It’s no secret that the American diet is filled with way too much added sugar, and it’s not doing us any favors. It’s linked to high rates of weight gain and obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, the average American consumes nearly 300 calories per day from added sugars found in foods ranging from baked goods and sugar-sweetened beverages to fruit juice, granola and protein bars. And it’s not that people simply choose to eat heaps of sugar all the time ― given that three out of every four items on supermarket shelves contain added sugar, it’s actually pretty tough to stay away from it.
Fortunately, people may soon have an easier time determining how much added sugar is in their food, thanks to a new Nutrition Facts label going into effect at the start of 2020 that will require companies to list the amount of added sugar (in grams and as a percentage of the Daily Value) in any packaged food. Some companies have already started phasing in the new label.
The FDA says this change will allow people to make more informed food choices. That said, many people still don’t have a solid understanding of whether the natural sugars in fruits, vegetables and some other foods are really any different or better for us than sugars that are added during processing. Let’s clear up some of the confusion.
Are the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables better for us than added sugars?
According to the experts, the answer is a resounding yes. Dana Hunnes, a registered dietitian and adjunct assistant professor in the department of community health sciences at UCLA, helps us understand why.
“If we eat a beet or if we eat an apple, we are also eating all the other nutrients encompassed in that food, including water, fats and proteins,” she said. “When we take the sugar out of context, that sugar is devoid of all the heath-enhancing properties of the original food it was sourced from, losing all of its nutrient properties except for the sweetness and the calories.”
“There is not much difference between sugar that is present in food naturally and the one that is added. However, how it’s presented to the body, what comes with it, and the quantity is much, much, much different.”
To understand how natural sugars are healthier than added sugars, it’s important to understand what added sugars are and how they’re made. Many types of sugar, like rice sugar and agave nectar, are technically natural sugars, but they’re extracted and presented in very high concentrations and then added to foods where they’re very easy to digest and absorb. In these cases, they act as added sugar because they’ve been processed and refined and are out of their natural context, Hunnes explained. When we say “natural sugars,” we’re referring to the sugars that naturally occur in fruits, vegetables, dairy and other foods.
“There is not much difference between sugar that is present in food naturally and the one that is added,” said Avigdor Arad, director of the Mount Sinai PhysioLab and instructor of endocrinology, diabetes and bone disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “However, how it’s presented to the body, what comes with it, and the quantity is much, much, much different.”
Arad explained that the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables never exist in such a high concentration as added sugars, and they’re always accompanied by healthy components like fiber, which slows the absorption of natural sugars into the blood. Meanwhile, added sugars are devoid of nutrients, they’re more concentrated and they hit our bloodstream far more quickly.
Added sugar “sends our system out of whack because we have to produce a lot of insulin, and we know chronic elevation of insulin in the blood can really cause damage,” Arad said.
Even though fruits and vegetables are healthy, should we be more mindful of their sugar content?
Active, healthy people without blood-glucose issues can eat as many vegetables and almost as much fruit as they want without worrying about the sugar content, Hunnes said. Most people would simply have a hard time eating the volume of fruit and vegetables necessary to go overboard on sugar.
But because the natural sugar in fruits and vegetables can be a concern for people with diabetes, Arad said he urges patients with diabetes to limit their fruit and vegetable consumption if it’s affecting their blood sugar. Otherwise he thinks fruit and vegetables are healthy foods people shouldn’t shy away from.
“The last thing I want people to do is to avoid fruit,” he said.
Rekha Kumar, an endocrinologist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, is more cautious. She says fruit is healthy and she wants her patients to eat more of it, but is concerned that America is going through an obesity and diabetes epidemic and the average diet is very high in carbohydrates ― a category of foods that includes fruit and vegetables.
“In our current predicament, I would tell people to be mindful of sugar from fruit,” she said. “I don’t think anything should be consumed in abundance.”
Beware of the labels on fruit and vegetable juices
Just because fruits and vegetables are healthy doesn’t mean the same applies to juices made of those fruits and vegetables. The main reason juice isn’t all that healthy is that fiber is removed when creating juice, simultaneously eliminating fiber’s protective benefits, such as blood sugar regulation.
“It’s the fiber, among other things, that significantly slows down the rate of digestion and absorption of the sugars,” Hunnes said. “At this point, when there is no fiber, our body reacts to it very similarly as it would to sugar-water.”
You also need to be aware of added sugars, as many bottles of juice at your supermarket contain additional sweeteners.
What about dried fruit?
Experts say dried fruit is a better option than many other sugary foods because it contains fiber and other healthy nutrients, but processing dried fruit removes the fruit’s water content, making the final product less filling than whole fruit, which can lead to overeating, Kumar explained. Think about it ― you’re far more likely to mindlessly eat 10 dried apricots in one sitting than you are to eat 10 whole apricots.
How much sugar is too much?
The Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest consuming less than 10% of your daily calories from added sugars, which would fall somewhere around 50 grams of added sugars per day for a 2,000 calorie diet.
“Scientific data shows that it is difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugar,” states an FDA webpage about the upcoming Nutrition Facts label changes.
Other guidelines are stricter. The American Heart Association, for example, recommends women consume no more than 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams, of added sugar per day, and men stay under 9 teaspoons, or 38 grams, per day. Arad feels that people should stay away from added sugar completely.
“Once people are aware and understand the consequences of consuming too much added sugar, I hope they can see that number on that nutrition label and avoid any products that have any added sugar,” Arad said. “The body is not meant to handle such a high quantity of sugar and I don’t think you should.”