Sugar, By Any Other Name

As we have noted here at Diabetes Flashpoints as recently as last month, consensus is building among nutrition experts that added sugar — sugar in a refined form that is added to foods — has negative health effects and should be limited. Yet added sugar is common in most Americans’ diets, providing about 14% of the calories that younger adults typically consume, as we noted in a post last year.

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Now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appears poised to require that added sugar be listed on every food nutrition label, consumers may find it easier to keep track of how much of it they’re consuming. Right now, added sugar isn’t listed separately from the natural sugar that exists in fruits, milk, and cooked tomato products, among other foods. But even if you know how much added sugar is in your food and how much you should consume, another question remains: Does it matter what form your added sugar takes?

Nutrition experts disagree on this question, with some taking the position that certain forms of sugar — like honey — are better, while other forms — like high-fructose corn syrup — are worse. A HealthDay article published last week gave an outline of the controversy. As the article notes, some researchers, like Mario Kratz of the University of Washington School of Public Health in Seattle, believe that drinking all-natural soda sweetened with organic cane sugar will raise your risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes just as much as regular soda sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. There isn’t much difference in the chemical makeup of these two forms of sugar: table sugar contains 50% glucose and 50% fructose (as does honey), and high-fructose corn syrup contains about 45% glucose and 55% fructose.

But other researchers, like Dr. Kylie Kavanagh of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, believe that high-fructose corn syrup is worse than regular sugar because its glucose and fructose aren’t chemically bonded, as they are in table sugar. This lack of chemical bond, she suggests, lets the body absorb both glucose and fructose more quickly — leading to spikes in insulin from the glucose and a tendency to gain weight from the fructose. Furthermore, the slightly higher ratio of fructose to glucose may add up and make a difference over time.

Still others, like Jennifer Temple of the University at Buffalo in New York, note that the worst effects of high-fructose corn syrup may be economic in nature — it’s cheap, and so it lets people consume sugar for less money and in greater quantities than they otherwise would. This conclusion seems to be widely accepted by the experts, regardless of their position on the nutritional differences between types of sugar.

What do you think — are you more comfortable with some forms of added sugar than others? How do you decide which experts to listen to on this issue? Is the best strategy just to limit all forms of added sugar? Is this more easily said than done? Have you noticed any benefits from reducing your sugar consumption, or negative effects from increasing it? Leave a comment below!

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