There is a lot of varying information and differing opinions about sugars on the internet. In this post, a Registered Dietitian breaks explains the difference between added sugar vs natural sugar. Is one better for you than the other? Does the body react differently to them? What about natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey? Keep reading to find out!

Disclaimer: This post was developed in partnership with the Canadian Sugar Institute, however all opinions are genuine and my own.

graphic that reads "added sugar vs natural sugar: what's the difference?"

What is Sugar?

Sugars are a type of carbohydrate. Dietary carbohydrates include sugars, starches and fibres.

Sugars (make note of the s at the end) describes all mono- and disaccharides (carbohydrates made up of one or two sugar molecules, respectively).

Although term sugar (without an s at the end) is commonly used by the public when referring to sugars, sugar is actually the name used to describe the disaccharide sucrose specifically.

Sugars can be found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and milk products, or added to foods and beverages.

strawberries in a carton which are an example of natural sugar

Added Sugars vs Natural Sugars:

Our daily intake of sugars typically consists of both naturally-occurring and added sugars. Let’s take a look at the difference between added sugars and natural sugars.

Naturally-occurring sugars:

Sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruits, vegetables and plain milk products.

For example, a medium apple contains 19g of sugar, which all occurs naturally in the fruit. A cup of 2% dairy milk contains 13g of sugar, which also all occurs naturally. None of it has been added to the products.

Added sugars:

The term added sugars refer to sugars (e.g. glucose, fructose, sucrose) and syrups (e.g. honey, high fructose corn syrup) that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared.

For example, a homemade chocolate chip cookie might contain 17g of sugars from the sugar and chocolate chips added to the recipe, therefore these are considered added sugars.

Some foods, like a blueberry muffin, may contain naturally-occurring and added sugars. The sugars from the blueberries occur naturally, whereas the maple syrup in the recipe is an added sugar.

stack of chocolate chip cookies which are an example of food containing added sugar

Free sugars:

There is another term to consider. “Free sugars” is an emerging term that appears in recent government reports and dietary guidelines.

It is defined by the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization as sugars that are added to foods by the manufacturers or consumers, as well as naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.

Are Natural Sugars Better than Added Sugars?

Now let’s get to the nitty gritty. There is a lot of confusing messages about added sugar vs natural sugar here on the internet. One misconception I see a lot is that the body reacts differently to naturally-occurring sugars than it does to added sugars.

To set the record straight, the body metabolizes and uses the sugar (sucrose) found in an apple the same way that it metabolizes the sugar (sucrose) in a cookie. And in one instance, the sugar occurs naturally, and in the other it has been added.

Whether it occurs naturally (from fruits or vegetables) or is added to foods, our bodies use sucrose as a carbohydrate energy source. Any excess carbohydrate or sugars consumed is stored for future use as glycogen or fat, regardless of where it comes from.

That being said, sources of naturally-occurring sugar also tend to offer important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fibre that our bodies require and greatly benefit from, so of course I encourage you to increase your intake of these foods.

stack of oat flour pancakes topped with berries and maple syrup

What About Natural Sweeteners?

“Natural sweeteners” like honey, agave, and maple syrup are often considered “healthier” choices compared to things like table sugar. However, when you use them in baked goods, on your oatmeal, in your coffee, they still are sources of added sugars.

And again, the body metabolizes the sugars found in these natural sweeteners the same way that it does regular old sugar. Some people will claim that natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey contain more minerals and antioxidants than table sugar.

While this may be true, you’d have to consume so much of these sweeteners (I’m talking cups and cups of them) in order to consume any beneficial amounts of minerals or antioxidants that it would likely negate these benefits anyways, and you’d probably feel pretty sick!

My advice? Stick to what you like. If you like sugar in your coffee, no need to swap it for honey. Using maple syrup in your baked goods is no different the same as using white sugar or brown sugar.

woman holding a bowl of oats

To Sum it Up:

Sugars are found naturally in some foods like fruit, vegetables and milk, and they are added to some other foods for sweetening and many other purposes.

When it comes to added sugar vs natural sugar, the body treats them the same. However, naturally occurring sugars often come packaged with important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fibre.

Meanwhile, while a small amount of added sugar can improve the flavour of many nutritious foods like whole grains, breakfast cereals, or yogurts. 

For more evidence-based information about sugars, check out the Canadian Sugar Institute. To learn more information about sugars on Nutrition Facts tables and Ingredients Lists, check out this post.

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Disclaimer: This post was developed in partnership with the Canadian Sugar Institute, however all opinions are genuine and my own.