Are some sugars scarier than others?

Haunted houses, horror movies and hilarious costumes all make Halloween a scary good time. Candy is also a big part of Halloween, which means there’s no better time of year to talk about sugar.

If you read ingredients lists, then you might be familiar with different types of sugar. If you read other parts of food packaging, you may be more familiar with adjectives used to describe certain kinds of sugar – words like “natural,” “added,” “organic” and “raw.” Let’s take a look at each of these terms, what they mean, and whether or not some sugars are scarier than others.

Natural Sugar

Natural sugar can mean a few different things. The word “natural” can be used to refer to the types of sugars found in whole foods, like the sugars in fruit. “Natural” is also used to refer to the types of sugars present in sweeteners like honey and maple syrup. But this distinction doesn’t make a difference when it comes to how our body processes them. That’s because the sugars (fructose and glucose) in honey are no different than those in table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, thus they impact our health in similar ways. This may sound like a trick but it’s actually a treat, compliments of researchers published in the Journal of Nutrition.

Added Sugar

Sugars that are added to foods and drinks are called, as you might guess, “added sugars.” Natural sugars found in fruit are not added sugars, but other natural sources like honey and maple syrup are. It’s recommended that we limit added sugars in our diet, mostly because eating a diet too high in added sugars makes it harder to get all the nutrients we need without eating excessive calories. Updated Nutrition Facts labels list the amount of added sugars on a line below “Total Sugars.” By reading and comparing labels, you can stay informed about how much added sugar is in your favorite foods.

Organic Sugar

When you see the USDA Organic label on food packaging, it means that a product meets the Department of Agriculture’s criteria for being certified as organic. Any food that is labeled as such must meet certain production and labeling requirements. But what does the term organic mean for sugars? Nutritionally speaking: nothing. The “organic” label is not an indicator of a food being “healthier” or more nutritious – it is simply one type of food production method. Organic sugar provides the same number of calories as non-organic varieties. Added sugars can be organic sugars. And when it comes to added sugar, it’s more important to eat less than the recommended amount than it is to eat only organic sources.

Raw Sugar

Raw sugar has a rustic sound and look to it, so you might assume that it’s “healthier” due to its darker color, larger crystals and name. Raw sugar (which might also be called turbinado sugar) gets its faint brown color from the naturally-occurring molasses found in sugar cane and sugar beets. The molasses is only partially removed in raw sugars, whereas it is fully removed from white sugars. While raw sugar is less processed than other sugars, that doesn’t make it healthier. We digest it in exactly the same way that we do other types of sugars.

What this all boils down to is the fact that added sugar is added sugar. Regardless of its name or source, the amount of added sugars we eat should make up less than 10 percent of our calories.

But it’s Halloween and many people take a hiatus from their regular eating habits to indulge in more sugary treats than usual. And that’s okay! But when the fun is over and the candy is gone, these helpful tips can get you back on track to building a healthy eating pattern that is lower in added sugars:

  • Primarily drink water, non- or low-fat milk and 100% juice. Other options include unsweetened coffee or tea, nutrient-dense beverages and drinks sweetened with low- or no-calorie sweeteners.
  • Focus on whole fruits. Choose a wide variety of colors of fruits. When choosing canned, dried or frozen options, select those that are unsweetened or packed in its own juice or water.
  • Make half your grains whole grains. Look for whole grain information declared on the front of pack and in the ingredients list. Use the Nutrition Facts label to choose varieties that contain higher fiber or lower added sugars.

This blog includes contribution from Allison Webster, PhD, RD.