Sugar is a type of carbohydrate found naturally in fruits and vegetables, and added in processed foods such as doughnuts, cookies, sodas and juices. In a 2003-2010 survey, the average American consumed 14% of their total calorie intake from added sugars. Some went as high as a quarter of overall calories1,2! As a nation, we are addicted to sugar. There are plenty of reasons to minimize consumption of added sugars. There are also many myths and misconceptions when it comes to sugar and overall health.
1. Added Sugars are Bad, Natural Sugars are Good
We know fruits are generally nutritious, while sodas and cookies are not. Sugar refers to a type of carbohydrate. Sometimes, it’s found naturally, and other times, it’s added to improve taste. All sugar is the same whether it’s found in an apple or a cookie. The issue isn’t really the sugar itself, rather the overall composition of the food.
Let’s compare an apple to a cookie. One apple contains 95 calories while one cookie has about 86 (nutrition label below is for two cookies). Both options have similar calorie contents and the apple even has more sugar (18 grams vs. 7 grams for 1 cookie).
If you look at the overall quality of the apple and cookie, you’ll notice the apple has many other nutrients which are not present in the cookie. The apple has potassium, calcium, and fiber (in addition to other nutrients) while the cookie is mostly sugar and fat. The fiber in the apple increases satiety. This makes binging on sugary apples much more difficult than eating an entire container of cookies.
Added sugar and sugars found naturally are the same. While you should generally avoid consuming foods with excessive amounts of added sugar, you need to look at a food’s overall profile to evaluate its nutritional value. On its own, a lot of sugar is not necessarily bad. When combined with a lack of nutrients, intake of sugary foods should be minimized.
2. Eliminate All Sugar
Sugar has a bad reputation in the nutrition world. While too much sugar is definitely bad, it can be helpful in certain situations. For example, post workout carbohydrate intake speeds up glycogen replenishment and increases protein synthesis. Put together, consuming sugar after a workout speeds up the recovery process3.
Sugar (in the form of a sports drink) also improves strength and endurance activities in certain circumstances. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking 3-8 fluid ounces of a carbohydrate/electrolyte drink (such as Gatorade or Powerade) every 15-20 minutes when exercise lasts longer than an hour4.
3. Brown Sugar is Healthy
Sugar is made from the sugar cane or beet. To make raw sugar, the juice is extracted and plant matter is removed. The juice is then boiled down and put through a centrifuge, yielding sugar crystals. Separating the sugar from the juice takes multiple passes through a centrifuge. The first few passes yield unrefined or brown sugar. After extra passes, the sugar eventually comes out white5.
Brown sugar does contain slightly more minerals than white sugar. Neither form has significant amounts of fiber. Eating a large amount of white or brown sugar does not increase satiety and most likely leads to more eating. Brown sugar might be marginally better because of its mineral content, but not by much. One danger is increasing consumption of brown sugar with the belief it’s a healthy alternative to other sweeteners. Over consumption of any sugar leads to many negative health consequences.
4. Fruit Juice is Unhealthy
Fruit juice is sometimes lumped into the same category as soda. Research has shown fruit juice has a spot in a healthy diet and is not associated with many of the negative issues facing soda. With the exception of fiber, calcium, and vitamin C, a serving of fruit juice is comparable in nutrients to a whole fruit. Fruit juice also contains many phytonutrients found in whole fruit including carotenoids, lutein, carotene, lycopene, phenolic acids, stilbenes, and flavonoids6.
In a study looking at the effects of fruit juice consumption on body weight in children, researchers found no link between 100% fruit juice consumption and increased body weight7. In another study, researchers concluded consumers of 100% fruit juice had an increased adherence to dietary guidelines and a better overall diet quality than non-consumers8.
Fruit juice is high in sugar, however, 100% fruit juice does contain many of the same nutrients found in whole fruit. When choosing fruit juice, opt for products labeled as 100% fruit juice with no added sugar.
5. High Fructose Corn Syrup is the Worst Form of Sugar
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a form of sugar derived from corn starch. It was first introduced in the 1970s. It’s gotten a fairly bad reputation over the years as the food industry relies on it for much of its sugar supply9. Many studies have looked at the effects of HFCS on health. One study found a daily intake of 50 grams of carbohydrates from either honey, sucrose, or HFCS for 14 days resulted in similar effects on glycemia, fat metabolism, and inflammation10.
Another study found no difference in systemic inflammation between individuals drinking beverages sweetened with either fructose, HFCS, or glucose11. In a final study, researchers looked at the effects of sucrose and HFCS on blood pressure, body weight, and cholesterol. Researchers found no differences in any parameters between the sucrose and HFCS groups. HFCS is neither better nor worse than regular sugar. You should attempt to minimize consumption of foods high in any type of added sugar (and low in nutrients) including HFCS.
The Bottom Line
As Americans, we eat too much sugar. In moderation, sugar can be part of a healthy lifestyle, especially when used in conjunction with exercise. The 2015-2020 dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 10% of your overall calorie intake from added sugar12. There is currently no recommendation for total sugar intake. When reducing consumption, focus on foods high in sugar but low in nutrients. If you must indulge in high sugar/low nutrient options, do so before, during, and after exercise to get the most benefits out of these otherwise useless, empty calories.
- Know Your Limit for Added Sugars. (2016, September 27).
- Corliss, J. (2016, November 30). Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease.
- Aragon, A., & Schoenfeld, B. (2013). Nutrient Timing Revisited. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 65-89. doi:10.1201/b16307-5
- Simpson, M. R., & Howard, T. (2011). Selecting and Effectively Using Hydration for Fitness.
- Just what is brown sugar? (2011, October 03).
- Clemens, R., & Drewnowski, A. (2015). Squeezing Fact from Fiction about 100% Fruit Juice. Advances in Nutrition, 6(2). doi:10.3945/an.114.007328
- Oneil, C. E., & Nicklas, T. A. (2008). A Review of the Relationship Between 100% Fruit Juice Consumption and Weight in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 2(4), 315-354. doi:10.1177/1559827608317277
- O’Neil, C. E., & Nicklas, T. A. (2012). 100% Orange juice consumption is associated with better diet quality, improved nutrient adequacy, decreased risk for obesity, and improved biomarkers of health in adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003-2006. Nutrition Journal, 11(1). doi:10.1186/1475-2891-11-107
- White, J. S. (2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: What it is and what it ain’t. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88(6). doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.25825b
- Raatz, S. K., & Johnson, L. K. (2015). Consumption of Honey, Sucrose, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup Produces Similar Metabolic Effects in Glucose-Tolerant and -Intolerant Individuals. The Journal of Nutrition, 145(10), 2265-2272. doi:10.3945/jn.115.218016
- Lowndes, J., & Sinnett, S. (2014). The Effect of Normally Consumed Amounts of Sucrose or High Fructose Corn Syrup on Lipid Profiles, Body Composition and Related Parameters in Overweight/Obese Subjects. Nutrients, 6(3), 1128-1144. doi:10.3390/nu6031128
- Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020: Chapter 1 – Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns. (n.d.).