What's the Difference Between Natural and Added Sugars?

By: Lauren Wicks

We took a deep dive into the confusing world of sugar to decipher if our bodies digest the sugars in fruit, honey, maple syrup and other alternative sugars the same way as white sugar.

Photo: Getty/Manuta

Eating too much sugar is a problem—one that most Americans, unfortunately have. But if you've decided to cut back (good job!) you're faced with some choices: Should you swap sugar in your morning bowl of oatmeal for honey, or is that the same thing? Does baking with coconut sugar make a treat healthier? And if you resolve to quit sugar all together, does that include fruit?

Sugar is a pretty hot topic in the nutrition world and many people have strong feelings about which sweeteners to use and how much (or little) to consume.

One of the biggest questions is whether naturally occurring sugars in foods like raspberries, beets, milk or maple syrup are digested the same as table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. We did some research and talked to Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D., Nutrition Editor at EatingWell, and learned the answer isn't as black-and-white as you might think.

"Technically, all the sugar we eat is broken down into glucose in our body and gets processed the same way," Valente says. "Your body essentially processes natural and added sugars in the same way, but there are a few key differences."

Related: A Glossary of Natural Sugars & Added Sugars

Valente says natural sugars—found in foods like whole fruit and dairy products—are being consumed with other essential nutrients. Dairy, for example, also contains protein and calcium, while fruit has fiber and Vitamin C.

Both the protein and fiber help to slow down the digestive process, preventing those blood sugar spikes and dips you might experience after eating a piece of cake or your favorite candy bar, which is likely to have more sugar and fewer other nutrients. Valente says foods containing added sugars typically have a higher overall sugar content than fruit and dairy products, increasing your chances of eating too much and crashing even more.

"If you add a bit of honey to plain oatmeal, you probably won't add as much [as you would get] if you bought a sugary flavored oatmeal packet," Valente says. "Added sugars tend to add up faster, making it easier to eat them quickly—and consume too much."

Related: Here's Why You Should Be Eating Fruit Even Though It Contains Sugar

However, when it comes to natural sweeteners like agave, honey and maple syrup—which don't have fiber or protein to balance them out—your body will likely process them the same as other kinds of added sugar.

"Some sweeteners, like maple syrup and honey, do have mild antioxidants and beneficial health properties," says Valente. But, she cautions, you'd have to eat such large amounts for it to make a difference that the resulting sugar spikes wouldn't be worth it. "If you've banned refined sugars from you diet but eat a lot of maple syrup, honey or coconut sugar, you may not be doing your body any favors."

Related: Are "Natural" Sweeteners Really Any Healthier Than Sugar?

The Bottom Line

Valente says most of us don't consume enough fruits and vegetables—and there are plenty of reasons to consume high-quality dairy on a regular basis—so she's not at all concerned with dairy or fruit-related natural sugar intake.

What we really need to be concerned about is all the added sugars lurking in foods we don't consider "sugary," like salad dressings, bread, condiments and granola bars. And though you may love using maple syrup in baking, it won't turn your brownies into a health food. But that's O.K.—they're brownies after all!

Related: I'm a Dietitian and I Eat Dessert Every Day