We know it’s best to avoid added sugars as much as possible, but a question I’m often asked is: What about natural sugars found in foods?
The human body does not differentiate between naturally occurring sugars and those that are added to foods. The metabolism of all carbohydrates follows the same pathway, yielding the core monosaccharides (simple sugars) as the end result. However, this does not necessarily make a cupcake and an apple nutritionally the same. Naturally occurring sugars are the kinds found in all fruits (fresh, frozen, dried, canned in 100% fruit juice), many dairy products (like milk and yogurt), some vegetables (like sweet potatoes and corn), and 100% fruit and vegetable juices. Basically, they are an inherent part of the foods they’re found in—nobody put them there.
Added sugars, on the other hand, are the kinds created or put in during the manufacturing process. They sometimes appear solo in their purest form as the ingredients you use to whip up a batch of cookies (granulated sugar, molasses, brown sugar) or liven up your oatmeal in the morning (honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar). Added sugars also commonly appear in baked goods or packaged foods, under those names and in less familiar forms.
The recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO) is to limit added sugar (no more than 25 grams or 6 teaspoons a day), but this kind of misses the mark as the body does not truly differentiate between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar. Yet the devil is in the details. For example, if you were to pick up a 16oz bottle of all natural apple juice (with no added sugars!), you may think: “Great! No added sugars, that’s better than having the apple-guava smoothie with added coconut sugar!” But, when you compare the 16oz of apple juice (that contains 48g of sugar) versus one apple (containing 19g of sugar), you see that you could eat 2.5 apples for the same amount of sugar, and garner the nutrient benefits of the apple, such as the facts it is low in calories and rich in fiber, vitamin C, antioxidants, flavonoids, and polyphenols.
The confusion comes from the nutrient science aspect of identifying macronutrients. Sugar is a carbohydrate, but you want to also think about what it comes with. Something that is 100% fruit juice (even if you juice it yourself) is lacking fiber, one of the key nutrients that minimizes blood sugar and liver effects of fructose, sucrose, glucose. The best way to approach sugar is to know that it is best consumed in the way it is found in nature, and to also be conscious of your total sugar consumption—of both added and naturally occurring sugars.