Diet ResearchHealthy LifestyleNutrition

Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar

The Difference Between Processed Sugar and Natural Sugar

Added sugar vs. natural sugar, there’s a big difference for your health. Over the last few decades there’s been a lot of sugar-bashing going on, but not all sugar is the same. It’s important to distinguish between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar as each has a very different effect on overall human health. Sugar is a naturally occurring substance in foods, and is the preferred fuel source of the human body. Natural sugar is any sugar which is found in the whole food before it has been processed. The sugar in an orange or a banana is natural sugar. Added sugar is any processed sugar which has been extracted from a whole food and added to a food product to enhance its sweetness, caloric content, color, or shelf life. While many people lump all sugar together under the “bad” or “unhealthy food” label, natural sugar is most certainly an essential part of a healthy diet. In fact, it’s recommended that adults get 45-65% of their calories from carbohydrates. When people eat carbohydrates, the digestible ones are converted into the simple sugar glucose.

Natural Sugar is Essential for Human Health

Glucose is essential for basic human functioning. For example, consider our brain’s glucose demands:

  • The human brain contains approx. 86 billion neurons and glucose is virtually the sole food source for all 86 billion! (except during prolonged starvation)
  • All mammal brains depend on glucose as the primary source of energy.
  • Our brains are the most glucose-hungry organ in our body. They use approx. 60% of the body’s available glucose when we are at rest.
  • Our brains consume about 120 g of glucose daily which corresponds to about 420 calories.
  • Roughly speaking, our brains use 1/4 calories we eat.
  • Glucose is the human brain’s preferred source of energy. If carbohydrates are not eaten in sufficient quantities to feed the brain, the body must convert fat through a more energy-expensive process. 
  •  Insufficient carbohydrate consumption can lead to feelings of brain fog as described by many people on low-carb diets. In extreme cases when not enough glucose is available to feed the brain, it can cause severely debilitate mental functioning even causing black outs.
  • When glucose metabolism is disturbed in the brain, this can lead to several diseases infecting the brain and our whole body (Berg, 2002).

Why Added Sugars Are Best Avoided

While glucose is essential for human health, added sugar is most certainly not and can have a negative impact on health Added sugars include everything from brown sugar and corn syrup to confectioners sugar, cane sugar, fructose, and fruit juice concentrates. Reasons why added sugars are not healthy foods include that added sugars are essentially empty calories lacking essential nutrients, added sugar promotes weight gain, added sugar causes unhealthy blood sugar spikes, and added sugars can be highly addictive.

Added Sugar = Empty calories

Added sugars are considered “empty calories” because they contain calories, but very little or no nutrients. When we extract sugar from a whole food, such as when corn syrup (sugar) is extracted from corn, we leave behind all the good stuff the whole corn has to offer like vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, and phytonutrients. Besides losing out on the nutrients, empty calories also encourage us to overeat because they don’t trigger satiation in the same way that whole foods do. Our stomach has two ways of sensing fullness and sending our brain the “I’m satisfied” signal. It senses if you have given it enough nutrients, and it senses the volume of its contents with stretch receptors – am I literally full of food? Fiber in whole plant foods provides bulk that fills our stomach up and helps signal satiation (Rebello, 2016). Without this we may still feel hungry even after eating a high-calorie meal of a food with lots of added sugar. 

Added Sugar Promotes Weight Gain

Eating more calories than we require can lead to extra weight gain. Because added sugars contain empty calories, it’s easy to overindulge on foods with added sugars eating more calories than one needs. Illustrating this effect is one study comparing the diets of patients with chronic hepatitis which found that eating more processed added sugar was associated with a higher caloric diet, a greater waist-to-hip-ratio, and liver fibrosis, while no such associations were found with fructose consumption from whole fruits (Petta, 2013).

