In the past decade, intensive attention has been paid to sugar and the harmful effects on health.

Refined sugar intake is linked to conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Yet it is found in various foods, making it particularly difficult to avoid.

In addition, you may wonder how refined sugars relate to natural ones, and whether they have similar health effects.

This article discusses what refined sugar is, how it differs from natural sugar and how you can minimize your intake.

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Sugar occurs naturally in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy products, grains, and even nuts and seeds.

This natural sugar can be extracted to produce the refined sugar that is currently so abundant in the food supply. Table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are two common examples of refined sugars made in this way.

Table sugar

Table sugar, also known as sucrose, is usually extracted from sugar cane plants or sugar beets.

The sugar production process begins with washing the sugar cane or beets, slicing and soaking in hot water, allowing their sugar juice to be extracted.

The juice is then filtered and converted into a syrup that is further processed into sugar crystals that are washed, dried, cooled and packaged in the table sugar on the supermarket shelves (1).

High-fructose glucose syrup (HFCS)

High-fructose glucose syrup (HFCS) is a type of refined sugar. The corn is first ground to make corn starch and then further processed to make corn syrup (1).

Enzymes are then added, which increases the amount of sugar fructose, which ultimately makes the corn syrup taste sweeter.

The most common type is HFCS 55, which contains 55% fructose and 42% glucose – another type of sugar. This percentage of fructose is comparable to that of table sugar (2).

These refined sugars are usually used to add flavor to foods, but can also act as preservatives in jams and jellies or help ferment foods such as pickles and bread. They are also often used to add bulk to processed foods such as soft drinks and ice cream.

Summary

Refined sugar is made by extracting and processing the sugar that occurs naturally in foods such as corn, sugar beet and sugar cane. This refined sugar is then added to foods for various purposes, including enhancing the taste.

Sugars such as table sugar and HFCS are added to various foods, including many that you don't think it contains sugar. This way they can sneak into your diet and promote a range of harmful health effects.

Consuming large amounts of refined sugar, especially in the form of sugary drinks, has been consistently associated with obesity and excess belly fat, a risk factor for conditions such as diabetes and heart disease (3, 4, 5).

In particular, foods enriched with HFCS can make you resistant to leptin, a hormone that tells your body when to eat and when to stop. This may partly explain the relationship between refined sugar and obesity (6).

Many studies also associate diets with many added sugars with an increased risk of heart disease (7).

Moreover, diets rich in refined sugar are often linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, liver disease and certain cancers (8, 9, 10, 11).

Summary

Refined sugars can increase your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They are also linked to a higher risk of depression, dementia, liver disease and certain cancers.

For various reasons, refined sugars are generally worse for your health than natural sugars.

Foods that are rich in refined sugars are often heavily processed

Refined sugars are usually added to foods and beverages to improve taste. They are considered empty calories because they contain virtually no vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, fibers or other useful substances.

In addition, refined sugars are usually added to packaged foods and beverages, such as ice cream, cakes, and soft drinks, all of which are often heavily processed.

In addition to being low in nutrients, these processed foods can be rich in salt and added fats, both of which can harm your health when consumed in large quantities (12, 13, 14).

Natural sugars usually occur in foods that are rich in nutrients

Sugar occurs naturally in many foods. Two popular examples are lactose in dairy and fructose in fruit.

Chemically, your body breaks down natural and refined sugars into identical molecules, which both process in the same way (15).

However, natural sugars usually occur in foods that offer other useful nutrients.

In contrast to the fructose in HFCS, for example, the fructose in fruit is supplied with fiber and a variety of vitamins, minerals and other useful substances.

The fiber helps slow down how quickly sugar enters your bloodstream, reducing your chance of blood sugar peaks (16, 17).

Similarly, lactose in dairy products is naturally packaged with proteins and different levels of fat, two nutrients that are also known to help prevent blood sugar spikes (18, 19, 20).

In addition, foods rich in nutrients are likely to make a greater contribution to your daily nutritional needs than foods rich in refined sugars.

Summary

Natural sugars usually occur in foods that are rich in fiber, proteins, and other health-promoting nutrients and compounds, making them more beneficial than refined sugars.

Although natural sugars are generally considered to be more favorable than refined sugars, this does not apply in all cases.

Natural sugars can also be processed in a way that removes almost all of their fibers and a large proportion of their other nutrients. Smoothies and juices are good examples of this.

Fruit in its entire form offers resistance to chewing and is full of water and fiber.

By mixing or pressing them, almost all fiber is broken down or removed, as well as any chewing resistance, which means that you probably need a larger part to be satisfied (21, 22).

Blending or juice also makes some of the vitamins and beneficial plant substances that naturally occur in whole fruits (21, 23).

Other popular forms of natural sugars are honey and maple syrup. These seem to offer more benefits and slightly more nutrients than refined sugars.

However, they remain low in fiber and rich in sugar and may only be consumed in moderation (24, 25, 26, 27).

Summary

Natural sugars in smoothies and juices will not be as beneficial as those in whole foods. Maple syrup and honey are usually seen as sources of natural sugars, but should only be consumed in moderation.

Refined sugars are added to many packaged foods. Therefore, checking food labels can play a role in reducing the amount of refined sugar in your diet.

A wide range of names can be used to label added sugar. The most common are corn syrup with a lot of fructose, cane sugar, cane juice, rice syrup, molasses, caramel and most ingredients that end with -osesuch as glucose, maltose or dextrose.

Here are some categories of foods that often contain refined sugars:

  • drinks: soft drinks, sports drinks, special coffee drinks, energy drinks, vitamin water, some fruit drinks, etc.
  • Breakfast foods: muesli, granola, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, etc. purchased at the store
  • Sweets and pastries: chocolate bars, candy, cake, ice cream, croissants, some types of bread, pastries, etc.
  • Canned goods: baked beans, canned fruit and vegetables, etc.
  • Bread spread: fruit puree, jam, nut paste, spreads, etc.
  • Dietary food: low-fat yogurt, low-fat peanut butter, low-fat sauces, etc.
  • sauces: ketchup, salad dressings, pasta sauces, etc.
  • Ready-made meals: pizza, frozen meals, mac and cheese, etc.

Eating less of these processed foods and opting for whole, minimally processed foods instead will help reduce the amount of refined sugars in your diet.

You can further reduce your intake by reducing the use of sweeteners such as table sugar, agave syrup, brown sugar, rice syrup and coconut sugar.

Summary

Refined sugars are added to many processed foods. By checking food labels and reducing your intake of these foods, you can limit the amount of refined sugars in your diet.

Refined sugar is obtained by extracting natural sugar from foods such as sugar cane, sugar beet or corn. It is generally added to low-nutrient, processed foods that can harm your health if they are eaten in large quantities.

Natural sugars, on the other hand, are usually found in whole foods. These are naturally rich in protein or fiber, two nutrients that help your body process these sugars in a healthier way.

They are also usually rich in vitamins, minerals and useful plant substances.

That said, not all natural sugars are made equal, and those found in juices, smoothies and natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup should be consumed sparingly.

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