Why Good Sugar vs. Bad Sugar Misses the Point

People used to think the worst thing sugar did was rot your teeth. But now, after years of scientific evidence linking it with increased risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease, it’s easy to see that too much sugar isn’t so sweet for your health.

We all love having a hero and a bad guy, though — so when people learned they should cut back on sweet treats, the national conversation turned into a good sugar vs. bad sugar rule book.

“You can’t eat a slice of cake, but you can eat all the fruit you want.”

“You can’t put sugar in your tea, but you can add honey.”

“You can eat the good kind of sugar, but not the bad kind.”

The “eat this, not that” argument misses the mark, said Helen Long, R.D., a registered dietitian at Winchester Hospital in Winchester, Massachusetts. It’s not so much about good vs. bad as it is natural vs. added, she said. And even then, it’s about balance — not restriction.

“Everything has to be in moderation, and you can still overdo it regardless of what type of sugar you eat,” said Long

Natural vs. Added Sugars

Sugars come in sneaky places. Categorized as carbohydrates, sugar can take the form of fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (dairy sugar) and sucrose (table sugar). While the first two are what you’d call sugars naturally found in food, sucrose gets added to foods to sweeten them.

It can be hard to tell the difference between natural and added sugars because they’re lumped together on the FDA food label. But by 2020, those labels will change to highlight added sugars as a separate line item allowing consumers to compare products for added sugars.

“Natural sugars are more nourishing for the body because they have more vitamins and fiber, and added sugars are more for pleasure,” she said. “But all sugars are sources of carbohydrates providing energy to our body and we need to consume all of them in moderation.”

What About Honey and Agave Nectar?

If you think you get a pass for swapping out table sugar for natural alternatives like honey or agave nectar, think again.

“Once it’s passed your lips, there’s really no difference whatsoever,” said Long. “A tablespoon of honey contains 17 grams of carbohydrates, while a tablespoon of table sugar has 13 grams, so you’re not really reducing your calorie intake by doing that, and the health benefits are minimal.”

Instead, she recommends opting for less sweetness overall, natural or otherwise. So if that cake recipe calls for a cup of sugar, don’t rush to replace it with honey or agave assuming it is healthier. Serve lower sugar desserts such as fresh berries and melons.

Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

If you can’t do without a sweet fix in your coffee or tea, try stevia leaf extract. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, stevia has up to 30 times the sweetening power of table sugar with fewer risks than other sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose.

“The question mark on all artificial sweeteners is their safety,” Long pointed out. “But the one that seems to be the safest according to the current research is stevia.”

Got a Juicer? Watch Your Sugar

With home juicing on the rise, Long also advises caution.

“Juicing has some benefits,” she said, “but it’s not nearly as healthy as eating a big salad and fresh fruit because it takes all the fiber away and tends to concentrate the carbohydrates and the natural sugars more intensely. If you drink a glass of fruit juice made from seven fruits, for example, that’s a lot of natural sugars. Plus, without the fiber, you don’t get the feeling of fullness.”

Instead, try juicing with more vegetables, like carrots and spinach. These tend to have less sugar than fruits and they are packed with nutrients and are lower in calories.

Practice Moderation

With all the sneaky sources of natural and added sugars on the market, what’s a well-meaning eater to do? The USDA recommends spending less than 10 percent of your calories on added sugars, but it’s hard to keep count.

Long recommends not focusing so much on the numbers or worrying about good sugar vs. bad sugar and instead practicing moderation.

“You don’t have to give up everything, even sweet treats,” she said. “But if you use sugar in moderation and keep it a small percentage of your diet, then you’ll be less likely to be overweight and a healthier person overall.”

Want to talk to a nutritionist and design a customized plan that helps you eat better? Meet with our registered dietitians near you to get started.


*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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