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Hello! I’m Anjali. I’m a board certified health coach, author, wife, mom and food lover from the SF Bay area (now living in Seattle, WA!); with a passion for delicious food and a desire to make healthy eating easy, tasty and fun! Learn more about me here and stay for a while!

Anjali Shah

Natural Sugar Vs. Added Sugar: What’s The Difference?

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We all know that sugar isn’t good for us. However, there are different types of sugar in the foods you eat. In this article I explain the differences between natural sugar vs. added sugar, so that you can make an educated decision about the foods you eat!

different types of sugar on gray background in brown bowls - natural sugar vs. added sugar

Sugar is an ingredient we all know that we should be eating sparingly — too much sugar is never good for you. But there are actually two very different types of “sugar”: naturally occurring sugars and added sugar.

Natural sugar vs. added sugar, what’s the difference? And is one healthier for you than the other?

According to the World Health Organization we should limit our added sugar to just 25 grams per day, or 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men (36g).

But what does this mean for you? Sugars that are removed from their natural source and then added to other foods are considered added sugars.

What Is Added Sugar?

Added sugar includes any sugars or sweeteners that are added to foods during processing or preparation (such as putting sugar in your coffee, or eating flavored yogurt, or eating sugary cereal). Check out my 15 Healthiest Cereals that are low in sugar!

When eating packaged foods it’s important to look at labels, and read the ingredients listed. Many companies have started to disguise added sugar by using a different name than simply “sugar.”

natural sugar vs. added sugar sweeteners including honey, white sugar, and brown sugar

Different Names For Added Sugar:

Below is a list of commonly named added sugars that you will find packaged foods. Even though these sugars have different names, they essentially are the same thing. They have been taken from their natural source, and added to food to make them sweeter.

  • Agave syrup
  • Barley Malt
  • Beet Sugar
  • Brown Rice Syrup
  • Brown Sugar
  • Cane Juice
  • Cane Sugar
  • Caster Sugar
  • Coconut Sugar
  • Corn Syrup
  • Date Sugar
  • Dextran
  • Fructose
  • Fruit Juice Concentrate
  • Golden Sugar
  • Golden Syrup
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Honey
  • Lactose
  • Malt Syrup
  • Maple Syrup
  • Molasses
  • Muscovado Sugar
  • Organic Raw Sugar
  • Oat Syrup
  • Pure Cane Sugar
  • Raw Sugar
  • Rice Bran Syrup
  • Sorghum
  • Sorghum Syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Treacle
  • Tapioca Syrup
  • Turbinado Sugar
woman holding in apple in one hand and a donut in the other hand

Why Is Added Sugar Bad For You?

Weight Gain: Too much added sugar can cause added weight gain. Sugar is high in calories, and has no nutritional value. One of the most tricky places where people end up consuming added sugar is in sweet beverages. Think sodas, sugary coffee drinks, teas, and juices. There is also a link between consuming sugary beverages and accumulation of visceral fat. Visceral fat is a deep belly fat that is associated with diabetes and heart disease.

Risk of Heart Disease: Sugar consumption has been linked to heart disease. High sugar diets are linked to obesity, diabetes, inflammation, and high blood pressure, which are all precursors for heart disease.

Acne: Diets that are high in processed sugars and refined carbohydrates, have been linked to a higher risk of developing acne. A study of 2,300 teens showed that those who consumed a high sugar diet had a 30% increase in risk for developing acne.

Type 2 Diabetes: There is a clear link between type 2 diabetes and sugar intake. Because a high sugar diet can lead to obesity, and obesity is a factor in developing type 2 diabetes, the two are linked. What’s more is that high sugar diets can lead to insulin resistance, which causes blood sugar to rise and increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Risk of Cancer: Consuming high levels of sugar may increase your likelihood of developing some types of cancer including esophageal cancer, pleural cancer and cancer of the small intestine. Also as we know from above, sugar intake is linked to obesity, inflammation, and type 2 diabetes which are all risk factors for developing cancer.

