Alumni Nutrition

Processed sugars vs. natural sugars: What’s the difference?

Too much sugar is a bad idea and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) isn’t better. But neither is inherently good or evil.

Too much sugar is a bad idea and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) isn’t better. But neither is inherently good or evil. Despite what the media may say, a little added sugar isn’t going to instantly kill anyone.

Added sugars make things sweeter and tastier. They have a number of positive qualities when baking and bring a smile to both young and old. Sugar tastes so good that most American adults can credit 14.6 percent of their daily calories from added sugars1.

While sugar may make our taste buds happy, it isn’t very nutritious. It contains energy but not much else. It is essentially “empty calories” meaning that you get no nutritional benefit, aside from instant blood-sugar spiking energy from consuming it.

Sugar comes in many different forms in food. Most healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains, contain naturally occurring sugars or carbohydrates. Processed foods can contain naturally occurring carbohydrates plus added sugars. These added sugars come in many forms, and some are labeled “natural” to be more appealing to consumers.

The FDA does not have a definition of the word natural; they allow the word to be used if a product has no added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances but this is a loose regulation. “Naturally” added sugars like agave nectar, honey and maple syrup also have calories but are reported to have more helpful nutrients as well, like B vitamins, selenium and iron. Unfortunately in order to see those nutritional benefits you’d have to eat quite a bit of these added sugars each day.

Processed foods, like boxed, canned, wrapped or frozen (not usually fruits and vegetables), generally contain added sugars, though not all do. Processed foods must go through processing which tends to remove essential nutrients. Generally speaking, the more processed a food is the less nutritious it will be.

If a food is processed, look at the label and ingredients to figure out what it contains and whether you should be consuming it. According to the American Heart Association added sugar, in all forms, should be restricted to no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) a day for women (approximately 100 calories) and 9 teaspoons a day for men (approximately 150 calories) or less than 5 percent of total daily calories. For label reference 4 grams of sugar=1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 gram of sugar=4 calories.

Usual suspects

Cane/granulated/table/white sugar

Cane sugar is 100 percent sucrose, which means it contains 50 percent glucose sugar and 50 percent fructose sugar. It can come from either sugarcane or sugar beet. One teaspoon contains 4 grams of simple carbohydrate or 16 calories. It is well-known that sugar in excess isn’t healthy, so let’s not further debate the point.

High fructose corn syrup

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) comes from corn syrup and has 17 calories in 1 teaspoon. Due to its relatively cheap price and other food product characteristics it became very popular in the 1980’s in many processed and refined products, including sugar-sweetened beverages3. The most commonly used form of HFCS contains 45 percent glucose and 55 percent fructose (the sweetest form of sugar, also called fruit sugar) and is called HFCS 55.

HFCS has come under strong public investigation in the last few years. Due to the large consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in the last few decades, it has been accused of causing the obesity epidemic4. Fructose is a controversial topic with limited proof to show it as the only offender of the obesity epidemic.

Since HFCS typically contains more fructose than table sugar, less is needed to produce the same sweetness. HFCS is not available for the public to use at home but it is abundantly used in processed foods, so that may be a red flag when it comes to personal use.

Added natural sugars

Agave nectar

Agave nectar comes from the agave plant and contains 21 calories per teaspoon. There is a bit of controversy surrounding agave nectar because the agave plant contains inulin, a form of fiber, and other helpful nutrients. Unfortunately, it was found that by the time the processing is complete the fiber and nutrients are essentially stripped5. Agave nectar’s composition is difficult to pinpoint because different brands contain varying amounts of fructose. All differences aside, agave is found to have a remarkably high fructose content (one source estimated it to be as much as 70-90 percent fructose)6. Because it contains such a high content of fructose, less is needed to produce a sweet effect.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is pretty trendy these days7,8. Since maple syrup comes directly from a tree (not the maple flavored sugar water that Aunt Jemima puts out) it tends to contain more minerals than other added sugars do9. However, benefits may be minor if not nonexistent considering the small quantities of these minerals that are consumed. Maple syrup is more than half sucrose, which means it contains about 1/3 fructose. This may mean that you have to use more in order to produce the sweetness you want. Maple syrup can also be more expensive than other sweeteners which may limit the desire or ability to purchase and use it.


Honey is 2/3 sucrose with the remaining 1/3 being water. It contains 21 calories in every teaspoon but has been advertised as having a number of helpful nutrients10. Similar to maple syrup, these nutrients may not be in high enough quantities to be an advantage at the recommended dosage. Four tablespoons (252 calories) of honey would be needed per day to reap any health benefit11. Honey isn’t expensive but it’s also not cheap and its flavor profile can be very distinctive. While this may be a good thing for some, it might also be unwelcome for others.

The bottom line

Added sugars are not the devil. That being said they still don’t have much nutritional value and should be eaten less than the average American typically consumes. Though 6 to 9 teaspoons may sound like a lot, added sugars are in more places than we think and add up throughout the day.


When shopping

Think about how much processing the food has undergone. More processing means less nutrition, regardless of the type of added sugar.

When label reading

Check the ingredient list to find added sugars in processed foods.

Look at the serving size too. If the serving size is 1 cup, then 2 cups means double the sugar on the label.

The new FDA food label separates added sugars from naturally occurring sugars (for example, in Raisin Bran, some sugar comes from the raisins and some sugar is added to the flakes).

When baking

Find recipes that use the type of sugar you like; due to the different sweetness and structure of each sugar it is best to try recipes that have been tested for you.

Keep in mind each sugar may not have a 1:1 ratio when substituting. Swapping out one for the other might give undesirable characteristics or flavor to your finished product.


  1. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Food and Nutrition Misinformation. J Am Diet Assoc. 2006;106(4):601-607. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2006.02.019.
  2. Goldstein D, Mintz S, Krondl M, Mason L. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford University Press; 2015.
  3. Forshee RA, Storey ML, Allison DB, et al. A Critical Examination of the Evidence Relating High Fructose Corn Syrup and Weight Gain. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2007;47(6):561-582. doi:10.1080/10408390600846457.
  4. Phillips KM, Carlsen MH, Blomhoff R. Total antioxidant content of alternatives to refined sugar. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(1):64-71. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2008.10.014.
  5. Hackman, DB, Giese, N, Markowitz, JS. Agave (Agave americana): An Evidence-Based Systematic Review by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. 2006.
  6. 8 Surprising Benefits of Maple Syrup + Recipes – Dr. Axe. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  7. Inside Quebec’s Great, Multi-Million-Dollar Maple-Syrup Heist | Vanity Fair. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  8. Thériault M, Caillet S, Kermasha S, Lacroix M. Antioxidant, antiradical and antimutagenic activities of phenolic compounds present in maple products. Food Chem. 2006;98(3):490-501. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2005.05.079.
  9. Ajibola A, Chamunorwa JP, Erlwanger KH. Nutraceutical values of natural honey and its contribution to human health and wealth. Nutr Metab. 2012;9:61. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-9-61.
  10. Bogdanov S, Jurendic T, Sieber R, Gallmann P. Honey for Nutrition and Health: A Review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2008;27(6):677-689. doi:10.1080/07315724.2008.10719745.

This post was originally published on the Moore Family Center Health Coach blog by Rachel Elzinga. Rachel graduated from Oregon State in June 2016 with a second bachelor’s degree in dietetics/nutrition. Her goal is to give quality nutrition advice that isn’t difficult or complicated. She strives to remember that everyone has a different perspective and history with food and the proper way to fuel their body. Rachel is now the wellness coordinator and dietitian for Springfield, Oregon schools. 

Photo by Lindsay Moe on Unsplash