Natural, Refined, Artificial: What’s the Difference Between Common Sweeteners?

Jan 10, 2023 16:20:55PM

Deciding to cut back on sugar is one thing, but actually doing it is another. What do these ingredients mean? Are natural sugars better than sweeteners? What's so bad about refined sugars?

When it comes to sugar, there are a few different types that you might find on your food labels: natural sugars, refined sugars, natural sweeteners, and artificial sweeteners, and each one affects you differently. 

Here, we'll help you decode your ingredient labels.

Natural sugars

Natural sugars are found in many foods that we eat every day, like fruits and vegetables. While they may be considered healthier than other sources of sugar due to their natural origins, they absolutely impact your blood sugar when you consume them.

Generally speaking, natural sweeteners contain more nutrients, burn more slowly, and have less of an impact on blood sugar than refined sugars. However, depending on the source, these sweeteners could still pack in the calories and should be consumed in moderation. Some common natural sweeteners include:

  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Coconut sugar
  • Date sugar
  • Fruit juices as sweeteners
  • Raw cane sugar
  • Molasses

It's important to note that your body does treat these as sugars and they may impact your blood glucose, so use these in moderation as you would with refined sugars.

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Refined sugars

Refined sugars, such as white sugar, have been industrially processed to be as sweet as possible. They are highly processed and stripped of almost all nutrients, making them a poor source of energy and they may have a negative impact on your health. Refined sugars burn quickly in the body, which could lead to spikes in blood sugar levels. Additionally, because refined sugars have been highly processed, they tend to be a concentrated source of calories, which can lead to weight gain if consumed regularly.

Refined sugars include:

  • White cane sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Beet sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • Agave nectar*

*Note: some people categorize agave nectar as a natural sugar because it comes from a cactus, but it is treated to convert it from its natural form to its concentrated, syrupy-sweet form.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is of particular concern because it is derived from the naturally-occurring sugars in corn but concentrated into an ultra-sweet syrup. HFCS is often found in processed foods like sodas, cookies, and snacks, and some sources say it could be even more harmful to your health than other sources of sugar. Others say your body treats it the same as white sugar. Either way, if you’re avoiding sugar, you’re likely avoiding HFCS, too. 

To avoid potential negative health effects, it's best to limit your consumption of all types of sugar, including natural sugars.

Read next: Sugar Alternatives that are Basically Sugar

Natural sweeteners

There are sweeteners that have minimal to no impact on your blood sugar, including:

  • Monk fruit
  • Stevia
  • Sugar alcohols (xylitol, erythritol, etc.)
  • Yacon syrup

There are pros and cons to each of these. Monk fruit is generally well-tolerated and has a neutral flavor, similar to sugar. Some people are put off by stevia's strong aftertaste, and a portion of the population may experience digestive discomfort from sugar alcohols. Some pet owners avoid having items containing xylitol in their homes because it can be a danger to pets. Yacon syrup isn’t as low in calories as the others and is harder to find. 

It's all individual, and it's up to you to decide what natural sweetener ingredients work for you.

Chemical sweeteners

Chemical sweeteners, also known as artificial sweeteners, are manmade and sometimes used in place of sugar. While they may be less likely to cause blood sugar spikes or weight gain, there is some evidence that they can negatively affect gut health and potentially increase risk of certain diseases. Some people who experience headaches notice an increase in frequency around the time they consume certain chemical sweeteners, so they avoid them for that reason.

The five artificial sweeteners include:

  • Saccharin
  • Acesulfame, acesulfame-K, or acesulfame potassium
  • Aspartame
  • Neotame
  • Sucralose

Each has a different level of aftertaste, and health effects depends on the sweetener, how much you use, your predispositions, etc. There's a lot we don't know about these sweeteners, so it's best to keep consumption to a minimum if at all.

It is important to be aware of the potential health risks associated with artificial sweeteners, and to always use them in moderation. For those who prefer a natural sugar alternative, there are a variety of options available such as raw honey or maple syrup. These alternatives may carry fewer health risks, but it's best to do your own research and consult a healthcare professional to determine the best breakdown of sugars and sugar alternatives for you.

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