Depression: While healthy diets can improve your mood, an unhealthy diet of highly processed sugary food can also have a negative on your mood. A study showed that men who consumed more than 67 grams of sugar per day were 23% more likely to develop depression.

Aging Skin and Cellular Aging: None of us want to age more quickly, but sugar intake is also linked to aging skin as well as cellular aging. High sugar foods can increase the production of AGEs (Advanced glycation end products), which can increase skin aging and wrinkles. Eating too much sugar can accelerate the shortening of telomeres, which increases cellular aging.

Decrease in Energy: Consuming foods high in sugar spike your your blood sugar levels which give you a boost of energy, but then a sudden crash!

Fatty Liver Disease: There is a direct correlation between high fructose consumption and the development of fatty liver disease. Fructose is broken down in the liver. It is converted into energy and stored as glycogen. But the liver can only store so much glycogen. When the liver is overloaded that glycogen turns to fat. This is turn leads to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Dental Health: Too much sugar leads to cavities and tooth decay. How? The bacteria in your mouth feeds on sugar, so too much sugar leads to tooth decay.

honey in jars served on wood tray - natural sugar vs. added sugar

When It Comes To Added Sugars, Are Some Healthier Than Others? 

Like is honey healthier than regular sugar?

NO. It’s not! No type of sugar is really, truly “healthier” than regular table sugar. 

While sweeteners like honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup, and molasses are less processed than the other sugars on this list and their raw/organic forms do have additional health benefits, in your body they act just like white granulated sugar would in terms of raising your blood sugar.

For added sugars, sugar = sugar = sugar. No type is healthy and every type should be eaten very sparingly.

Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar, Which Is Better?

The kind of sugar that you want to limit in your diet are the added sugars — since these sugars provide unnecessary calories and no helpful nutrients.

Natural sugars are those that are found naturally in whole foods. When consuming sugar, always opt for natural sugar vs. added sugar!

fruit on wood table, apples in basket, grapes, and squash

What Is Natural Sugar?

Naturally occurring sugars are sugars that are part of a whole food: like the lactose in milk, or the fructose in fruit.

Natural sugars act differently in the body thanks to the protein, fiber, and water content accompanying them in a whole food, and are lower on the glycemic index than added sugars (which basically means that your body doesn’t absorb the sugar as fast, and your blood sugar doesn’t “spike” and then “crash” as a result).

Therefore, natural sugars are better for you than added sugars: e.g. it’s much healthier to eat 1 cup of plain unsweetened yogurt vs. 1 chocolate bar.

How Much Natural Sugar Should I Eat In A Day?

Unless you’re a diabetic, you don’t need to worry too much about naturally occurring sugar in whole foods like fruit and plain dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk).

I recommend 2-3 servings of fruit per day for most healthy adults; and for dairy, as long as you’re choosing plain, unsweetened dairy like regular milk, plain yogurt, cheese, etc. the lactose (natural sugar in dairy) is not bad for you.

I generally don’t “limit” my intake of natural sugars – I’ll choose fruit for dessert or a snack and get my 2-3 servings a day that way.

While these naturally occurring sugars aren’t bad for you, with any food, you should still monitor portion size. So even though the protein in dairy, and the fiber + water in fruit helps your body to absorb the sugar slowly and steadily, going overboard and eating 10 fruits a day would be too much natural sugar in your diet.

milk in jar, surrounded by strawberries, blueberries and nectarines - natural sugar vs. added sugar

What Foods Contain Natural Sugars?

If you’re having a craving for something sweet, don’t grab that cookie, or brownie! Instead try one of these foods that contain natural sugar.

Natural Sugars In Fruit

All forms of fruit contain natural sugar. Some fruits are higher in natural sugars than others. These fruits are higher on the glycemic index. If you are looking to reduce your overall consumption of sugar, you may want to consider limiting the fruits that are high on the glycemic index. such as bananas, watermelon, and pineapple.

