Everything You Need To Know About Refined Sugar

Sugar has gotten a bad name over the years, and rightfully so! Eating too much of it can lead to seriously negative consequences for your health.

The thing is, there are actually two different types of sugar in the foods you eat: refined and natural, and when we talk about sugar being dangerous, we are almost always referring to the refined kind. In fact, natural sugar can actually benefit the body.

This article will illustrate exactly what refined sugar does to the body, and how it differs from natural sugar. We will also give you the tools to build a healthy diet and avoid refined sugar as much as possible. 

What is Refined Sugar?

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. The body converts 100% of the carbohydrates you eat into energy for the cells.

The two main types of sugar in food are natural and refined. Natural sugars, in keeping with their name, are found naturally in foods like fruit and dairy. Refined sugars, on the other hand, are the processed version of natural sugar.

Natural sugars are not necessarily healthy on their own, but they come in foods that are otherwise nutrient-rich and can be considered complex carbohydrates. Fruit, for example, contains natural sugar but also dietary fiber, so it is digested slowly. The protein in dairy also makes it so that your GI tract digests dairy products at a slower rate. The slower a food is digested, the more full you will feel and the less of a spiking effect it will have on your blood sugar. 

In contrast, refined sugars are simple carbohydrates, and are therefore digested extremely rapidly by the body. This rapid digestion may lead to a spike in blood sugar, which measures the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Sugar needs the help of a hormone called insulin to transfer it from the blood to the cells, so a spike in blood sugar will also correlate to a spike in insulin (as well as a drop in both later on). 

Refined sugar might give you a quick boost in energy, but that boost is not sustainable. In addition, foods with refined sugar have very little to no nutritional value, so they serve as “empty calories” for your body. The basic purpose of eating food is to gain nutrients from it, meaning foods that contain refined sugars offer very little to your body and health. 

Here are some foods that are rich in refined sugars and should be eaten in moderation:

  • Desserts
  • Soda
  • Candy
  • Baked goods
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Juice
  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • White grains
  • Ketchup and other condiments
  • Dipping sauces

A later section will help you identify via the nutritional label whether or not a product contains refined sugar.

Consequences of Refined Sugar 

A diet high in refined sugar can have negative consequences on your health in both the short term and the long term.

Firstly, sugar is famous for giving you a fast-acting “buzz,” but then also making you crash back down just as quickly. This is damaging because you will become hungry soon after eating. In other words, your sense of fullness will not last very long. 

As a result, you may overeat and, over time, gain weight. Frequent spikes and drops in blood sugar (which occur when you eat sugar in excess) can also increase insulin resistance.

Consuming too much refined sugar over a long period of time puts you at a higher risk for many serious health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Since eating an unhealthy diet also increases your chances of become obese, you will then be more vulnerable to developing any conditions associated with obesity. 

How To Know If A Food Contains Refined Sugar 

Every food item you can buy in the supermarket (with the exception of some fruits and vegetables) should have a Nutrition Facts label. This label provides you with everything you need to know regarding the ingredients within the food, the proper serving size, and the daily percentage value of each nutrient per serving. 

Beneath the number of calories, you can find a breakdown on how many grams of fat, sodium, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and protein are in this food. Sugars generally fall under the Total Carbohydrates category, as does dietary fiber. You will typically see a subcategory of Total Sugars, and sometimes there will also be a line dedicated to Added Sugars. Limit your consumption of foods that contain any added sugars as much as possible, since this is another way of saying that refined sugar is an ingredient. 

Just because a food has a Total Sugars category but no Added Sugars category, does not mean that it only contains natural sugar. If the Nutrition Facts label is not conclusive, you may have to browse through the ingredient list (often found below or next to the Nutrition Facts). 

As a rule of thumb, any ingredient ending in the suffix -ose is a type of refined sugar. Here is a complete list of common substitute names for refined sugar that you should look out for:

  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Table sugar
  • Nectars
  • Fructose
  • White sugar
  • Glucose
  • Brown sugar
  • Malt syrup
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Molasses
  • Corn syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Cane sugar

If you find any of these terms in the ingredient list, this means that the product contains at least some amount of refined sugar. As such, you should avoid eating it in excess, and perhaps look for a sugar-free alternative. 

Eating and Living Healthier  

There is more to a healthy diet than cutting down on refined sugar, although this is of course a great first step. Really, any diet is about balance: too much of almost any type of food is just not good for your health (the exception being fruits and non-starchy vegetables). At the same time, food and eating should be an enjoyable experience, so as long as you eat your favorite unhealthy snacks and desserts in moderation and balance them out with lots of healthy choices, you should be fine!

First things first, let’s focus on the foods you should limit your consumption of. We already gave a list above of foods that contain refined sugar, but what else is there? Really, any food that is processed, fried, or super high in sodium, cholesterol and/or unhealthy (saturated, trans) fats is not good for you. This means most snack food, junk food, some dairy products, and even red meat. 

In addition, consuming sugary and/or alcoholic drinks in excess can damage your health. Instead, stick to water, tea, coffee, and other zero-calorie beverages. Staying properly hydrated will ensure you have the adequate amount of energy to seize the day.

Here are some foods you should eat more of:

  • Whole grains, including quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat breads and pastas, and steel-cut oats.
  • Fruits, like berries, pineapple, and mango.
  • Vegetables, especially dark leafy greens like kale, spinach and broccoli. 
  • Lean protein sources, such as chicken, fish, beans, seeds, and nuts.
  • Low-fat dairy products, like yogurt and cottage cheese. You can also use non-dairy alternatives, such as soy, almond, or oat milk. 
  • Unsaturated fats, which can be found in olive oil, fatty fish (like salmon and albacore tuna), nuts, and seeds. 

If you struggle to attain the nutrients you need from your diet, or are just looking for a way to boost your health, you can also add a multivitamin to your daily routine. 

Our Complete Probiotic Multivitamin combines the immune boost of a probiotic with the most essential vitamins and minerals for your body, such as magnesium, iron, calcium, and the vitamin B complex. Taking this multivitamin regularly can soothe and regulate your digestion, improve your brain function, restore your supply of good bacteria, and improve your immune system. 

Finally, a well-balanced diet will be most beneficial to your overall wellness if you also follow a healthy lifestyle. This means quitting smoking, limiting stress as much as possible, and sleeping for about 7-9 hours each night. You should also aim to engage in physical activity 3-5 times a week, for at least 30 minutes each session. 

By following all of these steps, you can work to achieve the healthiest version of yourself possible! 

In Conclusion 

Refined sugar is a modified version of natural sugar that is used as an additive in many processed foods and offers very little nutritional value. Eating too much refined sugar can cause negative consequences in both the short term and the long term. As such, you should limit your consumption of refined sugar and instead prioritize a healthy, well-balanced diet. 

When diet is not enough, you can also always supplement your nutrient needs with a multivitamin


Added Sugars | American Heart Association

Refined Sugar: Downsides, Food Sources, and How to Avoid It (healthline.com)

How to spot — and avoid — added sugar - Harvard Health

Sources of Glucose | Kaiser Permanente Washington