To some people this can be a scary word. I’m here to tell you that it shouldn’t be. As some of you know, I’m a registered dietitian. My full time job is in school nutrition but I also have a part time gig leading grocery store tours. I want to address some of the commonly asked questions I get on these tours in a new Nutrition with Kristin series.
The first topic we’re going to talk about is sugar. I just received this question this weekend “Are added sugars digested differently than natural sugars?” This is one of the more popular topics on tours. People are concerned about the amount of sugar they are consuming. Our society as a whole is consuming more processed foods which means consuming more added sugars. Many people think that the sugar that is added to products is digested differently than sugar that is naturally occurring.
Let’s bring it back to the basics to get started. There are three single sugar units that are important in nutrition: glucose, fructose, and galactose. These single sugar units are naturally found in foods. They can bond with each other to form new sugar units. For example, a glucose and a fructose together becomes sucrose which is white table sugar. When galactose and glucose bind together, they become lactose which is commonly found in milk and dairy products. Two glucose molecules that have bonded together are called maltose which can be added to products to increase sweetness and improve shelf life.
When it comes to digestion of these sugar units, enzymes break the sugars down into single units so they can be absorbed into the blood. Glucose and galactose are quickly absorbed and moved to the liver while it takes a little while longer for fructose to make it to the liver. For that reason, fructose will not raise your blood sugar as quickly. So with that being said, the sugar units are digested differently because they make it to the liver in different ways.
Now as I mentioned, these sugars are naturally occurring in foods. However, manufacturers can also add them to foods to keep products moist, act as a preservative, and make foods taste sweet. Your body cannot tell the difference between sugars that are naturally occurring in foods and sugars that have been added during processing. It will digest naturally occurring sugars and added sugars the exact same way.
Nutrition-wise, foods that contain added sugars are much different than foods in which they naturally occur. Foods with naturally occurring sugar normally have more nutrients which means they have more nutrition per serving. Foods with added sugars often have high amounts of calories and few nutrients. For example, an orange will have some naturally occurring sugar but it also has a lot of fiber, water, and vitamins and is lower in calories. Compare this to an orange soft drink that mainly has a ton of added sugar and water which means it is high in calories and low in nutrients.
With that being said, your body will not know the difference between the sugars in the examples I listed. However, your body will notice how many more calories and fewer nutrients the orange soft drink has compared to the fruit. My recommendation is to incorporate all of these foods into your diet in a healthy way. If you cut something out, you may be depriving yourself of those foods which could cause you to eat an excessive amount of them. Listen to what your body wants and allow yourself to have those things it craves. Just try to balance those choices out by also consuming less processed foods that have fewer added sugars.
Resource: Blake, Joan Salge., Kathy D. Munoz, and Stella Volpe. Nutrition: From Science to You. Pearson, 2016.