High Glycemic Fruits:

  • Bananas
  • Pineapple
  • Cherries
  • Mango
  • Papaya 
  • Grapes
  • Kiwis
  • Watermelon
  • Cantaloupe

Low Glycemic Fruits:

  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Pears 
  • Nectarines
  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Apples

Natural Sugars in Dairy

As mentioned above the sugars in dairy are naturally formed sugars in the form of lactose. When eating dairy foods, be sure to go for ones that don’t have added sugar such as fruit yogurts or ice cream. Instead opt for plain Greek yogurt, and top it with berries and nuts.

The great thing is, you can actually satisfy your sweet tooth with natural sugars and then you really don’t need to rely on added sugars for sweetness!

Check out some of these other resources for healthy living, such as the best multivitamins for women, and the best protein powders for women.

vegan chocolate mousse topped with raspberries served in a glass bowl - natural sugar vs. added sugar

If you’re looking for healthy recipes to satisfy your sweet tooth that use natural sugars, check out these recipes!

For more healthy recipes and healthy living tips FOLLOW ME on FACEBOOK, TWITTER, INSTAGRAM and PINTEREST to see more delicious, healthy, family friendly food!

28 responses to “Natural Sugar Vs. Added Sugar: What’s The Difference?”

    • Hi Tela! Organic sugar still counts as regular sugar – so you still want to stick to the guideline of no more than 6 tsp added sugar per day (whether it’s organic or not doesn’t matter). Hope that helps!

  1. This is so helpful, thank you. I would love to hear your thoughts on milk for toddlers. I give my toddler plant based protein (“pea”) milk, and the original version has added organic cane sugar. I’m wondering if the benefits of pea milk are good enough to overcome the added sugar? Do you think regular cows milk is a better option for toddlers? (Assuming no lactose intolerance?)
    Thank you!

    • Hi Cortney! If your child doesn’t have any sort of lactose/dairy intolerance, then I actually don’t recommend giving toddlers plant based milk for that exact reason – usually those plant based alternatives have added sugar, and the pea protein doesn’t outweigh the added sugar. Organic Whole Milk has healthy fats and only naturally occurring sugar from lactose – which is much more preferable! I only recommend the pea protein milk for toddlers who have major lactose/dairy allergies because it’s the next best alternative that has protein and isn’t just empty calories (soy milk is the only other option, but I don’t like giving toddlers too much soy). Hope that helps, let me know if you have any other questions!

  2. Hi – thanks for getting back to me. I think a potential problem is that when you look at a label and or buy something out it is sometimes how to discern whether whole fruits or juice was used. Is there a way to tell that from the label? Thanks for helping me understand this better.

    • Hi! Ah yes – so if you’re buying something pre-made you have to read the ingredients list really carefully. If it says “juice” anywhere on the ingredients list, then don’t buy it. A healthy, pre-made smoothie that doesn’t have added sugars would only have whole fruits and veggies listed, along with some sort of water (e.g. filtered water) or unsweetened milk (e.g. unsweetened almond, coconut, or soy milk) — e.g. “apples, blueberries, spinach, kale, unsweetened almond milk” – and that’s it! If it says “apple juice” or the word “juice” anywhere on the ingredients list, I’d avoid it. Hope that helps!

  3. Thanks for the informative post. I question that came up for me when I was reading it was “what about smoothies”? not the type one would typically find out which do sometimes have added sweeteners but the ones that are more whole food based. Does the process of making a smoothie change the whole in such a way that the sugar wouldn’t be processed as a natural sugar normally would? I’m thinking of the added protein, increase in water or breakdown of fiber during the creation. I’m not sure if I’m making my question clear …..

    • Hi Jacquie! No problem at all! Good question about smoothies. So if you are making a smoothie from literally just whole fruits, vegetables and some sort of unsweetened milk or water, the natural sugars in the fruits act the same as they would in your body as if you had just eaten the fruit whole. So like drinking a smoothie made with apples, blueberries, spinach and unsweetened almond milk would be the same as if you ate apples, blueberries and spinach whole. The problem with smoothies is only when they are sweetened with sugar/honey/frozen yogurt/flavored yogurt/flavored milks/etc. Juices on the other hand, are problematic because all of the fiber and protein from the whole fruit is strained out and all you’re left with is the sugar. In juices, even homemade no-sugar-added juices, the natural sugars from the fruits are not paired with fiber, water, etc. so they act more like added sugar in your body. I hope that helps clear things up! Let me know if you have any other questions!

