Sugar is a natural carbohydrate made by all plants as a part of the photosynthesis of the sun's light energy.
Sugar can also refer to a highly processed white powder made by extracting natural sugars into a simple, concentrated form.
The effects of simple sugar on the body can include inflammation, liver disease, body fat gains, and blood glucose instability, to name a few.
While the recommended daily intake for sugar sits at around 25-50g, the average American consumes over 80g.
While anything in excess can be harmful, the sugars naturally present in your whole foods, including fruit, contain water, fibre and nutrients that can offset the harms of the sugar.
Any processed, extracted, or refined sugar, whether added to a tea or contained within a biscuit, presents a risk of harm to your health that fruits and vegetables, no matter how sweet, do not.
What is the difference between natural fruit sugars and refined sugars and syrups?
The sugar in sugary drinks, hot drinks, baked goods, sweets, and ultra-processed foods is the same molecularly as the sugar found in fruits and vegetables.
The big difference is that the sugars in plants, when eaten as part of the whole plant, come with plenty of additional plant materials, including fibre, vitamins and nutrients.
Refined or powdered sugars and syrups have all these beneficial parts of the plant stripped away, leaving a highly concentrated form of sugar.
The difference between natural fruit sugars and refined sugars and syrups is that they have been so heavily processed they no longer provide the beneficial nutrients, water content and fibre.
These beneficial nutrients offset many of sugar's associated risks.
How does your body digest sugars?
Carbohydrates are released into the bloodstream when broken down into their simplest and smallest form.
Sugar is simple, meaning you can digest it very rapidly.
This rapid digestion means a sharp spike in blood glucose.
What follows a spike?
The insulin-related issues and blood glucose instability associated with sugar intake are primarily related to the speed at which your body breaks down and digests it.
Fibre is a complex (as opposed to simple) carbohydrate that takes longer to break down.
We may even need to utilise gut bacteria to be able to do so.
The slow digestion of complex carbs means a much slower release into the blood and much less of a spike in your blood sugar levels.
We then store or use this glucose energy in our cells, muscles and liver.
Fibre, the gut microbiome and reducing sugar-related inflammation
The gut microbiome refers to the trillions of bacteria and fungi that live primarily in our large intestines and the gut.
Research suggests that because these bacteria can produce beneficial compounds when fed the right foods, there may be a link between a nourished gut and healthy immune function.
The common denominator in what brings benefits to this world of living beings is fibre.
This incredibly complex carbohydrate is so hard to digest that we could not do it without these microbes.
The reason is simple when you understand how our bodies digest carbs.
Simple sugars are quick to be broken down into their simplest form.
As long as the microbiome primarily resides in the large bowel, closer to the end of the digestive system, anything absorbed quickly (like sugar) will never reach these bugs.
Because fibre is so tough, it makes it through to the microbiome to provide food for these microscopic living beings.
A healthy gut can regulate the immune system and offset the inflammatory effects associated with sugar.
Therefore, with fibre and complex carbs, fruit and vegetables contain plenty to offset the risks associated with their sugar content.
Water content in fruit and its effects on naturally present sugars
Water is free from both carbohydrates and calories.
For this reason, water consumption can help people control their blood glucose, according to several studies.
In addition, water helps provide a means to excrete excess sugar in the system, as sugar is a soluble substance that our bodies can remove in the form of urine.
Fruit and vegetables contain water that can reduce the risk associated with sugar intake when consumed as part of the whole plant.
Whole food plant-based: the solution?
If one thing is true, concentrates and extracts take something quite far from how nature intended.
Plants often have what's known as an entourage effect.
The different parts that make up that plant benefit one another and can be more useful in unison than isolated.
For example, have you ever been told that plant-based iron is more challenging for our bodies to absorb than blood-based non-vegan iron sources?
It fails to recognise how iron is absorbed as part of the whole plant rather than in isolation.
Vitamin C significantly boosts iron absorption and only does this for the type of iron found in plants.
Where is vitamin C found? In the very same plants that provide that iron.
Every constituent part of a plant works together to benefit the plant primarily and, therefore, us when we consume them.
Eating a broad spectrum of whole foods, no matter how high their natural sugar content may be, should be much more beneficial than eating ultra-processed, sugary foods.
That much should go without saying.
Enjoy a diet rich in plant foods, and you'll encourage your gut, mind and body to thrive in a rich nutritious environment.