Is it true that some types of added sugars are healthier than others?

It has now been scientifically proven that excessive consumption of added sugar is harmful to health.

On this aspect, however, it is important to make a clarification:

The term “simple sugars” conventionally refers to monosaccharides, consisting of a single molecule, and disaccharides, the latter consisting of two molecules of monosaccharides:

  • Monosaccharides: glucose, fructose and galactose;

  • Disaccharides: sucrose (glucose + fructose), lactose (glucose + galactose), maltose (glucose + glucose).

These simple sugars are also found naturally in foods, for example in fruit (fructose), dairy products (lactose), but also in germinated cereals (maltose). What is found in processed products are so-called “added sugars” or simple sugars extracted, processed and added to food during food processing.

When one talks about “sugar” in the singular, one is traditionally referring to common refined table sugar, or purified sucrose extracted from sugar beet, which is added to the product recipes.

It is important to make this clarification because, although naturally present sugars and added sugars are metabolised by the body through the same pathways, simple sugars naturally present in food have no particular contraindications to consumption while added ones are one of the causes of increased obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and also certain types of tumour.  

Sugars naturally present in foods are found in moderate amounts, and along with them, fibre and other nutrients that reduce the negative impact on blood glucose and are useful for maintaining a healthy body. By contrast, sugars added to processed foods mainly for reasons of taste have no beneficial effect on metabolism.

The primary sources of sugars added in the diet are sugary beverages and refined food, especially ultra-refined food.

There are many products on the shelves containing added sugars from different sources with many different, and more or less well-known, names.

You often come across the list of ingredients such as glucose syrup, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), agave syrup, cane sugar, barley malt, dextrose, and maltose, fructose, and so on.

Since they are all added sweeteners, the question arises of which ones are a source of unnecessary calories for the body and whether there is any difference between the various types of sugars?

It is actually quite commonplace to regard some sugars as being healthier than others, which influences the consumers’ buying choices to favour one product over another. But is this really the case?

Are there really any added sugars which are ‘healthier’ than others?

An article published on the Harvard Medical School website explains that many of the sugars that are added to food are made up of both fructose and glucose (or either only fructose or only glucose). What differentiates them often is only the ratio between the two monosaccharides: table sugar (sucrose) for example consists of 50% glucose and the other 50% fructose, agave syrup is 90% fructose and 10% glucose, and so on.

Fructose and glucose follow two different metabolic pathways: glucose is absorbed via the intestine and passes into the blood by increasing glycemia (blood glucose levels); fructose is metabolized instead via the liver and, as a result, does not lead to an increase in blood glucose. However, over a long time period and at high concentrations (unlike natural fruit sugars), it increases the risk of developing liver disease.

In conclusion, whether an added sugar contains more or less fructose than glucose actually has only a minimal impact on health.

Except for special conditions, as in the case of diabetics, one type of added sugar is no better than another and in any case it is always better to limit all sources of added sugar and maintain them well below the recommended intake level which, according to WHO, should be around 5-10% of daily calories.

Sources and insights:

“Non è un FORMAGGIO” - Nuovi prodotti sostitutivi del FORMAGGIO a base frutta secca
Progetto cofinanziato dal Fondo europeo di sviluppo regionale nell’ambito del bando Regione Emilia Romagna POR FESR 2014-2020 “bando per progetti di ricerca collaborativa e sviluppo delle imprese” – DGR 773/2015 e succ. mod.. IMPORTO DEL CONTRIBUTO CONCESSO: euro 197.994,23 PERIODO DI SVOLGIMENTO: maggio 2016 – ottobre 2017 DESCRIZIONE: Il progetto consiste nella realizzazione di un prodotto di tipo nuovo sostitutivo del formaggio nelle diete vegane, vegetariane e nelle diete per intolleranti al latte e alle sue proteine. Il prodotto realizzato anche mediante l’utilizzo di latte estratto dalla frutta secca avrà caratteristiche organolettiche molto simili a quelle del formaggio ricavato dal latte, ma sarà di origine vegetale. OBIETTIVI: 1. definire il trattamento ottimale a cui deve essere soggetta la materia prima per ottimizzare resa, qualità nutrizionale ed organolettica del prodotto finito 2. assicurare la realizzazione di un prodotto agroalimentare sicuro 3. intervenire sulle tecniche di conservazione del prodotto 4. individuare il packaging ottimale 5. offrire sul mercato un prodotto salubre e sicuro in grado di rispondere a cambiamenti di tipo culturale e alimentare RISULTATI: Il progetto ha lo scopo di realizzare prodotti fermentati innovativi, a partire dalla frutta secca, indirizzati a consumatori vegetariani/vegani/intolleranti. - messa a punto delle condizioni ottimali di processo - innalzamento delle caratteristiche di stabilità e sicurezza alimentare - studio e la messa a punto di tipologie di imballaggi