    • Hi Elly! Do you mean the chia seeds that are part of the batter in the oatmeal cookie recipe? Can you eat them if they are ground? Or do you have to stay away from all chia seeds even if they are ground into a flour? If you are ok with eating them ground, then I would just grind them up into a flour and use them. If you have to stay away from them altogether, you can make these cookies without the chia seeds and they should turn out just fine 🙂 Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions!

  4. Hi ! Landed up on your blog searching about added sugar and its effects. Nice Blog and indeed good recipes. Cant help but follow your blog. Keep posting !

    Regards,
    Aditya

      • Hello, I’m not sure if you can help me with this or not but let’s see. I’m confused with things that are organic. For instance, I love jelly so I found this organic jelly but it has 8 grams of sugar. My question is, if it’s organic does that mean the 8 grams of sugar that’s in the jelly natural sugar or is it added sugar?

      • Hi Johnathan! This is a great question! Just because a food product is organic, that has nothing to do with whether the sugar in the product is added or natural sugar. Natural sugar only includes sugar that is part of a whole food: like the lactose in milk, or the fructose in fruit. The organic jelly that you found likely has sugar added to it (e.g. sugar or some form of sugar is listed on the ingredients list). You’ll see it on the ingredients list as: fruit juice, brown sugar, pure cane sugar, turbinado sugar, raw sugar, molasses, maple syrup, honey, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, agave, evaporated cane juice, and high fructose corn syrup – to name a few. The only way any jam or jelly won’t include added sugar is if there is just one ingredient on the list: “whole fruit”. So essentially, a product can be non-organic and not have any added sugar in it (e.g. non-organic milk), or a product can be organic and have added sugar (e.g. organic cookies). Hope that helps! I know it’s confusing so don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any other questions!

  5. What is the “best” sweetener to add to coffee or tea? I just can’t quite handle it black, but want to try and lessen the amount of sweetener I put in. What do you recommend?

    • Hi Erin! If you need to add sweetness to your coffee or tea, just use regular sugar — either raw brown sugar, raw honey, or just organic granulated sugar are all great options. Try to stick to 1 tsp of sugar per cup (or less) if you can! Let me know if you have any other questions!

      • Thank you for your help! We have been trying this organic blue agave. What are your thoughts on that? I know there is a lot of stuff out there on agave vs. honey. It’s hard to break it down and understand the right way.

      • Hi Erib! Honestly between agave and honey — it just depends on which one you like better. Both are basically just added sugar – so both should be used sparingly. Hope that helps!

  6. I really needed this article! All of us at RKF medical made a pact to start eating healthier and for me that is tough, I’m a sugar addict! Thanks for the information!

    • Oh great!! I’m so glad this article was helpful for you Alison. I hope things are going well with your pact to eat healthier! Stay well! 🙂

  7. I have had gastric bypass, and must limit my sugar to 15 grams a day. But sometimes I just want something sweet. So I’m going to try making your Mini Apple pies with seiva then adding a thin sugar free (homemade) vanilla and cinnamon warm pudding. Do u know how I should figure out how much seiva to use instead of sugar. As I make mine with no recipe, the way my mom made it.

  8. What a wonderful explanation, Anjali! Makes me feel less guilty about eating say plain strawberries for dessert instead of a snickers bar. Some people say to really watch your fruit intake because of sugar, but I just believe in moderation of everything..which includes fruit. Too much of anything is bad. But to not eat fruit because of sugar, just seems silly. Thanks for sharing. Enjoy your Saturday!

    • No problem! And yes absolutely — you shouldn’t feel guilty about eating fresh fruit for dessert at all — that’s the perfect end to a meal! And fruits have a ton of other nutrients besides sugar (vs. a Snickers bar which doesn’t) – so there are other benefits to eating fruit which outweighs the slight downside from the natural sugar.

    • Oh thanks Jen!! I’m so glad you’re finding these posts helpful! New recipes will be coming soon too — I’m getting back into the kitchen this week! 🙂

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