lindsay Whelan, MS, RDN, a clinical dietitian at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Rahway. “That’s our blood sugar, and it’s essential.”

So why the bad rap?

It’s largely because, not only do we consume too much sugar, but the sugar we consume too often comes from sources that have little or no nutritional value—like soda and candy, packaged cookies and cakes, and processed foods with “added sugars”—rather than from nutritious sources, such as whole grains.

“Sugar that comes from a nutritious source can act as quality energy for our bodies,” says Whelan. “When people talk about ‘good’ sugars and ‘bad’ sugars, they are usually referring to the sources of the sugar.”

Choosing the wrong sources of sugar is only part of the problem, however.

The volume of sugar most Americans consume far exceeds recommended amounts. Though the American Heart Association recommends that women have no more than 24 grams (about six teaspoons) and men no more than 36 grams (nine teaspoons), the average American consumes 70 grams of sugar or more a day. Consuming too much and/or the wrong kinds of sugar, including “added sugars,” can cause or contribute to inflammation, weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions.

Whelan encourages everyone to be aware of how much and what kinds of sugar they’re consuming. “People with diabetes should pay even closer attention and monitor their intake more strictly,” she says.

How to Limit Your Intake

In addition to avoiding obvious sources (like candy, sweetened soft drinks, and sweet baked goods), be sure to read food labels, since processed foods are a major source of added sugar. You’ll see sugar listed on labels of things you may not think of as sweet—like bottled salad dressing. Try to skip or limit those foods.

What Is Sugar?

The chemical name for sugar is sucrose, a simple carbohydrate that’s produced naturally in plants, including fruits and vegetables. Sucrose is also the sugar we spoon into our coffee or tea and use in cookie dough and cake batter. Though when we speak of sugar, it’s the white refined sugar, aka “table sugar,” that we’re usually referring to, the fact is that sugars include a number of sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates that are often contained in or added to foods.

The chemical names for these various sugars also end in “-ose.” Fructose, for example, is the natural sugar contained in fruits, while lactose is the sugar found in milk and other dairy products.

While sugar is, of course, used as a sweetener, many foods that contain sugar don’t taste sweet at all. These are carbohydrates that are converted to sugar (glucose) in the body.

“Someone will say to me, ‘I don’t eat sugar,’” says Whelan. “But I say, ‘That’s not possible.’ If you eat a bowl of rice, a potato or a slice of bread, you’re eating sugar. All those foods will be broken down into sugar in the body.”

What Sugar Does in the Body

When people eat whole plant foods—complex carbohydrates like fruits and grains, which also contain fiber and/or starch—the sugar is digested slowly along with other nutrients, providing the body with a steady source of energy. But when sugar is added to foods—such as sweet desserts that contain white flour or other refined carbohydrates—it’s digested quickly, which causes the level of sugar in the blood to rise rapidly, leading to energy spikes and quick crashes.

Though we need sugar for energy, some foods provide this energy better than others.

“You don’t want to have a diet full of sweets and desserts, but you do want to have whole-grain bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, fruits—you need these types of carbohydrates and the foods that will be broken down to sugar in the body to help fuel yourself,” says Whelan.

Types of Sugar

Dietitians often refer to “natural” versus “added” sugar. But the term “natural” can be misleading.

When dietitians talk about natural sugar, they’re referring to sugar that’s naturally occurring in food. A banana, for example, is sweet because it contains natural sugar.

“Foods containing natural sugars can be nutritious and beneficial,” says Whelan. “They have so many other properties—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber. You want to include these in your diet.”

Other foods, including many processed foods, have sugar added to them, mainly for taste; it has little to no nutritional value.

Whether it’s listed on labels as white sugar, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, demerara sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup or another name, it’s still sugar and will act in the body the same way.

What Are "Added Sugars?"

The more processed foods you buy, the more likely you are to encounter added sugars. However, you won’t necessarily see the term “added sugars” on food labels. Sometimes added sugars are just “sugar.” But sometimes, food labels will list them in their ingredients under one of their many names, including:

  • glucose
  • fructose
  • sucrose
  • lactose
  • maltose
  • dextrose
  • agave nectar
  • rice syrup
  • corn syrup
  • molasses

It pays to know sugar’s many names and guises and to look for them on food labels. Remember: regardless of the moniker, sugar by any other name is still sugar.

Smart Snacking

Fruits are a great snack for people with diabetes. “But we suggest that people with diabetes don’t have fruit by itself,” Whelan says. “A good rule of thumb for anyone with diabetes is to always have proteins or another source of fiber to help slow digestion and prevent spikes in blood sugar. Some suggestions:

  • A few berries with some nuts
  • Half a banana with some natural peanut butter
  • Grapes with a slice of low-fat cheese

RWJUH Rahway’s outpatient dietitian can help with nutritional counseling for various medical conditions. A physician referral is required. To learn more, call 732-499-6210.