Sugar and Artificial Sugar Facts

Learn about the history of sugar, the difference between refined and natural sugars, and sugar alternatives (artificial sweeteners).

We also discuss how sugar interacts with the body and both the positive and negative ways it can impact health.

History of Sugar

sugar caneIt is believed that cane sugar was discovered before the birth of Christ. As early as 500 B.C., India was said to have a “reed which gives honey without bees.” This reed would later become known as sugar cane.

The invasion of Arabs into India nearly 1,000 years later in 642 A.D. led to the spread of sugar cane to the rest of the world. The Arabs discovered sugar cane and learned how it was processed by the Indians. They brought the cane with them as they conquered much of Europe, introducing it to lands such as North Africa and Spain.

For many years, however, the rest of Europe was stuck with honey, because sugar did not make it to the west until the crusades. The first record of sugar in England occurs in the year 1099.

Types of Sugar

Sugar was brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus. At the time, sugar was processed by boiling the cane juice and then harvesting the crystals left behind after the water evaporated. These crystals contained protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

While they were calorie dense, they provided essential nutrients. It was not until a few centuries later that the process of refining sugars, and stripping out many of these nutrients, was perfected and sugar became a profitable industry.

Raw Sugar is Already Refined

brown_sugarIt is interesting to note that raw sugar is already refined. Only sugars from evaporated cane juice can be classified as truly “raw”  or unrefined sugars (of the cane variety – sugars can come from other sources as well, such as beets and fruit). Once the cane juice crystals are harvested, they are washed, boiled, centrifuged, filtered, and dried.

The purpose of this is to remove all of the original plant materials (stalk, fiber, etc.) to produce the pure sugar. This process removes most of the fiber and nutrients that existed in the original crystals. The sugar then becomes refined, and is now a food high in calories with little nutritional value.

Refined Sugar

refined-sugarSeveral centuries ago, refined sugars were expensive to produce, and were also taxed at a higher rate. Therefore, only the affluent could afford them. Refined goods became a symbol of status. People who had access to these foods were called “refined” people. Interestingly, this affluent sector of the population also had a disproportionate rate of disease and illness as compared to the lower classes that only had access to unrefined, natural foods.

There appear to be references to the evils of sugar as early as the 1800s when rations in the military were compared to standard civilian meals and it was determined that refined foods had a potentially negative impact on health.

Natural Sugars

natural-sugarWhat sugars are considered natural? A few natural sweeteners include: barley malt, evaporated cane juice before it is refined (refined sugar is derived from cane juice, but is extremely processed with many of the natural enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and fiber removed), fruit juice (fructose), rice syrup, honey, and sugar alcohols.

All-natural maple syrup is not only flavorful, but rich with iron and other micronutrients. Sugar alcohols have a “sweet” taste but are processed by the body as alcohol. This means that they are typically burned for energy and have a minimal impact on insulin and blood sugar, according to the latest studies. They are not known to be toxic like non-sugar alcohols.

I also recommend a product called Sucanat® that contains sugar cane molasses.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

corn-syrupThere is some confusion about what high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) actually is. You will find that the majority of processed foods contain this as a main ingredient. It is difficult to find bread in the supermarket that isn’t made with HFCS, and most sodas, treats, and non-natural juices contain this as well.

HFCS is much sweeter than table sugar, which is one reason for its popularity in the food industry. HFCS can be misleading to consumers who are aware of natural sugars and the glycemic index. Knowing that fructose is a natural fruit sugar and low on the glycemic index, they may assume the HFCS falls under the same category.

HFCS is actually hydrolyzed cornstarch, which means that cornstarch is mixed with enzymes and broken down. A chemical in the cornstarch converts some of the sugar in glucose form to fructose. The end result only contains 14% fructose – the rest is dextrose and other sugars and carbohydrates (so it is hardly “high” fructose, it is only “higher” in fructose than other corn products). HFCS has a glycemic index of 89, which is only slightly less than that of table sugar (92). In contrast, milk sugar (lactose) is 65 and natural fructose is 32, or almost 1/3 that of HFCS.

Artificial & Low Calorie Sweeteners

We’ve determined that simply avoiding a sugar because it is a sugar has no real scientific foundation. One problem with sugars, however, is that many products add an extremely high amount of sugar to sweetener the products. This, in turn, causes the product to be higher in calories. Because consuming more calories means you must expend more calories to reduce or manage your weight, this can be of concern.

