It has become popular to say that “sugar is bad for you,” but what exactly is sugar? What are the different types? And can any of it be good for you? Let’s take a closer look.

  • Natural sugars exist in certain foods like fruits, vegetables, or dairy products. Under the umbrella of natural sugars, there is glucose, which is found in starchy vegetables, fructose, found in fruits and vegetables, and lactose, which naturally occurs in dairy products. Sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose that forms table sugar.
  • Added sugars are most often found as sweeteners or flavors in drinks and packaged foods. When most people think of added sugar, they think of cookies or soda, but there can also be added sugar in foods that don’t taste sweet, like salad dressing, bread, and pasta sauce. On food labels, added sugar can go by many different names: agave nectar, barley malt syrup, brown sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, cane sugar, coconut sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, evaporated cane juice, evaporated corn sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt syrup, maltodextrin, maple syrup, molasses, palm sugar, raw sugar, or rice syrup.
  • Artificial sugars. These sugars are man-made in a lab and are most often found in sugar substitutes or sweeteners that claim to be “low calorie” or “zero calorie” while also adding flavor to a specific food item. These include aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, SugarTwin), acesulfame potassium (Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Sugar Twin, Necta Sweet, Equal Saccharin), xylitol (XyloSweet, Lite&Sweet, Xyla, and Global Sweet), and sucralose (Splenda, Equal Sucralose).

I would classify stevia as a natural sweetener or sugar substitute, as it is harvested from the stevia shrub. Monk fruit would also be considered a natural sugar because the taste comes primarily from the fructose, glucose, and mogrosides in it. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol or polyol and should be considered an artificial sweetener.

Body’s response to sugar

At the very basic level, when natural or added sugars are consumed, it triggers the body to create insulin. Over time, if there is a consistent demand for insulin, for example due to repeatedly eating too much sugar, it can place increased pressure on the body and its systems to perform properly and can lead to issues like insulin resistance, weight gain, low energy, increased risk for disease, and other problems. When it comes to artificial sugars specifically, more studies need to be conducted to determine the immediate effects of whether these sugars specifically raise insulin  levels; however, there is some evidence to support that consumption of these artificial sweeteners can lead to insulin resistance in the same way that sugar does.

Furthermore, studies have suggested that sugar affects the reward system in the brain. When you consume sugar, the pleasure system is activated, causing you to crave more sugar in the future. This is where the idea that sugar is addicting comes from.

When it comes to artificial sugars specifically, studies have shown that daily consumption can lead to numerous health issues, including increased risk for disease, obesity, imbalance of the gut microbiome, and more.

Fruit sugar is fine

When it comes to sugar, the largest concern is eating processed food items rather than eating natural fruits and vegetables. In general, it is fine to consume fruit, despite its sugar content, because of the natural sugars. Fruit also contains fiber and other nutrients that we need to be healthy. Having said that, don’t allow fruits to displace vegetable consumption. You should be eating more vegetables than fruit. It is always best to shop organically whenever possible to avoid any harmful additives or pesticides and to also ensure that you are getting the actual nutrient value of the produce.

Role of artificial sweeteners

In an ideal world, there would not be a place for artificial sweeteners in a healthy diet. However, artificial sweeteners can be helpful for people who are transitioning into a healthier lifestyle. For example, if you are used to eating highly processed, sugary foods and drinks, then replacing them with artificial sweeteners in the beginning can be helpful when it comes to building the foundation for your healthy habits. In the long-term, it would be best to stick with natural sugars and limit the amount of artificial sweeteners in your diet.

Healthy sweet tooth options

The healthiest way to indulge in a sweet tooth is by choosing organic fruits and sweeter vegetables instead of indulging in processed and packaged items. Try Greek yogurt with mixed fruits, homemade granola bites with fruit, or dried fruit chips, preferably made at home using a dehydrator.

If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can use an oven or an air fryer to make baked snacks using organic fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, if you do not have access to any appliances but still have a sweet tooth, the best alternatives are simply eating fruits and vegetables whole.

Furthermore, honey and maple syrup can be good toppings to add a little bit of sweetness to things like fruit, oats, or yogurt. Try to stick with organic options when it comes to honey or maple syrup to ensure you are getting the nutrients and not adding any harmful preservatives to your diet.

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