Food With Refined Sugar. Sugar is EVERYWHERE! It’s in bread, cereal, yogurt and pretty much every packaged food. It’s also found in condiments like ketchup, mayo and BBQ sauce. The absence of sugar has a profound effect on quality of life, health and weight loss; not to mention the fact that sugar can really mess with your moods by influencing hormone production. Sugar has been shown to slow down metabolism, increase cravings for more sugar, increase belly fat storage and create blood sugar spikes that lead to energy crashes later in the day.
Food With Refined Sugar
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that the body uses to convert into glucose for energy. Yet, sugar has gotten a bad reputation in the past few decades. The negativity surrounding sugar is largely about refined sugars, which are found in many common foods. But what are refined sugars and why are they so bad for us?
Refined sugar comes mostly from cane, sugar beets, and corn which are heavily processed to isolate the sugar. Other names for refined sugars are sucrose, glucose and high-fructose corn syrup. This sugar is added to food for a sweeter taste, and is often disguised under multiple names on nutrition labels.
Refined sugars are different from natural sugars found in whole fruit and vegetables because they provide little to no nutritional value. Refined sugars lack the nutrients, minerals, and fiber found in vegetables and fruits, and foods containing these refined sugars often don’t have enough fiber to aid in digestion. When consumed, refined sugars spike blood sugar due to how quickly the body digests and absorbs it. This spike in blood sugar causes a spike in blood insulin. This results in feeling less full, followed by the typical “sugar high” and crash in energy shortly after eating.
Many foods at the supermarket today contain refined sugars. With the rise of prepackaged foods in the past few decades, refined sugars are being added to food to make it taste better, and thus, sell more. Science is making some things very clear about sugar. Sugar is absolutely toxic to every single tissue type in your body, and it produces diseases of all types. Furthermore, there is now no longer any question that it is just as addictive as many street drugs. There is absolutely nothing that is good about added sugar: nothing.
Here are some common foods refined sugar may be lurking in:
- Cookies, cakes and pastries
- Bread, pasta and crackers
- Pre-made beverages, including coffee, tea and sports drinks
- Salad dressing and condiments
- Tomato and pasta sauce
- Peanut butter
Foods Low in Refined Sugars
Refined sugars, also known as refined carbohydrates or simple sugars, are added to foods for sweetness and texture during food production. There is no need to worry about the naturally occurring sugars in fruits and dairy products, but monitoring your intake of added refined sugars is important for overall health, as these sugars provide little nutritional value and can lead to excess calorie intake. Most often you will find refined sugars in processed foods like breads, cereals, beverages and desserts.
Choosing minimally processed foods is an easy way to control what is in the food you are eating and reduce your intake of refined sugars. To keep your intake of refined sugars at a minimum, choose foods that have not been canned, boxed or otherwise processed. This includes whole grains, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, unsweetened low-fat dairy dairy products and proteins like meat, beans and nuts.
When looking for whole grains that are minimally processed, you have to think out of the box. Search for whole oats, quinoa, bulgur, brown rice and whole-wheat products without added salt. Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables do not contain refined sugar and have only a small amount of naturally occurring sugar, making these optimal choices. Choose plain yogurt and milks in the dairy aisle because those that are flavored or have fruit added often contain refined sugar.
How to Spot Refined Sugars
Looking at the nutrition facts panel will not tell you the whole story on the refined sugars in your food. The total carbohydrate and sugars listed on the food label includes naturally occurring and refined sugars added to the food. Reading the ingredients list is the best way to find out if a food contains refined sugars. A food contains refined sugars if it lists cane sugar, brown sugar, corn sweetener or syrup, fruit juice concentrate, malt sugar or anything ending in “-ose,” such as fructose, dextrose and sucrose.
Don’t Be Fooled
Naturally occurring refined sugars act the same as all sugar does the body; they also provide excess calories and will cause a rise in blood sugar. Examples of natural refined sugars include honey, molasses, raw sugar, organic sugar, agave nectar and fruit juice concentrates such as apple, grape or raisin. Often these refined sugars will be used in breads, breakfast cereals, protein or fruit bars and sweetened beverages labeled “natural” or “organic,” but these natural sugars are still a source of refined sugar.
What Are Refined Sugars? Natural vs. Refined Sugars
Refined sugars are those that have been processed, as opposed to the natural sugars found in fruit and milk.
