SUGAR – who is confused exactly?

By Caryn, The Whole Food Dietitian

Recently I came across an article about how and why people are so confused about sugar. After reading the article, even I was confused, and I’m meant to know this stuff. I ask you this: Is it important to know the difference between these types of sugar? Well maybe, if you’re doing research about it, or formulating products and constructing food labels – but otherwise I’m not certain it is, as clearly it’s confusing!

Here’s what I think:


  1. Know this: Sugar = the basic unit that all carbohydrates get broken down to in the body. It doesn’t matter if it’s free sugar, added sugar, intrinsic sugar, refined sugar, unrefined sugar, natural sugar, or unnatural sugar. It’s all just sugar. It doesn’t matter if it comes from sweets, bread or fruit, the body sees the basic sugar unit (maybe slower with some foods and quicker with others), and deals with it in pretty much the same way.
  2. Let’s talk foods, not nutrients (that’s what everyone keeps saying, so stop writing about sugar and confusing people then!). There are roughly three categories of foods that contain sugar, as far as I see it:

i. Foods that contain sugar (or a version of it – like honey, agave syrup, rice malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses etc…) and not much else in terms of nutrients. These include sugar itself, lollies, juices, fizzy drink, cordial, sports drinks, energy drinks, and a bit wider, biscuits, chocolate, cake and other junk food items. Know this: While agave syrup is natural, comes from a plant and sounds sexy, where do you think sugar comes from? Cane… a plant… Same deal, different word!
Bottom line: These foods should be avoided.

ii. Foods that contain sugar and other nutrients, typically come in packets and some have stars or ticks on their packages. You know these foods, they’re the foods we’re told are healthy but we really know aren’t. This is largely because they have been processed, a little or a lot, have had their nutrients stripped and sometimes put back, often have industrial seed oils added to them, and typically contain additives to prolong their shelf life to make them look / feel good. These foods include most commercial breakfast cereals, breads, noodles, muesli bars, crackers, “healthy biscuits”, liquid breakfast cereals and snacks, pretzels etc…and the multitude of versions of these foods parading on the supermarket shelves as health foods.
Bottom line: These foods should be substantially reduced with many of them avoided altogether.

iii. Foods that are minimally processed and are considered to be “whole” foods. These foods still contain sugar, some more than others but they also contain lots of other nutrients – vitamins, minerals, protein and fat, and are whole and unprocessed. Because of the nutrients they bring to the table, and the fact that they’re not processed, means they’re typically good quality. These include fruit, vegetables, milk and other full fat dairy products, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Bottom line: These foods can and should be eaten regularly along with other non-sugar containing whole unprocessed foods (like meat, fish, poultry, eggs and healthy fats).

So, when you choose a piece of fruit over a cracker, or a glass of milk over a muesli bar, just remember you’re not making this choice because it has less sugar, in fact it’s likely to have the same, if not more, but rather because of its quality and because it is whole and unprocessed.

Back to the real bottom line; all carbs = sugar.

Choose your foods wisely, i.e. whole and unprocessed would be my suggestion. End of confusion, hopefully. If not, just let us know and we’ll give it another go

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Debbie says:

    Should Stevia or xylitol be in the same list as Agave, Maple Syrups

  • LG says:

    except I don’t subscribe to eating stevia or xylitol. I can taste it…I don’t even have to know it is in a food item. The taste just screeches out at my palate and I have to spit things out…the very same way any other “substitute” is inedible to me.
    There still exists moderation of anything, and if I am going to enjoy my cup of coffee, or my beautiful freshly made dessert (cake, pie, mousse or whatever), I will not ruin it with a sugar substitute that is just not the same..
    I own both of your books and I love most the of the content….just not this.

  • Tereza says:

    Great article, where does kombucha fit into this as the sugar is mostly consumed during the fermentation process.

    • What The Fat? says:

      Hi Tereza,
      That’s true of commercial kombucha but I have drunk some home-made ones which, while they tasted better, were still noticeably sweet.
      So it depends on two things I reckon – if it tastes sweet it still has sugar, and – it depends how much kombucha you want to drink.

  • Sarah says:

    Thanks Caryn, that’s great. I was also hoping you’d cover the other part of the sweetener convo… the ‘zero carb’ one…. A lot of recipes I see have Swerve, xylitol, sugar alohols, monk fruit, stevia etc etc… that’s where my confusion reigns. Are these really ok… for my children? Stevia doesn’t work so well in baking, I’d like to try Swerve but is it yet another amazing product that’s actually too good to be true?

  • Shivam says:

    Great article Caryn, just read guys!!

  • Tanya says:

    Love it, crystal clear, thanks!!

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