The sweet mysteries of sugar


Sugar is everywhere. We love it, we hate it, it’s killing us, it’s nourishing us. And so the tales go. This month nutritionist Danielle Roberts take a look at sugar and its many forms. Which sources of sugar nourish and which don’t?

Many of us have become fearful of food and disempowered to the point where we distrust our body and can no longer hear what it needs.

Through my work as a nutritionist and life coach, I frequently see people searching for health, wellness and happiness solutions.  And just as frequently there is confusion caused by all the conflicting information out there.

The sugar story
We need some natural sugar in our diet. Our red blood cells have no other source of energy to use and unlike the brain, they cannot use fat as fuel in desperate times. This is due to the role of red blood cells; to carry oxygen around the body to different tissues. In order for our brain to work optimally, it also needs glucose, not only for energy but for serotonin production (our happy hormone) and melatonin (our sleepy hormone).

This doesn’t mean you have a free pass to eat lots of processed sugar. Where we get our source of natural sugar from depends how much control we have around how much ends up in our body.

fresh fruitFresh fruit
Contrary to popular belief, the body DOES NOT process table sugar the same way as fruit sugar. So 50g of table sugar is not the same as eating 50g of fruit, in terms of the amount of sugar we are consuming. This is because…

  1. With fruit we have to digest the fruit’s plant cells first to access the sugar, this takes energy. Whereas table sugar has no fibre so we just absorb it straight into our blood stream.
  2. Fruit has vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (plant only nutrients) which table sugar is devoid of. To process and utilise these also takes energy.
  3. Not all of fruit fibre can be broken down, hence not all the sugar is unlocked from the cells. It passes through our bowels to keep them healthy. So we don’t actually get all the sugar from the fruit.
  4. Some sugars from fruit first have to be broken down in the liver (which takes energy) before it can get absorbed into the bloodstream

Fruit adds valuable nourishment into our diet. If some fruits are not agreeing with your digestive system then choose fruits that are easier to digest and pack great medicinal value i.e. blueberries and pineapple. Discover which fruit your body responds well to and what ones it doesn’t. If you feel energised and the digestive system is happy after having a certain fruit, then it works well with your body, if not then it doesn’t.

dried fruitDried fruit
Dried fruit still contains some of the nutrients (ie vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients) of whole fruit.

However during the drying process, water is removed hence the sugar becomes more concentrated. Due to the smaller surface area of the plant cells (fibre) we can actually eat more of the dried fruit also. This is where a problem can arise; through eating too much dried fruit, resulting in an increased sugar intake. Overeating whole fruit is harder to do because we become fuller quicker.

Be mindful and honest with how much your body needs when it comes to dried fruit. If used in baking the release of the sugar can be slowed down by the fibre of other ingredients. At times dried fruit is handy for a quick refuelling food source, for sports competitions, hikes, cycling etc.

coconutCoconut sugar
Coconut sugar is much like dried fruit except it has a different type of fibre called Inulin. Inulin doesn’t slow down the blood sugar response as well as the soluble fibre in dried fruit. However, the lower blood glucose response is better than that of  plant syrups.

Coconut sugar does retain quite a bit of the nutrients found in the coconut palm. I’d like to point out that even though coconut sugar contains some nutrients, you would get a lot more from consuming other real foods i.e. whole fruits and vegetables.

Stevia is a green, leafy plant  native to South America. It has been used for medicinal purposes for many centuries. The plant has also been grown for its strong, sweet flavour and used as a sweetener.

However, the refined stevia sweeteners used today often don’t resemble the whole stevia leaves at all. You should be able to buy whole stevia plant so you can harvest your own leaves and use them, but most often when purchasing from a store, you are getting an extract (either liquid or powder), or a refined version of the plant’s isolated sweet compounds.

Often to receive the medicinal benefits of a plant you need to be consuming the actual leaves rather than the refined/ processed versions. Hence, there won’t be as many vitamins and minerals in them either. If you have a problem with overconsuming processed sugar then this is a good option as a replacement.

However, be aware that using the refined/ processed version you are consuming nothing whatsoever. Being that stevia is 100 times sweeter on our tongue than processed table sugar, it may drive an increase in unsatisfied sweet cravings for some people, therefore causing sweet food binges.

People with digestive issues are also at risk of getting an upset stomach having stevia as a sweetener, as when stevia is broken down by the stomach, alcohol by-products are produced which can result in bloating.

agaveRice syrup/blue agave syrup
Although these syrups claim to have vitamins and minerals from the plants they are derived from, it is very little compared with other refined sugar alternatives.

These syrups are made by exposing cooked rice and agave plant to enzymes which break down the starches and turn them into smaller sugars, then all the “impurities” are filtered out. What is left is a thick, sugary syrup, which really doesn’t resemble the initial source of the foods we started with at all. By the time rice syrup reaches your small intestine and gets broken down, it is basically just 100 percent glucose, the same sugar that raises blood sugar levels.

However, if you were to use it with baking depending on the other ingredients added in i.e. fibre and fat sources, these would be able to slow down our absorption of sugar in the syrups into the bloodstream. Fresh fruit, dried fruit or coconut sugar will give you more vitamins and minerals.

artificalArtificial sweeteners
This could be an article all on its own so I will keep it brief. Many processed foods are devoid of nutrients, and many contain artificial sweeteners to market certain products a “healthier” option for people.

Most commonly used in New Zealand are sucralose, saccharin, Aaspartame, acesulphame K and mannitol. Studies have been conducted to see if these sweeteners are safe for consumption. However they have not been studied long enough to rule out if any long-term damage is being done to our bodies if consumed over long periods of time. As they are man-made, not naturally derived, the body struggles to digest and process these sweeteners properly.

If consumed frequently in large amounts, it can affect our liver and digestive system (i.e. bloating/IBS). On top of this, they have no vitamins or minerals so do not nourish your body in any way. Many  are thousands of times sweeter than glucose, so can cause an increased drive for seeking and eating sweet foods.

In conclusion
Understanding the many different types of sugar sources in greater depth is key to arming yourself with knowledge to decide what is going to be best for your body, your health and your happiness.

Nutritionist Danielle Roberts is dedicated to helping people enjoy a healthy and knowledgeable relationship with food. Her business Fuel Nutrition allows her to share her passion for nutrition and healthy living. Danielle is a freelance nutritionist and works with a number of Hamilton gyms. To make a booking, please contact Danielle at


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