But eating too many foods with refined sugars, like pastries and sweet cereals, is linked to lead to myriad health problems, including weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While some people opt to follow a no-sugar diet for various reasons, most would benefit from simply cutting back on foods with refined sugar. Your body doesn’t need any refined sugar to function, and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugars to 100 to 150 calories per day (6 and 9 teaspoons, respectively).
In order to limit your intake of refined sugar, you’ll need to understand what it is and where to find it. So let’s break down the different kinds of sugar found in food.
Natural vs. Refined Sugars
Curious what refined sugar means?
Refined sugars are those that have been processed, such as cane sugar, as opposed to the natural sugars found in fruit and milk.
The most common refined sugar is table sugar, or sucrose, but there are also powdered sugars, syrups and natural processed sugars.
In order to make refined sugar, the original product, which comes from either sugar cane or sugar beets, is processed to remove impurities and color, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. The sugar is then softened and separated to yield the white, pure sugar recognized as table sugar.
While most of us know basic table sugar that you’d add to coffee or tea, there are a number of different types of refined sugars.
Examples of Refined Sugar
1. Granulated Sugar
Granulated sugar is a common type of refined sugar that’s often used in coffee and tea, in baking and found in most homes. Granulated sugar can be used to sweeten beverages and is added to sauces and marinades.
2. Natural Processed Sugars
While often positioned as healthier, sweeteners like agave, honey and maple syrup are considered “natural processed sugars.” When eaten in excess, they can have the same negative health effects as standard table sugar, per Oregon State University.
Still, these “natural processed sugars” have to be refined to be added into other products, so they’re not the same kind of natural sugar you’d find in, say, an apple.
In order to avoid this type of sugar, compare the amount of sugar between juices and watch out for anything above a certain range. You should also read the ingredients on the product’s label to ensure that there are no added sugars sneaking in.
3. Powdered Sugar
Powdered sugar, or confectioner’s sugar, is another type of refined sugar that also tends to be a pantry staple. This type of sugar has a much smoother texture than other types of refined sugars.
It’s commonly used in icings and similar dessert toppings because it mixes easily and creates a smooth product. It’s also the type you might see coating a doughnut because its fine texture helps it stick to food surfaces.
4. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS); some claim it’s better than granulated sugar, while others claim it’s worse.
Either way, HFCS is refined sugar, so you’ll want to limit how much of it you include in your diet, per the Mayo Clinic. High-fructose corn syrup is chemically similar to table sugar and is commonly found in sodas and fruit-flavored beverages.
Examples of Natural Sugars
When it comes to sugar, you’ll want to stick to the type that’s naturally found in food and isn’t processed and added to foods during the manufacturing process. You’ll find naturally occurring sugar in the following foods, per the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center:
The natural sugar found in milk and bananas provide our bodies’ main source of energy, and they also contain various amounts of vitamins and minerals that help keep your body running smoothly. So, consider natural sources of sugar the healthiest sugar.
The Glycemic Index Scale
The glycemic index is a scale that rates how quickly a given carbohydrate causes blood sugar to rise.
The faster that blood sugar rises, the faster that insulin is released. Insulin is a hormone that removes sugars from the blood. In general, refined carbohydrates, including sugars, rate much higher on the glycemic index than unprocessed complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruit or vegetables.
The glycemic index (GI) can be broken down into three separate categories of “low,” “medium” and “high,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Foods that rank low on the glycemic index have a score of 55 or less; medium-ranking foods on the glycemic index rank between 56 and 69; and foods that have a ranking on the glycemic index rank 70 or higher.
Examples of foods that rank low include most fruits, 100-percent stone-ground, whole-wheat bread, rolled or steel-cut oatmeal and legumes.
Foods that rank medium on the GI include quick oats, rye bread, brown rice and couscous. Foods that rank high on the GI include white bread, white rice, rice cakes, popcorn, as well as macaroni and cheese.
Glycemic Index Scale: What the Numbers Mean
- Low GI: 1 to 55
- Medium GI: 56 to 69
- High GI: 70 and higher
Sugars and the Glycemic Index
Sucrose, also known as table sugar, has a glycemic index of 63, according to the Linus Pauling Institute.
The following GI chart shows the values for a number of sugars, including the brown sugar glycemic index, table sugar glycemic index, white sugar glycemic index, cane sugar glycemic index, molasses glycemic index, maple syrup glycemic index and fructose glycemic index.