Processed Sugar Causes Unhealthy Blood Sugar Spikes

Our body has evolved over millions of years eating whole plant foods found in their natural package with fiber, water, and nutrients in tact. The fiber in whole foods helps slow the release of sugar into the blood, helping maintain balance with our body’s physiology. However when processed sugar is added to food, the extra concentrated dose of sugar without the fiber causes a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. Studies where researchers have fed subjects fruit along with processed sugars have found that the whole fruit helps to blunt the blood sugar spike of the processed sugar, highlighting the difference between the effects of eating natural sugar in its whole food package and eating processed sugar in a concentrated form. (Torronen, 2012; Torronen, 2013).

Added Sugars Are Highly Addictive

Dr. Michael Greger, MD compares processed sugar to cocaine in his video “Are Sugary Foods Addictive.” Greger notes that while coca leaves have been chewed by people, for 8,000 years without evidence of addiction, when the active chemical in this natural plant is concentrated to make cocaine, we now have a highly addictive substance (Greger, 2013). The same appears to be true of sugar. Researchers have found that processed sugar (“intense sweetness”) can surpass the cocaine reward even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals (Lenoir, 2007). Dr. Greger points out that humans have evolved to seek out sweet energy-rich foods like bananas, which is why we experience a reward in our brain from eating these foods. But foods like whole bananas or whole corn are not addictive in the way that would cause us to overindulge, whereas the concentrated sugar, such as that in fruit loops or coca cola, acts like an addictive drug causing people to want more and more of the sweet reward.

Don’t Skimp on the Natural Sugar

While added sugars are best avoided, there’s no good reason to skimp on the natural sugar found in whole plant foods. To make it super simple, as long as you choose whole unadulterated plant foods, you are getting 100% natural sugar (along with the other good stuff). If you are eating from a box, can, or package, check the label. Food labels list the total grams of sugar a food provides per serving and lists the total added sugar separately. The difference between the two values is the amount of added sugar. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines urge people to limit added sugar intake to 10 percent or less of the day’s total energy intake. It’s easy to tell which foods are high in added sugar by looking at the ingredient list on the food. If the ingredient list starts with one or more types of sugar than, in all likelihood, the food is high in added sugar. As for the sugar in whole fruits, grains, and starchy tubers like potatoes, please enjoy! These are some of the healthiest foods for a human being. These plant foods may contain sugar, but this natural sugar is combined with a symphony of other beneficial nutrients that do a body good. It’s natural and healthy for humans to eat sugar, as long as it’s the sugar is found in the perfect package that nature created: its whole plant food form.

Find more 100% whole-food, plant-based recipes in my new recipe book, The Frugivore Diet, available for sale on Amazon or Barnes&Noble.
1. Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002. Section 30.2, Each Organ Has a Unique Metabolic Profile. Available from:
2. Greger, Michael. “Are Sugary Foods Addictive? | NutritionFacts.Org.” NutritionFactsorg, uploaded by Dr. Michael Greger, MD, 18 Nov. 2013,
3. Lenoir, Magalie, et al. “Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward.” PLoS ONE, edited by Bernhard Baune, vol. 2, no. 8, 2007, p. e698. Crossref, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000698.
4. Petta, Salvatore et al. “Industrial, not fruit fructose intake is associated with the severity of liver fibrosis in genotype 1 chronic hepatitis C patients.” Journal of hepatology vol. 59,6 (2013): 1169-76. doi:10.1016/j.jhep.2013.07.037
5. Rebello, Candida J et al. “Dietary fiber and satiety: the effects of oats on satiety.” Nutrition reviews vol. 74,2 (2016): 131-47. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuv063
6. Törrönen, Riitta et al. “Berries reduce postprandial insulin responses to wheat and rye breads in healthy women.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 143,4 (2013): 430-6. doi:10.3945/jn.112.169771
7. Törrönen, Riitta et al. “Postprandial glucose, insulin, and free fatty acid responses to sucrose consumed with blackcurrants and lingonberries in healthy women.” The American journal of clinical nutrition vol. 96,3 (2012): 527-33. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.042184

Reya Steele Andrews

Reya (Steele) Andrews is a holistic health writer, educator, and publisher at Healing With Plants. Reya is a certified Holistic Nutritionist (AFPA), is certified in Plant-based Nutrition, and teaches nutrition science and healthy food preparation. Find her book, The Frugivore Diet, on Amazon.

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