There are 6 major reduced calorie sweeteners on the market today.

Acesulfame-K (ace-K)

This was introduced in 1967. It is 200 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose). According to studies, this sweetener is not absorbed in the body but passes through unchanged. How many studies? Around 90 studies have been conducted on this sweetener, with no documented health risks.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), however, reports that the product can break down to acetoacetamide. This chemical has been shown to affect the thyroid in rats, rabbits, and dogs. Administration of 1% and 5% acetoacetamide in the diet for three months caused benign thyroid tumors in rats.

Aspartame

artificial-sweetenersThis was introduced in 1965. It is a low-calorie sweetener that is also 200 times sweeter than sucrose. Aspartame is made from two amino acids (the building blocks of protein): L-phenylalanine and L-aspartic acid. More than 200 studies have been performed and the only documented health risks are to people who suffer from phenylketonuria (PKU), who cannot metabolize the L-phenylalanine. This is why there is a PKU warning on any product that contains aspartame.

While there are no conclusive, formal, documented cases of adverse health affects, many people report headaches after consuming products that contain aspartame.

There is a large body of literature documenting adverse health issues arising from aspartame use (source).

Other adverse affects that consumers have reported (but have not been independently verified) include seizures, dizziness, tremors, migraines, memory loss, slurring of speech, confusion, fatigue, depression, nausea, and worse. Because children lack a “barrier” of protection that prevents the wrong nutrients from entering the brain (which adults have), some doctors have recently suggested that aspartame should not be given to children.

Saccharin

sweet-n-lowSaccharin was discovered 100 years ago. It is a low calorie sweetener. It is one of the most studied ingredients in the food supply. More than 30 human studies have been conducted with saccharin, and no adverse health effects have been reported. In 1997, a study using rodents reported a rise in bladder tumors, although this may be related to an increase in sodium and other products that were contained in the experimental diet. The CSPI reports several studies that may indicate a rise in tumor activity that correlates to saccharin intake.

Stevia

truviaThis is a plant that originated in the rainforests of Paraguay. It is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, does not impact blood sugar and has zero calories. The leaves have been used for over 1,500 years by the Guarini Indians of Paraguay.

It was discovered and introducd to Europe by M. S. Bertoni in 1899. While Stevia has since become a very popular sweetener because it is “natural,” the FDA has yet to approve it as a food source – it remains classified as a dietary supplement.

Sucralose

splenda(Splenda) is a non-caloric sweetener made from sugar. It was discovered in 1976. A sugar molecule is modified to replace a hydroxyl (water) group with a chloride (chlorine) group. This creates a product on average 600 times sweeter than table sugar, which theoretically will pass through the body without being metabolized. Over 100 studies have been conducted using sucralose in order to approve it as a food additive.

Monk Fruit

nectresseAlso known as lo han guo or Buddha fruit, it is similar to stevia, but also is loaded with antioxidants. Adds no calories while adding a sweet taste. It is the basis of the new sweetener called Nectresse.

Are these sweeteners really worth it? While there are many anecdotal reports of negative side effects, none of these have been confirmed through scientific investigation. In contrast, there is no anecdotal evidence whatsoever linking consumption of natural sugars such as fructose, honey, lactose, etc. with cancers, tumors, headaches, or other problems other than diabetes. Many diabetics use the glycemic index to control their food intake, and virtually many natural (unrefined) sugars fall within acceptable ranges for consumption based on those guidelines.

Find out which artificial sweeteners are used in sugar free energy drinks.

Does Sugar-Free Have any Effect?

Do sugar free foods really help to control calories? I know many people who will avoid sugar like the plague, then purchase a box of sugar-free brownies and eat the entire box. What are they trying to achieve? Sugar-free may imply “reduced calorie” but when you over consume reduced calorie foods, you still create a problem! Do sugar-free brownies fit into a lifestyle, or are these a quick fix?

Adding one teaspoon of natural sugar to a bowl of oatmeal will add four grams of sugar or 16 calories and barely impact the rate at which that food is digested and released to the bloodstream (remember, your liver won’t know if the glucose molecule it is processing came from the oatmeal or the teaspoon of sugar). Remember the glycemic load? This would have a low load!

Adding one teaspoon of an artificial sweetener won’t add any calories – but will introduce a new realm of possible side effects. On the other hand, if you avoid healthy food choices such as fruit due to the sugar content, you also miss out on thousands of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that don’t exist in any tablet or pill on the market – and have documented health benefits rather than risks! Oranges can reduce the risk of stroke. Bananas promote heart health by providing a tremendous amount of natural potassium. The list goes on and on.

