No ingredient has received a worse rap in the past decade than sugar. While fat used to be persona non grata in nutrition circles, now sugar is on the outs, as science continues to connect its overconsumption with health problems like chronic inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
However, like any ingredient, the real story about sugar is a lot more nuanced than you might think. And many misconceptions about sugar affect how people eat and live — to the point where people are afraid to eat fruit because they think it’s bad for them.
To clear up some of the confusion, we’re going to bust some myths and lay down some sugar facts. You might find the truth is a bit sweeter than you’d expect.
Related: 8 diets to fit your body
Myth 1: Sugar Is “Addictive”
Cutting back on added sugar can be incredibly challenging, in part because of the natural dopamine release we get after consuming sugary foods. But your brain also releases dopamine after sex, listening to music, or other rewarding, pleasurable experiences. This doesn’t make it addictive—substance misuse is more complex than just brain chemistry, and requires meeting several other criteria. (The entire concept of food or sugar “addiction” has been called into question repeatedly by the scientific community.) Even if it feels difficult to cut back on sugar, it would be an unfair stretch to call it an addiction.
Myth 2: All Sugar Is Unnecessary
Keto devotees will tell you that your body can get by on just fat and protein alone. But that’s not true. Glucose (sugar created by breaking down carbohydrates) is the primary source of energy for your cells — particularly your brain, which uses half of your body’s sugar energy. Your muscles also use glycogen (stored glucose) to fuel your workouts.
That doesn’t mean you have to eat sugary foods to fuel yourself. The body can make glucose from long-chain carbohydrates, such as those you find in whole-grain bread. Foods with these complex carbohydrates typically also have fibre, vitamins, and minerals, which help support healthy blood sugar levels and support overall nutrition.
Myth 3: All Sugars Are Created Equal
Time for a high school chemistry refresher: Foods with sugar usually contain one or several different types of sugar molecules, each with slightly different chemical structures. These sugar molecules are broadly classified as monosaccharides or “simple” sugars (aka having one molecule) and disaccharides (aka having two molecules). Simple sugars include glucose and fructose (fruit sugar), while common disaccharides include lactose (sugar in milk) and sucrose (table sugar). These types of sugar do not have the same chemical structure as each other and are also metabolised in slightly different ways. Fructose, for example, doesn’t have as intense an effect on your blood sugar levels as other sugars, but if eaten in excess might contribute to fatty liver disease.
Where your body can’t tell the difference, however, is between natural sugars (those occurring naturally in food) and added sugars (sweeteners added to food, like table sugar, honey, and corn syrup). Both natural and added sugars are all processed as sugar in the body. But what’s different about the sugar in fruit versus that in a chocolate bar is that the former contains significant amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Added sugar, meanwhile, contributes no extra nutrients. (Plus, practically no one is going overboard on sugar from fruit.) That’s why the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other organizations recommend people get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars.
Myth 4: Brown Sugar Is Rich in Minerals
Not quite. Technically, brown sugar does have some trace amounts of nutrients thanks to the molasses used to make it brown and give it a unique flavour. Despite that, brown sugar is generally considered to be nutritionally equivalent to white sugar.
You might also assume that coconut sugar, whole cane sugar, or raw cane sugar are healthier choices. While they do contain minimal amounts of minerals and vitamins — coconut sugar, for example, may have some potassium and calcium — you’d have to eat several pounds of them to get any benefit. (Making them not exactly the best sources of these nutrients.) They differ from refined sugar in taste, but otherwise have pretty similar calorie and sugar counts as the traditional granulated stuff.
Myth 5: Sugar-Free Products Don’t Contain Sugar
To protect consumers, terms such as low-sugar or sugar-free are defined by law and must be pretty precise. Contrary to the common assumption that sugar-free means that the product contains no sugar, however, one serving can contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar. Of course, these are very small amounts, but they can still add up to a few grams of sugar per day.
Additionally, “no added sugar” means that no sugar (or sugar-containing ingredient, like honey or corn syrup) was added to the product. But it might still contain natural sugars from other ingredients, like wheat or oats or fruit. There’s nothing wrong with that—just important to know the difference, especially if you’re trying to track your sugar intake.
Looking for a low-sugar breakfast option? Our Protein Pancakes are a delicious and healthy way to start the day.
Myth 6: Sugar Substitutes Are Always Harmful
Sugar substitutes, like artificial sweeteners and other products, provide the taste of sugar with fewer calories and little impact on your blood sugar, making them popular in diet foods. However, these products have a mixed reputation. While they’re not known to cause cancer (despite some worries in the ‘90s), preliminary research suggests that artificial sweeteners may cause insulin resistance. Other sugar substitutes, like sugar alcohols, can make people bloated or gassy. And some, like monk fruit, have a unique aftertaste that some people might not care for.
That said, sugar substitutes, including artificial sweeteners, are generally considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And per the American Heart Association, they can be helpful tools for many people to reach their health goals without giving up their favorite foods. So it’s really up to your taste (literally) to decide whether or not these sugar alternatives are right for you.
Myth 7: Sugar Causes Diseases Like Diabetes
The truth is a bit more complex than health influencers make it seem. Type 2 diabetes — which is typically what people mean when they say “diabetes” — happens when the body no longer makes enough insulin to properly manage blood sugar levels. While people claim that eating too much sugar causes diabetes, the science is still unclear. There are a variety of risk factors, including genetics, race and ethnicity, having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), weight, and lack of exercise, which can affect a person’s chances at developing diabetes. Note how sugar consumption was not on that list!
That said, experts believe that excess sugar consumption can cause weight gain, which may increase a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. But again, weight is just one risk factor of several — and weight itself is also influenced by many things beyond diet, including genetics, environment, gender, and pre-existing health conditions.
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