Why all sugar isn’t evil

Sugar high.
Sugar high.
Image: Reuters/Pichi Chuang
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Sugar is easy to find in most of the things you eat—if you’re familiar with the more than 50 aliases it uses.

Sometimes, it has more familiar names like sucrose, glucose, and fructose, but it also disguises itself as malt, nectar, and cane syrup.

“At the end of the day, whatever the source of the sugar…once it’s inside your body, it’s going to be digested pretty similarly,” Suzanne Piscopo, a nutritionist at the University of Malta and the president of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, said. Each of these forms of sugar are broken down to form the same compound: glucose. The hormone insulin guides glucose into our cells, where they use it to make energy.

Ordinarily, our blood should contain a balance of glucose and insulin as we break down our food. But sometimes, what we eat causes our blood sugar to spike. If we don’t use the extra sugar quickly, like we would through exercise, this extra glucose can be added to our fat storage, causing us to gain weight, and can put added stress on other organs in our body. Spiking your blood sugar every now and then won’t hurt you, but in the long run it can cause diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease.

But sugar is still a vital part of our diets. Our bodies function best when we get a slow, steady stream of energy from sugar, rather than a spike. The best way to get this long-burning fuel? Foods like whole fruits, which contain sugar in the form of fructose, but have it less accessible than in processed sweets.

“When you are having a whole fruit, the fruit sugar is still bound inside the cells,” Piscopo said. “That means that when you are digesting that fruit, it takes much longer for the sugar to be broken down.” Ultimately, the cell walls in whole raw fruit act like additional packaging your body needs to work through, which delays the release of sugar into our blood streams, Piscopo said. The result is a constant stream of energy and insulin that can be sustained over hours, as opposed to a fleeting sugar high.

Even naturally occurring sugars can cause our insulin levels to rise, though. Piscopo explained that juicing fruit makes its sugar more accessible, which can lead to high levels of blood sugar like we get from eating a candy bar. Additionally, there’s no functional difference between the sugars that appear to be less-processed. Even the so-called raw brown sugar has been through at least some refining to convert it to its crystalized form, and our bodies use it just like they use white sugars. The only difference between these brown sugars, which include things like honey and molasses, is that there’s a little extra fiber that takes a little longer to break down, but not long enough to achieve the same slow-release as eating a whole fruit.