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How Sugar is Metabolised

All carbohydrates are technically sugar. Before your body will use the carbohydrate in table sugar, a baked potato, or a green bean, it must break this carbohydrate down to glucose, the form of sugar that your body can “burn” for energy. Glucose is also stored as glycogen in the muscle cells. So, since all carbohydrates eventually end up as a sugar, the mere fact that they begin as sugars is irrelevant. So what is relevant? The rate at which the sugar enters the bloodstream, which is exactly what the glycemic index measures.

Does Sugar Get Stored as Fat?

Another concern some people express is the “ease” at which sugars are converted to fat. I read one “system” for getting into shape that did not offer scientific evidence, but claimed that in working with extremely lean body builders, the author figured out that sugars cause fat to be stored quickly and easily. Other books simply state that sugar is quickly and easily converted to fat. Again, we have to understand our biological systems to analyze those statements.

How does a sugar get stored as a fat? The liver processes the glucose molecule and turns it into a triglyceride, or fat molecule. This, again, complicates matters: whether or not you eat table sugar or a green bean, guess what? By the time your liver “sees” it, it has been broken down to a glucose molecule. There is no practical way that your liver somehow “knows” that the glucose molecule came from a green bean instead of a grain of table sugar, except that your entire body benefits from additional nutrients when you consume the green bean.

The only real way the sugar may be more readily stored as fat is if it impacts blood sugar or creates some environment that would promote the conversion of glucose to triglycerides. Theoretically, a huge surge in blood sugar due to a rapidly ingested carbohydrate would cause the liver to convert most of that sugar to fat, regardless of whether or not you required it for energy.

Glycemic Index

The glycemic index demonstrates that refined sugars are indeed dangerous – they have some of the highest indexes on the list. Many manufacturers use a “complex carbohydrate” called maltodextrin to sweeten shakes. They can state “no sugar” or “low sugar” on the nutrition label because maltodextrin is a complex carbohydrate, but it will impact blood sugar more than table sugar (table sugar is sucrose, which, by the way, is not a simple sugar – it is two molecules, glucose and fructose, bonded together).

How do natural sugars fare?

Fructose, the type of sugar commonly found in fruit; lactose, the sugar found in milk; and honey, the sugar produced from nectar by bees, all fare very well. In fact, if you are simply concerned about blood sugar, these three sugars will affect it less than brown rice, whole wheat bread, and baked potatoes!

Is Sugar Bad?

Sugar has received a bad reputation lately – not just refined sugars, but all sugars. Many people go out of their way to avoid sugar in the diet, without understanding how sugar affects health. Artificial sweeteners are a common substitute for sugars, but are these synthetic chemicals truly safe?

For many people, sugar-free and fat-free food is an artificial “crutch” – comforted in the knowledge that their food contains no sugar or fat, they over consume this “safe” food. In the end, sugar may not turn out to be the enemy that many people claim it is.

There are a few reasons why sugar has a bad reputation. For one, refined sugars provide easy food for oral bacteria, and can promote cavities and the accumulation of plaque.

There is also a prevalent belief that all simple carbohydrates are bad. In reality, the digestive system is very complex and there is more to consider than just the number of molecules chained together in a food – one must consider enzymes, where the food is processed in the body, and what changes take place to the food before the body utilizes it.

What is the Enemy?

Sugar is certainly not your enemy. Refined and processed sugars are! Consume a protein and a whole, unprocessed carbohydrate with every meal, and add healthy fats to your diet. If these meals happen to contain some natural honey or cane juice, don’t sweat it!

Eat 4 – 5 servings of fruit and or vegetables each day – there are far too many healthy compounds in these foods to pass them up out of fear of the natural sugar contained within. Make your own choice about artificial sweeteners, but keep in mind that you can easily control your portion sizes and use natural sweeteners instead. Are the potential risks worth the small benefit you may or may not be receiving from artificial sweeteners?

Learn to let sugar work with you, not against you!

Written by Jeremy Likness

  • Liz

    I am allergic to Artificial & Low Calorie Sweeteners. It causes me to have clear water from my mouth and very loose bile. My mother had the same symptoms as well as my daughter. I use a small amount of sugar or no sweetener. My mother was a type II diabetic and so am I. My daughter is very health with health issues. So it not just a diabetic issues it’s health people too. I wish there was labels in big letter stating artificial sweetener in the food, before we get sick and have to read the small print. Some have names that you have to look up to find out if it’s an ingredient you can have. A study I read that some people have been crippled thinking they have MS or another disease. I think it should more study on these artificial sweeteners?