Sugar Glycemic Index Chart
|Type of Sugar||Glycemic Index (GI)|
|Table Sugar (sucrose or refined white sugar)||63|
Source: Linus Pauling Institute
Many other foods that contain little to no sugar, however, have a much higher glycemic index than pure sugar.
Oddly enough, you cannot guess or assume to know the glycemic index of a food based on the amount of sugar it contains or how sweet you think it takes.
For example, a baked potato has a glycemic index of 111, which is much higher than, say, jelly beans, which have a glycemic index of 78, per the Linus Pauling Institute.
GI Values of Sugary Foods
Foods that contain refined sugars can have unpredictable glycemic indexes.
The Linus Pauling Institute notes that doughnuts rank at 76 and jellybeans at 78. On the other hand, banana cake made with sugar ranks at 47, while banana cake made without sugar ranks at 55, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
One brand of soft drink has a glycemic index of 63, while a name-brand sports drink comes in at 78. While both of these beverages are made with refined sugar, the sports drink, which has the higher GI, actually has a lower sugar content.
The glycemic index doesn’t tell the whole story. The GI fails to illustrate how high your blood sugar could go when you actually eat the food, per Harvard Health Publishing.
To understand a food’s complete effect on blood sugar, you need to know both how quickly it makes glucose enter the bloodstream and how much glucose per serving it can deliver.
Here’s where the glycemic load comes in, and offers a more accurate depiction of a food’s impact on your blood sugar.
The glycemic load of a food is the measure of the glycemic index multiplied by the total number of carbohydrate grams per serving. The result is divided by 100.
Because of this equation, foods that may rank high on the glycemic index can have a relatively low glycemic load, as long as the number of carbohydrates per serving is small. By controlling your total carb intake, you can control your glycemic load and your blood sugar levels.
For example: Watermelon, has a high glycemic index of 80. But a serving of watermelon has only a few carbohydrates, so its glycemic load comes out to 5.
Moral of the story? You can’t judge a food by its glycemic index.
If you did, you’d miss out on a lot of important nutrients, considering healthy foods like pumpkins, parsnips and many other vegetables have high GIs.
How to Avoid Refined Sugar
The good news: Sugar only causes health issues when it’s consumed in excess, per a November 2016 issue of the European Journal of Nutrition. It’s not necessary to fully cut out refined sugars, but it will be helpful to greatly reduce your intake. Here’s how.
1. Read Labels
To eat less refined sugar, you’ll want to read nutrition labels. Nutrition labels now include the total amount of sugar as well as the total amount of added sugar (aka refined sugar), per the FDA. This is a good place to start.
It’s especially important to keep an eye out for the refined sugar hiding in plain sight. The following terms represent different types of refined sugar, per Harvard Health Publishing:
- Agave nectar
- Brown sugar
- Cane crystals
- Cane sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Crystalline fructose
- Evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
2. Be Mindful of Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates, also known as simple carbs, contain refined sugar. These foods, which include white flour and bread, pasta, cookies and many cereals, have been stripped of the naturally occurring fiber and nutrients that are found in unrefined carbs, per the AHA.
Refined carbs are considered “processed” and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they often contain refined sugar, too.
The body quickly digests these simple carbs and sends glucose into the bloodstream quickly. Conversely, complex or unrefined carbs, which include foods like whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes, are digested slowly and provide the body with sustained amounts of energy it needs to function, per the AHA. Prioritize unrefined carbs to avoid the negative effects of refined sugars.
3. Cut Back on Liquid Calories
Sodas and fruit juices are standard sources of refined sugar. Swap these beverages for water or fruit and vegetable juices of which you know the ingredients.
4. Choose Natural Sources of Sweetness
When your sweet tooth is being loud, satisfy it with naturally occurring sugars, which you’ll find in foods like fruit and milk.
Avocado- and banana-based “nice creams” are some of our favorite alternatives to standard, sugar-packed ice creams.
5. Pick Full-Fat Versions of Your Favorite Foods
While you may think you’re doing your body a favor by buying low-fat foods, these products often contain added sugar to make up for what’s lost in the fat department.
This is exemplified in a January 2016 comparison in Nutrition & Diabetes, which found that there’s often more sugar in the low-fat (that is, reduced-calorie, light, low-fat) and non-fat versions of food than regular items. In many cases, that full-fat yogurt is going to contain fewer added sugars than its low-fat counterpart. Read the label to be sure.