What Are Refined Sugars? Natural vs. Refined Sugars

Refined sugars are those that have been processed, as opposed to the natural sugars found in fruit and milk.
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Americans are not strangers to refined sugar.

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But eating too many foods with refined sugars, like pastries and sweet cereals, is linked to lead to myriad health problems, including weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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While some people opt to follow a no-sugar diet for various reasons, most would benefit from simply cutting back on foods with refined sugar. Your body doesn't need any refined sugar to function, and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugars to 100 to 150 calories per day (6 and 9 teaspoons, respectively).

In order to limit your intake of refined sugar, you'll need to understand what it is and where to find it. So let's break down the different kinds of sugar found in food.

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Natural vs. Refined Sugars

Curious what refined sugar means?

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Refined sugars are those that have been processed, such as cane sugar, as opposed to the natural sugars found in fruit and milk.

The most common refined sugar is table sugar, or sucrose, but there are also powdered sugars, syrups and natural processed sugars.

In order to make refined sugar, the original product, which comes from either sugar cane or sugar beets, is processed to remove impurities and color, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. The sugar is then softened and separated to yield the white, pure sugar recognized as table sugar.

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While most of us know basic table sugar that you'd add to coffee or tea, there are a number of different types of refined sugars.

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Examples of Refined Sugar

1. Granulated Sugar

Granulated sugar is a common type of refined sugar that's often used in coffee and tea, in baking and found in most homes. Granulated sugar can be used to sweeten beverages and is added to sauces and marinades.

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2. Natural Processed Sugars

While often positioned as healthier, sweeteners like agave, honey and maple syrup are considered "natural processed sugars." When eaten in excess, they can have the same negative health effects as standard table sugar, per Oregon State University.

Still, these "natural processed sugars" have to be refined to be added into other products, so they're not the same kind of natural sugar you'd find in, say, an apple.

Tip

In order to avoid this type of sugar, compare the amount of sugar between juices and watch out for anything above a certain range. You should also read the ingredients on the product's label to ensure that there are no added sugars sneaking in.

3. Powdered Sugar

Powdered sugar, or confectioner's sugar, is another type of refined sugar that also tends to be a pantry staple. This type of sugar has a much smoother texture than other types of refined sugars.

It's commonly used in icings and similar dessert toppings because it mixes easily and creates a smooth product. It's also the type you might see coating a doughnut because its fine texture helps it stick to food surfaces.

4. High-Fructose Corn Syrup

There's a lot of controversy surrounding high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS); some claim it's better than granulated sugar, while others claim it's worse.

Either way, HFCS is refined sugar, so you'll want to limit how much of it you include in your diet, per the Mayo Clinic. High-fructose corn syrup is chemically similar to table sugar and is commonly found in sodas and fruit-flavored beverages.

Examples of Natural Sugars

When it comes to sugar, you'll want to stick to the type that's naturally found in food and isn't processed and added to foods during the manufacturing process. You'll find naturally occurring sugar in the following foods, per the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center:

  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • grains
  • dairy

The natural sugar found in milk and bananas provide our bodies' main source of energy, and they also contain various amounts of vitamins and minerals that help keep your body running smoothly. So, consider natural sources of sugar the healthiest sugar.

The Glycemic Index Scale

The glycemic index is a scale that rates how quickly a given carbohydrate causes blood sugar to rise.

The faster that blood sugar rises, the faster that insulin is released. Insulin is a hormone that removes sugars from the blood. In general, refined carbohydrates, including sugars, rate much higher on the glycemic index than unprocessed complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruit or vegetables.

The glycemic index (GI) can be broken down into three separate categories of "low," "medium" and "high," according to the Mayo Clinic.

Foods that rank low on the glycemic index have a score of 55 or less; medium-ranking foods on the glycemic index rank between 56 and 69; and foods that have a ranking on the glycemic index rank 70 or higher.

Examples of foods that rank low include most fruits, 100-percent stone-ground, whole-wheat bread, rolled or steel-cut oatmeal and legumes.

Foods that rank medium on the GI include quick oats, rye bread, brown rice and couscous. Foods that rank high on the GI include white bread, white rice, rice cakes, popcorn, as well as macaroni and cheese.

Glycemic Index Scale: What the Numbers Mean

  • Low GI: 1 to 55
  • Medium GI: 56 to 69
  • High GI: 70 and higher

Sugars and the Glycemic Index

Sucrose, also known as table sugar, has a glycemic index of 63, according to the Linus Pauling Institute.

The following GI chart shows the values for a number of sugars, including the brown sugar glycemic index, table sugar glycemic index, white sugar glycemic index, cane sugar glycemic index, molasses glycemic index, maple syrup glycemic index and fructose glycemic index.

