Do you worry about the amount of sugar that creeps into your diet? Our Head of Nutrition, Mallory Gonzales, MS, RD, gets down to the sticky business of putting sugar in its place.
We’ve all been taught that sugar is bad for us. It rots our teeth, spikes our blood sugar levels, and makes us crave even more of the sweet stuff. As a nutritionist, I see many clients who feel really, really bad about their sugar habits, and long to shake the hold it has over them. But in my experience, guilt and fear are not great motivators for improving diet. Information and understanding work much better to empower people to make good food choices. So let’s unpack some of the myths around sugar and get a clearer picture of how it affects us.
What we talk about when we talk about sugar
When you think of the word sugar, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? The white (or maybe brown) granulated substance that dissolves easily in your coffee or whips up with butter to make delicious cakes or cookies? This is the highly refined form of sugar called sucrose: processed in manufacturing facilities, then sold at your local store. But there are other forms of sugar, such as the sugar in fruit (fructose) or in milk (lactose). Although gram for gram they contain the same number of calories, these three different sweet options are not equal. Your body treats them in different ways, so it’s great to know what role each of them plays.
Refined vs. natural: what’s the difference?
First, let’s look at sucrose - refined sugar. Sucrose is half glucose and half fructose and it is extracted from sugar cane and sugar beets. This is the familiar white stuff that is commonly and often sneakily added to foods and beverages for additional sweetness. But the fact that it originates in plants doesn’t mean it’s a natural food. When our bodies metabolize this manufactured sugar, we can break it down and absorb its energy very fast, causing a spike and subsequent fall in blood sugar. Furthermore, we are always left wanting more: Because all the other nutrients have been stripped away during the refining process, there’s nothing to fill us up. That’s why you’ll often hear sugar referred to as ‘empty calories’.
So what about sugars in their natural form, in fruit or milk? Turns out that your stomach treats them quite differently. Fruit has a lot of fiber in it, which is a big deal when it comes to how it is digested. When you eat the whole fruit, even if it’s chopped or blended, the fiber travels undigested along with the sugar and expands in your stomach, creating a feeling of satiety. Fiber has been shown to help regulate blood sugar, allowing your body to absorb the energy from fructose in a much more gradual and controlled way than with refined sugar. Fruit also contains vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and water: vital nutrients that are simply nourishing. When it comes to the sugar found in milk, lactose, it also gives a slower energy release than refined sugar, and comes with the added benefit of calcium.
Feeding those cravings
The food industry does its best to give us all a sweet tooth. Refined sugar is added to all sorts of products: Not just the usual suspects like soda and candy, but also ‘healthy’ options like yogurt, cereal bars and dried fruit, and even salty staples like pasta sauce and salad dressings. Although added sugar does give you an energy boost, it all comes from those ’empty calories’, with no accompanying nutrients. It also goes quickly into the blood as blood sugar, where it triggers an insulin release. In turn, high levels of insulin can lead to insulin resistance and other metabolic disorders, as well as weight gain, particularly fat around the middle, where it does the most harm to our organs.
If it’s so bad for us, why might manufacturers be tempted to add extra sugar where it’s not really needed? Simple: Sugar and sweetness trigger appetite, so when sugar is added to an ingredient list we tend to eat more than we should - another reason why limiting your intake of added sugar is very important to weight control. Just reminding yourself that refined sugar has this potentially addictive quality can make a big difference, allowing you to recognize the sugar cravings when they strike, and take back control of your appetite.
Sweetness without guilt
Sweet things can taste amazing: there’s no reason to feel guilty about enjoying them. But if you feel your sugar habit has got a little out of hand, just don’t go looking for sweetness in all the wrong places. Try to limit processed foods, and keep added sugar in its proper place, in desserts and celebratory treats. Watch out for sneaky alternative forms of sugar: The brown rice syrup, fructose or coconut sugar in your protein bar may sound natural, but in fact, these are also refined forms of sugar and count as added sugars.. Calories from added sugar should be no more than 10% of your daily total - that’s about 200 calories in a 2000 calorie diet. The American Heart Association recommends even less - 100 calories for women and 150 for men. What does that mean in practice? A small cookie, a cup of flavored cereal or ½ cup of vanilla ice cream each contain about 100 calories from added sugar.
The good news is, there is no upper limit on natural sugars from fruits and veggies. In fact, it’s great to focus on getting 2-3 servings of fruit per day. As far as I’m concerned, fruit is the original and best sweet treat! Fructose from fruits has the sweetest taste compared to lactose or glucose, but the least impact on your blood sugar. (Pretty great, right?) It satisfies sugar cravings without leaving you wanting more. The naturally-occurring sugars in fruits are accompanied by nutrients that assist in thousands of chemical reactions in the body, slow down carbohydrate metabolism, protect against oxidative damage, and provide a substantial form of energy.
Sugar and kencko
If you are a regular kencko user, or thinking about trying it, you might want to know a little bit more about the sugars in our products. For a start, we don’t add any refined sugars, of any kind - you only get the fructose that was in the fruits to begin with. In our fruit and vegetable smoothies, we include all the fiber from the whole fruits and veggies, so you get the benefits of that slow, smooth release of energy. Each single-serving smoothie contains around 80 calories and 3 grams of fiber; it has the same nutritional effect as eating about 2.5 cups of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Next time you’re hankering for something sweet, shake up a kencko smoothie, bite into a crisp apple, get creative with some other fruit-centric snack. There’s no shortage of ways to stick it to sucrose while still satisfying your sweet tooth.