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Natural and Added Sugars

The Difference Between Natural and Added Sugars

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If you’re paying attention to your sugar intake, it’s important to know the difference between natural and added sugars.

You may think you’re limiting, but eating too much of certain “natural” or “healthy” foods might push your daily sugar totals over the edge. Overconsumption of sugar, whether natural or added, has been linked to nearly every disease process out there, such as obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

What are the differences between natural and added sugars, and how can we avoid overconsuming either type?

This article will take a closer look at natural sugars, such as fructose, lactose, and maltose, and how they contribute to bodily function. We will then compare natural and added sugars and examine the reasons why we should limit our intake of both types.

Natural Sugars: Fructose, Lactose, Maltose


Fructose is a monosaccharide (simple sugar) that occurs naturally in plants. It is similar to many other monosaccharides, such as glucose and galactose, in that it has 6 carbon atoms, 12 hydrogen atoms, and 6 oxygen atoms.

The main difference between fructose and the other monosaccharides is its structure. While glucose has a straight shape, fructose forms a ring with itself. Fructose is found in fruits, vegetables, honey, and certain grains.


Lactose is a disaccharide (double sugar) that consists of 2 monosaccharides, glucose and galactose. Lactose is found in milk and dairy products.


Maltose is a disaccharide composed of 2 glucose molecules. It can be found in germinating cereal grains, which break down starch into smaller sugars while the seed is sprouting.

Digestion of Natural Sugars

Of all the carbohydrates we consume, natural sugars are one of the quickest to be digested and absorbed by the body.

Once eaten, digestive enzymes quickly break natural sugar molecules into their component parts. Glucose and galactose are then absorbed by the small intestine, while fructose is absorbed in the liver.

The body can use all of the monosaccharides except for fructose for energy. Glucose is the primary source of energy for most cells in the body, while galactose is converted into glucose in the liver.

Fructose is the only sugar that can't be used for energy by most cells. Instead, it has to be converted in the liver.

The Benefits of Natural Sugars

Natural sugars play an important role in bodily function. Glucose is the primary source of energy for the body's cells, and it is essential for the brain to function properly.

Galactose is necessary for the body to produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose. Maltose helps the body digest complex carbohydrates.

All of the natural sugars are important in providing energy for physical activity. Glucose, in particular, is important for athletes because it can be used as an energy source during short-term, high-intensity activities.

What Are Added Sugars?

Added sugars refer to any sugar that is not naturally occurring in food.

Added sugars are most commonly refined from cane or beet sugar and used as ingredients in various food products. Some of the most common added sugars include table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, brown sugar, powdered sugar, honey, corn sweetener, raw sugar, and maple syrup.

While natural sugars are all made up of a single type of sugar molecule, added sugars can contain any combination of glucose, galactose, fructose, and other monosaccharides.

The body cannot use most naturally occurring simple sugars in plants because they must first be broken down into their component parts. Virtually all of the sugars added to foods are already in their monosaccharide form, which makes them much easier for the body to absorb.

The Digestion of Added Sugars

Most added sugars are quickly broken down into monosaccharides by digestive enzymes as with natural sugars.

However, unlike natural sugars, our digestive enzymes are not able to break all added sugar molecules into monosaccharides. This means that the body cannot fully absorb some of these types of sugars.

The Bodies Ability to Absorb Added Sugars

Added sugars are composed of monosaccharide components (glucose, galactose, and fructose), so the digestive system is able to break them down into monosaccharides.

However, the body has limited enzymes that can break down these monosaccharide sugars, so only a certain percentage of added sugars are converted into monosaccharides and absorbed by the small intestine. 

If too much sugar is consumed, nearly all of it passes through the small intestine and reaches the large intestine, where gut bacteria ferment it.

Why Added Sugars Are Dangerous

When consumed in excess, added sugars can cause a number of health problems.

The most serious problem is that they can contribute to the development of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Added sugars are also a leading cause of tooth decay.

How to Find The Proper Balance

It is important to remember that added sugars are not inherently bad for you — but it is way too easy to go overboard with it, and your utilization depends heavily on your activity levels.

The key is to find the right balance. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories per day (approximately six teaspoons) from added sugars for women and 150 calories per day (approximately nine teaspoons) for men. 

Those are maximum levels. It’s probably better to consume even less sugar than that, from all sources. 

By limiting sugar, you can prevent it from becoming a dangerous substance and focus on foods that give you sustained energy and nutrients that your cells and organs need.