Sugar isn’t great for you. That fact has been made incredibly clear to us in the past few years. But on the heels of the FDA’s announcement that nutrition labels will soon call out added sugar, it’s an even bigger topic than usual. While you already know it’s a good idea to try to avoid added sugar, what about sugar that’s naturally occurring in healthy foods like fruits?
While they’re both sugar, naturally occurring sugars are those that are present in foods like fruits and vegetables, Jessica Cording, an R.D. based in New York City. Naturally occurring sugars include fructose, glucose, lactose, and more. Added sugars, on the other hand, are table sugar (AKA sucrose, which is a combination of fructose and glucose) and sweeteners that are added to foods.
Seemingly healthier sweeteners like honey, agave syrup, and maple syrup are added sugars as well. They’re added to food for flavor, so swapping out your table sugar for honey really isn’t making all that much of a difference when it comes to your body.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which give Americans advice on healthy eating and influence many federal and nutrition programs, suggest that we get no more than 10 percent of our daily calories from added sugars. “I honestly think that 10 percent is still pretty high and would encourage people to reduce their added-sugar intake where possible and prioritize foods that are naturally sweet—fruits, vegetables like sweet potatoes, etc.—and look to spices like cinnamon to add flavor as well,” says Cording.
What about how your body reacts to sugar?
Alissa Rumsey, R.D. and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that your body would process added and naturally occurring sugars the same if you were to isolate the sugar. However, food containing naturally occurring sugar often has other nutrients that impact how your body breaks it down.
For example, an apple contains naturally occurring sugar, but it also has fiber, which slows digestion. Your body will experience less of a blood-sugar spike after you eat an apple than if you had, say, a soda. (Even better if you add in a healthy fat like peanut butter, which can further slow digestion). For another example, the protein in yogurt, milk, and other dairy products that contain lactose can help your body take more time to process the sugar.
“This doesn’t mean that you can eat all you want of natural sugars. You still need to have portion control,” Rumsey says. “One serving of fruit is a single piece of fruit or about one cup. People should stick to one serving of fruit at a time and two to three servings per day max.” She also advises opting for whole fruits over fruit juices to really maximize the nutrients you’re getting.
Beth Warren, R.D.N., founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life With Real Food, agrees. “Excess [amounts] of both types of sugar in the liver can cause health problems, including elevated triglyceride levels and fatty liver”.
Clearly, fruits are healthier for you than baked goods. But if you want to try to be the healthiest you can when it comes to your sugar intake—whether it’s added or naturally occurring—Cording recommends having it within a balanced meal or snack that has some protein and/or fat to help keep your blood sugar more stable.