Overview of Sugar Part 1 – Definition & Sources

Overview of Sugar Part 1 – Definition & Sources

Sugar is addictive, bad for you in large quantities and makes everything it touches delicious. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate found naturally in some foods such as fruits and vegetables, and added to other foods such as candy bars, sodas and cookies. Like all good things, Americans tend to ignore moderation and overindulge leading to profoundly negative health effects. (Sugar Part 2 – Effects, Recommendations & Lowering Strategies)

What is sugar?

There are a variety of different sugars and sweeteners; the most widely known one being sucrose or table sugar. Sugar is a product of photosynthesis (plants convert sunlight into chemical energy) and is typically made from sugar cane or sugar beets. Other forms of sugar include fructose (found in fruit), lactose (found in milk and dairy), glucose (sugar found in the bloodstream) and high fructose corn syrup (mainly found in processed foods)1.

Sugar is a nutritive sweetener (a sweetener containing calories as opposed to calorie-free or sugar free sweeteners) mainly used to enhance flavor in processed foods but also maintains freshness and quality, preserves jams and jellies, provides fermentation for bread and adds bulk to ice cream. Sugar is also found naturally in a wide variety of foods2.

The body uses sugar for energy, but because we have the ability to make it from other sources, it is a non-essential nutrient.

Sources of Sugar: Natural vs. Added Sugar

Sugar is found in a variety of foods and mainly associated with processed snacks and sweetened beverages. It is also found in healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables in varying amounts. If sugar is a common ingredient in both fruits and sodas, why should you eat more of one while avoiding the other?

Sugar on its own isn’t the problem. The problem is over consuming the wrong food products. Eating a moderate amount of sugar is not typically a concern; continuously relying on foods high in sugar and low in other nutrients is. The argument of natural versus added sugar is not about the sugar itself, it’s about the entire makeup of a particular food. The difference between an apple and doughnut isn’t the sugar, it’s the other nutrients or lack thereof.

Natural Sugar. Natural sugar is found in many foods which have not been processed; this sugar isn’t added in during processing; it’s always been there (photosynthesis). A good example of foods containing natural sugar are fruits and vegetables. For example, one large apple contains 116 calories, the majority of which comes from sugar: 23 grams or 92 calories.

An apple has quite a bit of sugar, however sugar is not the entire picture. An apple also contains five grams of fiber, 17% of your daily vitamin C needs, 6% of vitamin K, 5% of vitamin b6, 7% of potassium and 4% of manganese. These are all nutrients the body needs to perform critical functions3.

Added Sugar. Some foods are engineered solely to be sweet and satisfying. These foods (sweetened beverages, doughnuts, cookies, candy) are typically loaded with sugar and little else. Added sugar is not naturally found in the food; it’s added during processing. A few examples include: candy, chocolatey goodies, candy bars, sweet tea and sodas.

A Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Doughnut has 200 calories of which 10 grams or 40 calories are sugar. The doughnut actually has less sugar than the apple. If you continue to go down the list of nutrients however, you’ll start to understand why an apple is regarded as the healthier option. The doughnut contains one gram of fiber, 2% of your daily vitamin C needs and 0% of vitamin K, B6, potassium and manganese.

Apple3 Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Doughnut4
Calories  116 200
Sugar  23 grams/92 calories  10 grams/40 calories
Fiber  5 grams  1 gram
Vitamin C 17%  2%
Vitamin K  6%  0%
Vitamin B6  5%  0%
Potassium  7%  0%
Manganese  4%  0%


Apple vs. Doughnut. In the comparison above, the apple has more sugar than the doughnut yet the apple is considered a healthier option. The issue isn’t the sugar content, it’s the entire makeup of the food. An important ingredient in healthy food is fiber. Fiber increases satiety, stabilizes blood sugar and plays an important role in hunger5, 6.

The apple contains plenty of fiber, the doughnut does not. One apple keeps you full for a longer period of time than one doughnut. You might eat two or even three doughnuts in a single sitting; eating multiple apples is probably a lot more difficult. In addition to sugar, the apple also contains micronutrients, the doughnut does not. Even if you were to eat more than one apple at a time, you would be increasing your intake of these essential nutrients. All you get from the doughnut is sugar.

Foods with high amounts of added sugars are typically void of important nutrients; they are empty calories. Cookies, sugar sweetened beverages and doughnuts are loaded with sugar but do not offer any essential nutrients. This does not mean sugar found naturally is good for you, however foods containing natural sugar are also loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals, making them better options.

The Bottom Line

Sugar is sugar. It doesn’t matter if photosynthesis or a factory added the sugar. Too much sugar has a detrimental effect on health regardless of the source. However, it is much harder to overindulge in foods high in natural sugars such as fruits than it is to drink copious amounts of soda or eat a tall stack of pancakes. Americans’ sugar intake is high due to the overconsumption of processed food, not an overindulgence of fruit and vegetables. In part two, we’ll take a look at the health effects of too much dietary sugar, daily sugar recommendations, and ways to reduce sugar intake.


  1. Gearing, M. E. (n.d.). Natural and Added Sugars: Two Sides of the Same Coin. Retrieved from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/natural-and-added-sugars-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/
  2. Wax, E. (2015, April 25). Sweeteners – sugars. Retrieved from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002444.htm
  3. Nutrition Facts – Apples, raw, with skin. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1809/2
  4. Nutrition Facts – Krispy Kreme yeast doughnut: Glazed. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/foods-from-krispy-kreme/6689/2
  5. Pan, A. (2011). Effects of carbohydrates on satiety: Differences between liquid and solid food. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 14(4), 385-390. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21519237
  6. Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet. (2015, September 22). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983

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