What is the Difference Between Sugar from Whole Foods and Free Sugar?
Have you ever wondered about the sweetness coming from refined free white sugar versus natural sugar from dates being same or different?
In principle sugar is all natural when coming from whole food sources such as:
Evaporated cane-sugar juice which is jaggery or
Palm sugar or
Coconut sugar or
any sweet dried fruits such as dates, raisins, figs etc or
any fresh fruits like apple, banana, watermelon or
wheat, milk, rice and various starchy vegetables like potatoes, beetroot etc.
The refined sugar is usually white granular sugar coming from processing of cane-sugar juice or white powder sugar from processing of beetroot juice or corn syrup from corn. Foods like honey are kind of in the middle of natural sugar and refined sugar.
The human body does not have a specific mechanism to distinguish between free sugars (like added refined sugars in beverages) and naturally occurring sugars found in whole foods. When you consume sugars, whether they are added to processed foods or are naturally present in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, the body breaks them down into glucose and fructose for energy.
The way body processes sugars is in following steps:
Digestion: When you eat foods containing sugars, your digestive system breaks them down into their basic components, such as glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Absorption: These sugar molecules are then absorbed into the bloodstream through the walls of the small intestine. Whether the sugar comes from a soda, tea, coffee (added sugar) or apple, banana, papaya (naturally occurring sugar), it is eventually absorbed in the same way.
Blood Sugar Regulation: After absorption, the body regulates blood sugar levels by releasing insulin from the pancreas. The goal is to maintain blood sugar within a narrow range for optimal health.
Metabolism: Once in the bloodstream, glucose is used by cells for energy. Any excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. If glycogen stores are full, excess glucose is converted into fat for long-term storage.
While the body processes all sugars similarly, there is a significant difference between consuming sugars from whole foods or the added sugars at these blood sugar regulation and metabolism steps.
Sugar that is naturally occurring in whole foods is not a matter of health concern. That includes sugar in fruits and starchy vegetables, as well as whole or minimally processed carbohydrates like semi-brown rice and whole grain flour. Sugar in dairy products like milk and cheese is also good. Foods with natural sugars often contain fibre and micronutrients like vitamins & minerals that provide additional health benefits. The fibre in whole foods can slow down the absorption of sugar, preventing rapid spikes in blood sugar levels and drops that can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes.
On the other hand, added sugars, such as those found in sugary beverages, processed foods, and candies, are often devoid of these beneficial nutrients and can lead to a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. It means you are going to experience sugar spikes resulting in body unable to use insulin effectively and if that happens regularly it can contribute to various health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart diseases.
As per WHO guideline, adults and children should reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. For a 2000 calories diet of an adult man, this will be 200 calories or 50 grams of free sugars (12 teaspoons of sugar, about 4g sugar per teasoon). A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day can provide additional health benefits.
Cookies, candies, baked treats, traditional sweets and a variety of store bought sauces are sugar-based foods that contain almost all or in some cases more than the recommended daily amount of added sugar. One serving of candy bar or a traditional sweet or a cake slice can easily contain around 25-30 grams of added sugar. It is important to know what is going to happen to your body when you reach out for such foods and keep them as a special treat only and not for every day. Eating these foods regularly leads to weight gain and other associated health problems.
To make informed dietary choices, it's essential to read food labels and be aware of the sources of sugar in the product and whether there are any added sugars.
Many health organizations such as WHO recommend limiting the consumption of added sugars while emphasizing whole, unprocessed foods rich in naturally occurring sugars for better overall health.
The best way to ensure that you are eating sugar in a healthy way is to eat mostly whole foods.
Try to consume lean proteins with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, lentils and seeds, which contain a mix of different nutrients that digest more slowly and keep blood glucose levels stable. Eating whole foods will help you manage weight in a healthier way without worrying about health problems coming from added sugar in your diet.