  • Debbie

    I have turned away from artificial sweetners now for the last 5 days and turned back to sugar. I would consider myself a high consumer of aspartamine. Since going “cold turkey” from it I have had a few symptoms, really bad headaches and joint pain. I researched it and this is apparently common because I was concerned. I now believe you can become “addicted” to sweetner. I am no longer consuming any at all apart from natural sugars in fruit and veg and cane sugar. Has anyone else found this would be interested to know. Reading the labels on food it has been VERY difficult to avoid.

    • Concerned Citizen

      I would suggest you do some more research. You have simply traded one poison for another.

      Watch ‘Sugar, The Bitter Truth’ on YouTube for starters.

  • Destan Wilkerson

    I have a science fair project on this. Which is healthier? Real sugar or artificial sweetners

    • dog

      real sugar is

  • tanya feher

    i’m trying to find out if eating large amounts of equal can actually lead to weight gain for some reason. I am not sure I understand the GI

  • Dr S C GUPTA

    A very lucid and informative article. THANKS

  • h s jassal

    let the people learn seiously about sugar side effects’

  • Vincent lay

    After reading this article, I’m now more informed about the subject of “Glycemic Index” … Thx!

  • Becky

    wow this is a very detailed and helpful account on sugar, it really opened my eyes to it. I would use stevia and most unrefined types of sugar.

    I have heard that too much fructose is also bad and that only 25g should be consumed a day (although eating fruit & veg still only has small amounts) so it seems as ok & I would still eat plenty.

    They also say simple sugars are “bad” or at least that how I have been lead to believe. Simple sugars are carbohydrates that are quickly absorbed by the body to produce energy, does that mean unrefined sugar isn’t a simple sugar?, if your body take longer to process it than table sugar? I mean if honey (labelled simple) has less effect on blood sugars than brown rice(labelled a complex carb), then would that mean brown rice is simple ? , and simple food is ok to take pretty often and in quite high amounts (and taking up a good percentage of daily cals found from carb) even when wanting to loose weight?
    I’m getting mixed up but they are different things right? And simple sugars aren’t as bad as there made to be. This is what I came across, in quotes.
    “Carbohydrates closer in structure (simple sugar) to glucose are digested faster because there is less nutrient molecules to breakdown. This is what we call a High Glycemic Index or a high simple glucose content.”
    does this mean unrefined sugar is complex because of fibre & mineral content ?
    I may not know a lot about this but reading this helped me & if anybody could answer my questions to help me understand, (as I’m like many wanting to improve health) I’d be grateful but I know some people are busy thanx anyway (=

  • Nikki

    cutting aspartame out could GREATLY help with people with MS.I’ve read about so many cases where they stopped cold turkey and ALL the symptoms went away!…. but bet the doctors dont tell anyone

  • Nikki

    I buy stevia all the time from the healthfood store. Dont forget Nutrasweet, it is basically ASPERTAME. they changed the name so they could sell it again

  • Laura

    Why doesn’t anyone mention the natural sweetner Xylitol? This sweetner doesn’t raise your Glycemic index and taste just like sugar. It actually has health benefits as well. Read up on it! It’s all I use now. Baking, sprinkle right on strawberries, coffee etc. It’s is absolutely awesome. I have lost 12 lbs cutting the sugar out of my diet and watching my other carbs. I do still eat fruits and veggies and I really don’t care about the sugar in those because the benefits out way the negatives. Good Luck to everyone!

  • Rhoda

    It is eating real sugar that makes a person crave more sweets, I take saccharin (no problems there) and all my sweet cravings have gone.I have tried to eliminate all added sugars to my diet as I had the proverbial ‘sweet tooth’, that sweet tooth and the added sugar are gone

  • Angel

    This page was an awesome page. It was the best page I have every read.

  • Emily

    Thank you for an excellent, balanced, non-hysterical (but scary enough!) article on Sugar and sugar substitutes.

  • Heather

    Izzy–I would get tested for Lyme disease and other related tick borne diseases.

