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Refined sugar

Downsides, food sources, and how to avoid it

In the last decade, an intense focus has been placed on sugar and its detrimental health effects. This article discusses refined sugar, how it differs from natural sugar, and how to minimize your intake.

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This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts, and fact-checked by experts.
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Last updated on November 26, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on November 17, 2022.

In the last decade, an intense focus has been placed on sugar and its harmful health effects.

Refined sugar intake is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Yet, it’s found in various foods, making it particularly challenging to avoid.

Moreover, you may wonder how refined sugars compare to natural ones and whether they have similar health effects.

This article discusses what refined sugar is, how it differs from natural sugar, and how to minimize your intake.

How is refined sugar made?

Sugar is naturally found in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, nuts, and seeds.

This natural sugar can be extracted to produce the abundant refined sugar in the food supply. Table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are two common examples of refined sugars created this way.

Table sugar

Table sugar, also known as sucrose, is typically extracted from sugar cane plants or sugar beets.

The sugar manufacturing process begins with washing the sugar cane or beets, slicing them, and soaking them in hot water, which allows their sugary juice to be extracted.

The juice is then filtered and turned into a syrup that’s further processed into sugar crystals that are washed, dried, cooled, and packaged into the table sugar found on supermarket shelves.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a type of refined sugar. The corn is milled to make corn starch and then further processed to create corn syrup.

Enzymes are then added, increasing the sugar and fructose content, ultimately making the corn syrup taste sweeter.

The most common type is HFCS 55, which contains 55% fructose and 42% glucose — another kind of sugar. This percentage of fructose is similar to that of table sugar.

These refined sugars are typically used to add flavor to foods but can also act as a preservative in jams and jellies or help foods like pickles and bread ferment. They’re also often used to add bulk to processed foods like soft drinks and ice cream.

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Summary: Refined sugar is made by extracting and processing the sugar naturally found in foods like corn, sugar beets, and sugar cane. This refined sugar is then added to foods for various purposes, including boosting flavor.

Refined sugar has many adverse health effects

Sugars like table sugar and HFCS are added to various foods, including many that you would not suspect contain sugar. Thus, they may sneak into your diet, promoting a range of detrimental health effects.

For instance, consuming large amounts of refined sugar, especially sugary beverages, has consistently been linked to obesity and excess belly fat, a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.

In particular, foods enriched with HFCS may cause you to become resistant to leptin, which signals your body when to eat and when to stop. This may partly explain the link between refined sugar and obesity.

Many studies also associate diets high in added sugars with increased heart disease risk.

Additionally, diets rich in refined sugar are commonly linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, liver disease, and certain types of cancer.

Summary: Refined sugars may increase your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. They’re also linked to a higher likelihood of depression, dementia, liver disease, and certain types of cancer.

Refined vs. natural sugars

For several reasons, refined sugars are generally worse for your health than natural sugars.

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Foods rich in refined sugars are often heavily processed

Refined sugars are typically added to foods and beverages to improve the taste. They’re considered empty calories because they contain no vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, fiber, or other beneficial compounds.

Moreover, refined sugars are commonly added to packaged foods and drinks, such as ice cream, pastries, and soda, all of which tend to be heavily processed.

In addition to being low in nutrients, these processed foods can be rich in salt and added fats, harming your health when consumed in high amounts.

Natural sugars are usually found in nutrient-rich foods

Sugar is naturally found in many foods. Two famous examples include lactose in dairy and fructose in fruit.

From a chemistry perspective, your body breaks down natural and refined sugars into identical molecules, processing both similarly.

However, natural sugars typically occur in foods that provide other beneficial nutrients.

For instance, unlike the fructose in HFCS, the fructose in fruit comes with fiber and a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds.

The fiber helps slow how quickly the sugar enters your bloodstream, reducing your likelihood of blood sugar spikes.

Similarly, lactose in dairy is naturally packaged with protein and varying fat levels, two nutrients also known to help prevent blood sugar spikes.

Moreover, nutrient-rich foods likely contribute more significantly to your daily nutrient needs than foods rich in refined sugars.

Summary: Natural sugars tend to occur in foods rich in fiber, protein, and other health-promoting nutrients and compounds, making them more beneficial than refined sugars.

Not all natural sugars are equally good

Natural sugars are generally considered more beneficial than refined sugars, but this doesn’t hold true in all cases.

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Natural sugars can also be processed in a way that removes virtually all of their fiber and a good portion of their other nutrients. Smoothies and juices are good examples of this.

In their whole form, fruits offer chewing resistance and are loaded with water and fiber.

Blending or juicing them breaks down or removes almost all of their fiber and any chewing resistance, meaning you likely require a more significant portion to feel satisfied.

Blending or juicing also removes some of the natural vitamins and beneficial plant compounds in whole fruits.

Other popular forms of natural sugars include honey and maple syrup. These appear to offer more benefits and slightly more nutrients than refined sugars.

However, they remain low in fiber and rich in sugar and should be consumed only in moderation.

Summary: Natural sugars found in smoothies and juices won’t be as beneficial as in whole foods. Maple syrup and honey are typically viewed as sources of natural sugars but should only be consumed in moderation.

How to avoid refined sugar

Refined sugars are added to many packaged foods. Therefore, checking food labels can be instrumental in reducing the amount of refined sugar in your diet.

A wide array of names can be used to label added sugar. The most common are high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, cane juice, rice syrup, molasses, caramel, and ingredients such as glucose, maltose, or dextrose.

Here are some categories of foods that often harbor refined sugars:

Eating fewer processed foods and opting for whole, minimally processed ones will help reduce the amount of refined sugars in your diet.

You can lower your intake by reducing your use of sweeteners like table sugar, agave syrup, brown sugar, rice syrup, and coconut sugar.

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Summary: Refined sugars are added to many processed foods. Checking food labels and reducing your intake of these foods will help limit the amount of refined sugars in your diet.

Summary

Refined sugar is extracted from natural sugar from sugar cane, sugar beets, or corn. It’s generally added to nutrient-poor, processed foods, which can harm your health when eaten in large quantities.

In contrast, natural sugars are typically found in whole foods. These are naturally rich in protein or fiber, two nutrients that help your body process these sugars more healthily.

They’re also typically rich in vitamins, minerals, and beneficial plant compounds.

That said, not all natural sugars are created equal, and those found in juices, smoothies, and natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup should be consumed in moderation.

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