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Added vs. Natural Sugar: What’s the Deal?

January 8, 2019

Have you noticed some changes to the nutrition labels on some of your favorite packaged foods—the calorie number is bigger, the serving size is more realistic (who eats half a cookie? Come on!), the grams of added sugar are listed, and more? You’re going to be seeing that more and more; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says companies with $10 million or more in sales must have these new labels in place by Jan. 1, 2020; smaller companies have another year after that to comply.

We were especially interested in the listing for added sugars. We all know that reducing sugar is important for good health, since how much of the sweet stuff you eat affects everything from mood, to weight, to risk of cancer and heart disease. Of course, getting rid of all sugar is close to impossible; plus, there’s a big difference between enjoying the occasional sweet treat and guzzling soda all day. Since some healthy foods have naturally occurring sugar (hello fruit, yogurt and vegetables, among others), it’s good to know how much is being added.

But then we hear all the time that it doesn’t matter if you’re eating an apple, a slice of whole-wheat bread or a cupcake, all sugars are the same, your body reacts to them the same way. So why break out the added sugars on the label?

“Our bodies metabolize sugars as sugar, no matter if it’s white sugar or date sugar or maple syrup. But, if you’re eating that date sugar in the form of actual whole dates, you’re getting some fiber and nutrients,” says nutritionist Aynsley Kirshenbaum, creator of a 12-day Sugar Purge program. “Added sugars are things that are added to the product to improve palatability and increase sales. Plain yogurt, for example, has some naturally occurring sugar in the form of lactose, but strawberry yogurt usually has three times as much sugar than plain because they add sugar on top of the strawberry. You’re much better off adding your own strawberries to plain yogurt.” In other words, those foods with naturally occurring sugars are good for you because they also bring nutrients to the party.

“If there is naturally occurring sugar, such as the sugar in fruits, I say go for it,” says registered dietician Nicole Hinckley. “If you want to make something sweeter, such as your morning oatmeal, I would definitely recommend using blueberries or another fruit. Blueberries contain fiber, antioxidants, and so many great vitamins and minerals.”

Another important note on natural sugars: Even though they come in healthy foods, it’s important to eat them strategically to avoid blood sugar spikes.

“A combination of fiber with protein and/or fat will help to stabilize blood sugar,” notes registered dietician Skylar Griggs. “Fruit is a great source of natural sugar, but be sure to balance it out with a healthy protein like yogurt or fat like nuts or seeds.” No wonder yogurt with berries or an apple with almond butter are such classic combos.

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