January 29, 2019

Sugar 101: Natural vs Refined – My questions and family’s solutions

Do any other parents feel confused about how to differentiate between natural and refined (or processed) sugars?  Or, what ingredient names they might be disguised under?

I totally do!!!

Becoming a parent changed me and, once we had the twins, we really started to become mindful about trying to avoid (when possible) processed, or refined, sugars.  A big problem I have had is understanding some of the language, around sugar-related ingredients, and finding some healthier alternatives.

For example, take something like ‘Sugar Cane’…is it bad or good?  Is it better, or worse, than just plain old ‘sugar’?  You may have noticed this ingredient in a lot of ‘natural food’ ingredient labels but, is it better?

Lucky for me, I was recently asked by my friend, Lindsy Wilson (who happens to be a Holistic Nutritionist AND the writer behind the Sprouted Health blog):


“What are some of your biggest questions when it comes to nutrition and healthy eating?”


…And ta-da!!! Just like that, there was my chance to get answers I could trust!

So, I got really lucky and I got some great and helpful answers!  Actually, we all got lucky because that simple question turned into the two of us writing this post together.  

Lindsy and I have come up with some questions that we thought other parents, grandparents…or human beings in general might have – and we worked together to give you this post.

Here you go…


Why is sugar bad for us?

It’s not! Well, not necessarily… It all depends on the type of sugar you’re consuming and the amount. 

Natural sugars, like those found in whole fruits and vegetables, can be a great source of energy for our body when combined with all the other wonderful nutrients they contain (like fibre, phytonutrients, healthy-fats, vitamins and minerals). 

Even naturally occurring sugars, when eaten in moderation, aren’t too bad for us. This can include foods like honey, maple syrup (real maple syrup, not the kind made of high fructose corn syrup), and organic cane sugar. 

So what’s the key to consuming these naturally occurring sugars?

It’s always nice to treat our selves, and our kids to a sweet treat, but maybe not on a daily basis. 

Refined sugar, on the other hand, is a whole other story.  


Why is refined sugar bad for us?

Not only is refined sugar highly processed, but also it’s hiding in most of the processed, premade and packaged foods that the average North American eats. This means we are consuming way too much of it, and far too often. 

The extensive processing that refined sugar goes through strips it of most (if not all) of its natural nutrients. This means the sugar that ends up in our child’s bowl of cereal is just empty calories! This type of sugar tends to lead to cravings, an expanding waistline, and a wide range of possible health issues.

Unfortunately, these high sugar foods also highly marketed to children, leading to a rise in childhood obesity, attention and behavioural problems, and in some cases, much more serious health complications like diabetes or heart disease. 


Are artificial sweeteners such as:

Equal, NutraSweet, Splenda, Xylitol and Sweet ‘N Low

bad for us? 


The short answer is YES.

To be more specific, artificial sweeteners have been known to cause a number of health symptoms and problems including headaches, migraines, cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, impaired memory performance, weight gain, and cancer… to name a few.

They’re also known to be highly addictive, leading to over-consumption. This is due to the desensitizing effect that fake sugar has on our taste buds and, in turn, our metabolism. Artificial sugars can be hundreds of times sweeter than natural sugar (Splenda is 600 times sweeter than regular sugar). This overload of sweetness re-trains our taste buds to only be satisfied by the sweetest of sweets and, if our taste buds aren’t satisfied, they tell our brain that we need more. This is a slippery slope because most foods that contain artificial sweeteners are often void of nutrients and calories (think diet cola), causing us to eat more food than we need in order to satisfy our hunger and our body’s energy needs.

For more information about artificial sweeteners and how they can affect your health check out this article found on the Dr. Axe website. 


What are some other names for ‘sugar’ that I should watch out for on ingredients’ lists?


Top 5 Artificial Sweeteners to Stay Away From:

  • Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, NatraTaste Blue)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Acesulfame K (Equal, Sweet One, Sweet ‘n Safe)
  • Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin)
  • Xylitol, Sorbitol


Names of refined sugar to watch out for:

  • Sugar
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Corn syrup… anything that is a syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Maltodextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit Juice Concentrate (this is an easy one to be fooled by since it contains the words ‘fruit’ and ‘juice’)


What are some good alternatives to sugar and where can they be substituted?

Great question! There are several little changes we can make to our everyday sugar habits that will benefit our health, and as a bonus they taste great too!


Alternatives for Baking, Sauces, and Salad Dressings

Photocredit: Samantha Alvarado

  • Honey – swap this for corn syrup in baking and sugar in salad dressings and sauces
  • Good quality maple syrup – amazing for baking and a little dash goes a long way in smoothies!
  • Organic dates – Also great for baking or sweetening up your morning smoothie.
  • Organic cane sugar – use in place of refined white table/baking sugar.
  • Organic coconut sugar – My favourite! Use for baking and sauces in place of refined white table/baking sugar. This is an amazing alternative for sauces in Asian cuisine as it has a hint of a coconut flavour to it. 
  • Unsweetened fruit sauces (applesauce, mashed banana etc.) – Great for baking (you can even use it to replace eggs if you run out!).


