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Spoon piled high with a stack of white sugar cubes

Understanding the Different Kinds of Sugar (and How to Reduce Your Intake)

There’s sugar in apples, doughnuts and Snapple — but sugars aren’t all the same.

If you feel like sugar is in everything these days, you aren’t far from the truth.  It’s estimated that the average adult takes in around 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day, well above what experts recommend.

With sugar everywhere, it’s important to know what to consume and how to limit sugar in your diet. To help, Jenalee Richner, RD, LDN, at McConnell Heart Health Center, shares five facts you need to know about sugar.

Burlap bags with different types of sugar spilling out on a wood surface

1. It’s Important to Know One Sugar from Another

There are four main types of sugar, and none of them are the same.

Natural sugar: This is the sugar you find in fruits, milk and maple syrup. This is the healthiest type of sugar you can consume.

Unrefined sugar: Found in raw honey, date sugar and several varieties of cane sugar, unrefined sugar is the second-best sugar to consume.

Refined sugar: Richner defines these as sugars “processed to the point of losing nutrients that the food would otherwise contain.” As you might expect, this loss of nutrients makes it less healthy than your previous two options.

Artificial sugars: This consists of sugars like sucralose, aspartame, saccharine and others. Essentially any synthetic sugar substitute that does not contain calories is an artificial sugar. These provide the least nutritional value.

Closeup of a variety of donuts with chocolate, sprinkles and powdered sugar on top

2. You Should Answer One Question When Selecting Sugar

When deciding if you should consume a sugar, you should ask yourself, “How refined is this and does it offer any nutritional value?”

Richner says, “You should choose natural sugars that provide additional benefits, such as fructose from an apple since this contains fiber, vitamins and minerals.” If you find yourself considering sugar sources that are refined or artificial, these are almost certainly sugars you should avoid.

Spoon full of honey

3. Natural Sugar Isn’t as Healthy as You Might Think

OK, so maybe you only think natural sugar is healthy because we spent several paragraphs saying exactly that.

So, let us clarify. Out of all the different types of sugar, it’s best if you choose sugar from a natural source. However, choosing natural sugar doesn’t mean that you can forgo moderation.

So yes, natural sugar is more healthy than other kinds of sugar, but as Richner explains, “A tablespoon of honey and a tablespoon of table sugar are still both sugar.”

Person putting sugar into cup of coffee sitting on a table

4. Reduce Sugar in the Way that Works Best for You

According to Richner, “Everyone is different. Some people do well going cold turkey; others need to gradually reduce intake over time.”

Ultimately you need to decide what works best for you. While some might be able to reduce sugars cold turkey, others struggle and need to transition. For example, if you regularly put a tablespoon of sugar in your coffee, try reducing it to two teaspoons, then to one before eliminating it entirely.

Closeup of a nutrition label on a food package

5. Always Check Your Nutrition Labels

If you haven’t checked your nutrition labels before, you will be shocked at the places sugar can hide.

For example, Bertolli tomato & basil sauce contains 11 grams of sugar per half-cup. According to the American Heart Association, this is one-third of the recommended daily sugar intake for men and half of the recommended intake for women. And let’s be honest, most people use more than a half-cup.

This brings us to our final point: Most of your sugar intake doesn’t come from the sugar you sprinkle in your coffee or dash on your oatmeal; most of the sugar you eat is hiding right in your food.

If you want extra help, join us for one of our nutrition classes at OhioHealth!