  • Leah

    This was an interesting article. I’ve been doing a lot of research on sugar (among other things), and I discovered a connection between sugar and inflammation in the body. I’ve been sugar-free for a couple of days(all sugars, including Stevia), and I’m already noticing that my body isn’t hurting like it was, also that I seem to have more energy. I’m a normal BMI, and I am a very active individual, yet I have a lot of underlying health problems. If cutting out sugar makes my body perform better, then I guess I’m sticking with it. I’m finding that the best advice is to listen to your body. Try something for a few days, if you don’t feel any better, then keep trying.

  • K.S.

    Aspartame can be deadly in extremely high doses. I was getting it in doses that most people never would, but I almost died. I got a cataract in my early 30′s. I had more health complications than I can describe and now I have lupus. It is all connected to aspartame. In small doses it probably isn’t a big problem for a normal, healthy person, but it IS a poison nonetheless and should be avoided as much as possible.

  • Annette

    I used to drink aspartame drink regularly and in large quantities in the 1980′s 1990′s an a bit beyond. I am now overweight. Everytime I cut my calories and try to lose weight healthily and with good nutrition. I get pins and needles,irregular heart beat and slight dizziness and strange & severe headaches. Could the aspartame in my fat cells when broken down be forming a toxic deadly chemical?

  • MEREYANKYA JOHN

    truly i hold a disagreement with mostly refined cane sugar of all sugars.the processes it’s passed through to consumption and the high carbohydrate content in it makes it absolutely deadly to health in the long run.can’t we opt for fruit sugars not purely refined?

  • dwayne kelley

    i have learned a great deal from this article, and now know about fructose and the true value of eating fruits and vegies.dwayne kelley

  • izzydoesit

    Sugar is poison = it has absolutely no nutritive value whatsoever and adds empty calories. It spikes your cholesterol level, depresses your immune system, rots your teeth, and makes the body ripe for all kinds of bacterial infections. I wish it weren’t true because I LOVE sugar, but we are a nation of obese addicts with terrible health which is great news for the food industry which keeps pushing junk foods on the public and even better for the pharmaceutical companies who sell you antibiotics and statins when your body breaks down.

    I can only speak about one of the artificial sweeteners, Aspartame (Nutrasweet, among other brand names) mentioned above. I would AVOID it at all costs. I ignored the warning signs and ate it in huge quantities for 20 years. I recently developed more than 20 symptoms, from subconjunctival hemorrhaging in my eye to swollen feet, shooting pains in my legs, leg and foot spasms, pins and needles, numbness, headaches, foggy brain, memory loss, hair loss, etc. I did a lot of research and determined that I could very well be suffering from Aspartame poisoning. I poured my last bottle of Diet Coke down the drain and threw out all my Xtra gum. Today I is my third Aspartame-free day. Not all the symptoms have disappeared, but I no longer have any swelling in my feet after three weeks of non-stop edema, and the pins and needles have greatly subsided.

    I am going to postpone the two MRIs my neurologist scheduled for this week until after I talk to him about my Aspartame suspicions. Do your homework if you ingest a lot of Aspartame. Since I developed these symptoms I have talked to ten people who told me they had the same symptoms which went away after they stopped the Aspartame. The proof is in your own body.

    We are a nation of addicts: sugar, artificial sweeteners, junk food. If you want to preserve your health more than you want to feed your addiction, do yourself a favor and stop eating garbage. We will not be perfect, nor should we give up everything completely, but I will NEVER drink diet soda or chew sugarless gum ever again knowing what it has done to my health. My only hope is that the damage is reversible.

  • jez

    my goodness!!! its realy an alert to those people who loves sweets!

  • Neil

    When I eat artificial sugar I get a “buzz” then begin to feel sluggish, depressed, irritable and often times angry or snappy. When I eat fruit or natural sugar I imediatly feel good! Almost euphoric! My stress disolves! I imediatly feel happy! I also feel a little more focused! Does anyone know why? Where can I get info?

  • Change

    I want to put on some weight.
    Does any one know the relationship between sugar and weight? And what should i take

  • Allison

    i`m doing a science project on real and fake sugar and this was very helpful.:)

  • Debbie

    Very interesting and informative!

  • Ana

    Please note that stevia has been approved by the FDA – and was done so in Dec 08

  • terrabit

    Thank you, very good article.

  • Rosalee McClure

    How can I print this like in a printer friendly version? Or, can you e-mail the article to me so I can share with other people that have an interest in this?

    • ted

      Highlight what you wish to print and then select “print selection” on your print window. :-)

  • rajendran

    Excellent Article