Can Your Body Tell The Difference Between Natural And Added Sugar?

The sweet truth.


Chandré Davids |

If you’ve ever stood in the grocery store aisle, reading nutrition labels, your eyes searching for the “total sugar”. If you’re trying to lose weight, that “total sugar” number is important in shrinking your waistline. The danger of excess of sugar in your diet can lead to obesity, increase your chances of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But is the sugar in an apple then same as the sugar in a doughnut? And does your body know the difference?

Naturally Occurring Sugar vs Added Sugar

To put it simply, naturally occurring sugar is inherently already in the food. You’ll find natural sweet stuff in fruits, many dairy products, some vegetables (like butternut and sweet potatoes), and 100% fruit and vegetable juices. They are all-natural no man-made sweetness here.

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On the other hand, added sugars are created to put in during the production process. They are sometimes something you add to your coffee, like granulated sugar or it could be something you add to your morning oats, like honey. You’ll also find added sugars in most packaged foods and baked goods. Here, they might appear as just plain ol’ sugar or syrup. Usually, the syrup refers to corn, high-fructose corn syrup or other -“ose” (think dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, and trehalose.) The obvious added-sugar foods are things like pastries, fizzy drinks and chocolates, while the less obvious foods are bread, salad dressings and pasta sauces.

So, Does Your Body Know The Difference?

In terms of their chemical structure natural sugar and added sugar are not that different, so, our bodies can’t really tell the difference. On a molecular level, there are two main kinds of sugar, monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides or single sugar molecules include fructose, galactose, and glucose. These sugars go straight to your bloodstream after you eat them. Disaccharides which are two single molecules linked together like table sugar (glucose + fructose). These get broken down by the liver into single glucose molecules before entering the bloodstream — so they raise your blood sugar just slightly more slowly. So, while the nutritional value of an apple is totally different from a brownie, your body doesn’t distinguish between a molecule of fructose, glucose, sucrose, or other sugar molecules- we digest them all in generally the same way.

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The Bottom Line

Now, that doesn’t mean you should be chowing a whole slab of chocolate or packet of biscuits. Although our bodies can’t tell the difference between the sugars, they do react differently to added sugar compared to naturally occurring sugar. The naturally occurring sugar in fruit is packaged with fibre, water, antioxidants, vitamins, and other nutrients that improve your health — very different from a brownie or fizzy drinks. Imagine choosing between a peach or 100ml of creme soda, both containing 13g of sugar. The fibre (which fizzy drinks don’t have) in the peach will not only aid your gut, but it will also stabilise your blood sugar levels. So, while even though they have the same amount of sugar, the peach won’t spike your sugar levels as quickly and won’t have you crashing after.

Bottom line: sugar is sugar. It’s easier to get more nutritional value and harder to consume excessive amounts of sugar from fruit and veggies, but that’s down to the nutritional value from the rest of the food- not due to the sugar itself.

READ MORE ON: Nutrition Nutrition Advice Sugar