Alternatives for Your Morning Coffee

Skip the sugar cubes and stir in a bit of unpasteurized honey. This natural sugar will not only sweeten up your morning, but it provides a healthy dose of antioxidants. Just be sure you’re purchasing good quality honey that hasn’t been mixed with corn syrup or other refined sugars (usually you get what you pay for).

Another item to watch out for is flavoured coffee from coffee shops. The syrups used in most of these drinks are chock-full of sugar, or artificial sugars. For a tasty naturally sweetened latte check out my Sprouted Health Healthy Pumpkin Spice Latte recipe.

Photocredit: Lindsy Wilson

Is there anything else I should know if I’m trying to reduce my ‘refined sugar’ intake?


Stay away from:

Sugary drinks (or artificially sweetened) beverages like pop (soda), high sugar sports drinks and sweetened juice — Juice is one of the worst culprits of added refined sugars. If your kids need a little sweetness and flavour try adding fresh fruit to their water bottle, brew some herbal iced tea sweetened with honey, or whip up a healthy fruit smoothie.



Read labels – Ingredients list are listed from the most abundant ingredient to the least. If you see sugar listed as the first, second, or even third ingredient, put it back on the shelf. 

Avoid packaged and premade foods – By making it yourself you’ll know exactly what’s in your tasty dish.  

Stock your pantry – With healthy sugars and ingredients to make your own sweets, baked goods, sauces, and salad dressings. That’s right, watch out for hidden sugar in bottled sauces and salad dressings from the supermarket. 

Eat whole foods! – If you have a sugar craving try eating a piece of fruit, drinking a well-balanced smoothie that includes greens and veggies, or indulge in a piece of organic dark chocolate.

Give yourself time – Breaking the sugar craving cycle isn’t easy. Most of the processed foods that many of us are used to eating (even the ones that claim they’re healthy) contain refined sugar or sugar substitutes of some kind. Our bodies, taste buds, and minds have become so used to these sweet foods that REAL food tastes bland in comparison, but don’t lose faith! By avoiding highly processed, artificial and overly sugary food, your body will adapt with time and find it’s balance. 

Thanks Lindsy!!!

Before I wrap up this post, I want to just let you know the a few quick and simple ways that our family has significantly reduced our processed sugar intake in our house.


3 Simple Ways we have Drastically Reduced Processed Sugar in our House


1. We have switched to a natural peanut butter. 

This was probably the biggest one, since we eat peanut butter (and lots of it!) every day in our house.

When we first started reading labels, I was shocked to learn how many ingredients there were in our favourite peanut butter.  Of course, processed sugar was among them – cry!  

We have tried many brands but Costco’s Kirkland Natural Peanut Butter is our favourite, hands down.  It has a good consistency through the whole jar and isn’t left dry at the bottom.  

Tip: Store your natural peanut butter upside down to help keep the oil better mixed with the rest of the contents.


2. I use Organic Cane Sugar in place of regular (refined) sugar

I found a good one at Superstore that has the same consistency and blendability as ‘regular’ sugar – PC Organics Sugar from crystallized organic cane syrup. I can’t taste a difference at all…it was a really easy switch!  In full disclosure, it does cost a bit more but, we have taken a ‘risks versus benefits’ approach on this one.

If you’re thinking about purchasing some there, I highly recommend the Click & Collect program (where you order online and pick up your groceries once a shopper has gathered them all up for you – it’s AMAZING! …and perfect for busy families. If you do, be sure to check out my tips for success on my blog post, Superstore’s Click & Collect – My Review and Helpful Tips


3. Soda Pop is no longer a refrigerator staple

We were never really huge soda pop drinkers in our house but, for a long time we kept it on hand for guests. But then, occasionally when we would get a craving for something cool and fizzy, we would grab one.

In full disclosure, we do occasionally buy it if we are entertaining but, for the most part, we have given it up. Now, to get a similar experience, we’ll add a lime to sparkling water or even club soda.  

I truly hope that you have found this post helpful in navigating your way around the world of sugar!

Lindsy Wilson, RNCP and creator of the blog sprouted-health.com, is passionate about nutrition! With a background in graphic design Lindsy loves photographing healthy recipes, sharing her knowledge of holistic nutrition, and providing tips for living a healthy active lifestyle from the inside out.

For tasty recipes and healthy tips from Lindsy check her out on Instagram: @sprouted_health

Photocredit: Lindsy Wilson

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