Sugar Glycemic Index Chart

Type of Sugar

Glycemic Index (GI)

Glucose

100

Brown Sugar

64

Table Sugar (sucrose or refined white sugar)

63

Honey

58

Blackstrap Molasses

55

Maple Syrup

54

Cane Sugar

50

Fructose

25

Source: Linus Pauling Institute

Many other foods that contain little to no sugar, however, have a much higher glycemic index than pure sugar.

Oddly enough, you cannot guess or assume to know the glycemic index of a food based on the amount of sugar it contains or how sweet you think it takes.

For example, a baked potato has a glycemic index of 111, which is much higher than, say, jelly beans, which have a glycemic index of 78, per the Linus Pauling Institute.

GI Values of Sugary Foods

Foods that contain refined sugars can have unpredictable glycemic indexes.

The Linus Pauling Institute notes that doughnuts rank at 76 and jellybeans at 78. On the other hand, banana cake made with sugar ranks at 47, while banana cake made without sugar ranks at 55, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

One brand of soft drink has a glycemic index of 63, while a name-brand sports drink comes in at 78. While both of these beverages are made with refined sugar, the sports drink, which has the higher GI, actually has a lower sugar content.

Glycemic Load

The glycemic index doesn't tell the whole story. The GI fails to illustrate how high your blood sugar could go when you actually eat the food, per Harvard Health Publishing.

To understand a food's complete effect on blood sugar, you need to know both how quickly it makes glucose enter the bloodstream and how much glucose per serving it can deliver.

Here's where the glycemic load comes in, and offers a more accurate depiction of a food's impact on your blood sugar.

The glycemic load of a food is the measure of the glycemic index multiplied by the total number of carbohydrate grams per serving. The result is divided by 100.

Because of this equation, foods that may rank high on the glycemic index can have a relatively low glycemic load, as long as the number of carbohydrates per serving is small. By controlling your total carb intake, you can control your glycemic load and your blood sugar levels.

For example: Watermelon, has a high glycemic index of 80. But a serving of watermelon has only a few carbohydrates, so its glycemic load comes out to 5.

Moral of the story? You can't judge a food by its glycemic index.

If you did, you'd miss out on a lot of important nutrients, considering healthy foods like pumpkins, parsnips and many other vegetables have high GIs.

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How to Avoid Refined Sugar

The good news: Sugar only causes health issues when it's consumed in excess, per a November 2016 issue of the European Journal of Nutrition. It's not necessary to fully cut out refined sugars, but it will be helpful to greatly reduce your intake. Here's how.

1. Read Labels

To eat less refined sugar, you'll want to read nutrition labels. Nutrition labels now include the total amount of sugar as well as the total amount of added sugar (aka refined sugar), per the FDA. This is a good place to start.

It's especially important to keep an eye out for the refined sugar hiding in plain sight. The following terms represent different types of refined sugar, per Harvard Health Publishing:

  • Agave nectar
  • Brown sugar
  • Cane crystals
  • Cane sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Crystalline fructose
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Malt sugar
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltose
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose

2. Be Mindful of Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates, also known as simple carbs, contain refined sugar. These foods, which include white flour and bread, pasta, cookies and many cereals, have been stripped of the naturally occurring fiber and nutrients that are found in unrefined carbs, per the AHA.

Refined carbs are considered "processed" and so it shouldn't come as a surprise that they often contain refined sugar, too.

The body quickly digests these simple carbs and sends glucose into the bloodstream quickly. Conversely, complex or unrefined carbs, which include foods like whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes, are digested slowly and provide the body with sustained amounts of energy it needs to function, per the AHA. Prioritize unrefined carbs to avoid the negative effects of refined sugars.

3. Cut Back on Liquid Calories

Sodas and fruit juices are standard sources of refined sugar. Swap these beverages for water or fruit and vegetable juices of which you know the ingredients.

4. Choose Natural Sources of Sweetness

When your sweet tooth is being loud, satisfy it with naturally occurring sugars, which you'll find in foods like fruit and milk.

Avocado- and banana-based "nice creams" are some of our favorite alternatives to standard, sugar-packed ice creams.

5. Pick Full-Fat Versions of Your Favorite Foods

While you may think you're doing your body a favor by buying low-fat foods, these products often contain added sugar to make up for what's lost in the fat department.

This is exemplified in a January 2016 comparison in ​Nutrition & Diabetes​, which found that there's often more sugar in the low-fat (that is, reduced-calorie, light, low-fat) and non-fat versions of food than regular items. In many cases, that full-fat yogurt is going to contain fewer added sugars than its low-fat counterpart. Read the label to be sure.

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