The 4 Types Of Sugar(s)-containing Foods And What To Do About Them

Sugar(s) is one of the hottest and most misunderstood topics in the field of nutrition today.

Most people think that sugar(s) containing foods are the root cause for all public health issues, so much so that I have encountered clients who even avoid fruit because they are scared about the sugar content.

As someone who takes a moderate and objective view on the majority of nutrition topics, this phenomenon concerns me.

There is also another side to the argument, however, and that is to simply state that there are several sugar(s) containing foods that just don’t do much for our bodies.

With both these points in mind, I will offer you a bit of a different take on sugar containing foods and how you should approach them.

My Take on Sugar(s)-containing Foods

One of the most important things that we need to understand when it comes to sugar(s) is the key decision that you need to make is not ALWAYS to eat less sugar (although it  very well may be, depending on your current diet) but more so, it is to make smarter choices around the types of sugar-containing foods that you consume.

To simplify things, I have broken sugar-containing foods down into four types and provided specific guidance on each.

The 4 Types Of Sugar(s)-Containing Foods

Type #1 – Naturally occurring sugars in nutrient dense aka ” healthy” foods

Examples:  Particularly whole Fruits & vegetables,  but also unsweetened dairy & dairy alternatives.

Guidance:  The great majority of people should not think twice about the sugar content of these foods. Not because there is anything special or different about naturally occurring sugars themselves, but because these sugars come packaged with a host of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre which you simply cannot live healthily without, especially in the case of fruits and vegetables.

If anyone tells you that you can’t eat  bananas because they have “too much sugar”, please have them give me a call on the banana phone because we have a few things to talk about.

Type #2 – Added sugars in nutrient-dense foods that might otherwise be perceived as healthy

Examples: Sweetened fibre-rich whole grain cereals & other sweetened whole grain products such as oatmeal.  Sweetened  dairy & alternatives, nut butters etc.

Guidance:   These foods all offer some ( or even a lot of) value from a nutritional perspective but replacing the sweetened varieties of these foods with unsweetened varieties and using fruit as an alternative source of sweetness instead will always be the gold standard from my perspective.

Note that making such a swap will probably NOT reduce the overall sugar content/caloric value of the meal ( it may even increase it!), but it will greatly alter the nutritional value from the perspective of vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals.

This won’t always be possible with packaged foods such as granola bars or nut butter, so you will have to ask yourself if the extra sugar added to these foods, in the amount you are eating them, is contributing enough calories to really negatively influence your health.

The answer to this question is probably no, but it will vary widely from person to person depending on their consumption patterns.

From my perspective, a few grams of sugar ( maybe 20 extra calories per serving?) added to a whole grain cereal , greek yogurt  or soy milk does not magically transform it into an “unhealthy” choice.

Type #3 – Naturally occurring alternative forms of sugars that are perceived to be healthier than they are.

Examples: Maple syrup, honey, jam, agave.

Guidance:  As much as you may not want to believe it, there is very little that separates the nutritional quality of these foods from plain old white table sugar. Both are sources of calories that exist largely in the absence of other essential nutrients and are assimilated in similar ways by our body, independent of fancy branding or packaging.

In fact, intake of sugars from these types of syrups represent one of the top sources of calories in our diets that does not come from food group foods. Technically speaking, the sugars that we add loose to food ( such as coffee etc) is also in this category.

So the question you have to ask yourself is simply whether or not you are using these products to such a degree that it could be compromising your overall energy balance or displacing the consumption of other nutrient dense foods ( particularly fruit).

If not, there is no reason why you can’t enjoy them but I’d always rather you sweeten your food with fruit whenever possible.

Type #4 – Added sugars in ample amounts in foods that would not be reasonably considered “healthy”.

Examples:  Soft drinks, salad dressing, ice cream, candy, baked goods & other highly refined grain products.

Guidance: The true definition of discretionary foods. We eat them because they taste good and we like them, but, for the most part, they offer very little back to us from a nutritional perspective and will quite likely be high in total calories, including both sugar and fat.

These foods make us happy and their is absolutely a place for them in our diet but we must also be honest in the assessment that consuming these foods with less frequency could help some of us greatly improve the overall balance/quality of our diets.

Final Thoughts

There you have it folks, my take on the 4 types of sugar-containing foods and how you should approach them.

I hope today’s article has been both enjoyable and insightful!

Until next time,

Andy De Santis RD MPH