What is refined sugar?

Your body treats sugar as fuel. When you eat or drink anything containing sugar, your body converts that sugar into glucose. This glucose is then delivered to your body’s cells, where it is used as energy.

However, most people eat far more sugar than they can burn off as energy. This leads to weight gain and tooth decay, while increasing the risk of various health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Western diets often include too much of a type of sugar called ‘refined sugar’. This is sugar which is extracted from the sugar cane or sugar beet plant and processed to remove its natural nutrients.

What’s the difference between refined sugar and unrefined sugar?

Refined sugar

After undergoing the process of refinement, sugar loses its nutrients. It also becomes more concentrated. The result is a seriously sweet substance which is super energy-dense, giving it a high calorie count – yet it has no nutritional value.

Refined sugar is metabolised rapidly, which causes a sudden raise (or ‘spike’) of glucose and insulin levels within the bloodstream. Consuming too much sugar has been linked with a range of negative health effects including high blood pressure and insulin resistance1.

Unrefined sugar

Unrefined sugar is sugar in its natural state. Molasses and natural sugars from fruits like coconut or dates all count as unrefined sugar. Unrefined sugars have more water, meaning that they release energy slightly less rapidly than refined sugar. We should be careful not to consume too much unrefined sugar either, as this type of sugar is still very energy dense, therefore high in calories.

Want to know more? Find out why sugar is bad for you

Where is refined sugar hiding?

Refined sugar is most commonly recognisable as ‘table sugar’ – the white granules that you’d see in a sugar bowl. However, refined sugar has been included in the manufacturing process of many everyday foods and beverages so even if you never add refined sugar to food yourself, you’re still most likely consuming too much.

Adding refined sugar makes foods and drinks more palatable – meaning they taste better. This is why food manufacturers add it to everything from juice drinks, pasta sauces, yoghurts to breakfast cereals.

Many products marketed as ‘fat-free’ and ‘all natural’ are in fact packed with refined sugars. This is because by removing the fat from foods e.g. yoghurt removes much of the flavour. The flavour then needs to be artificially replaced – and this is often done using refined sugar.

Despite the serious health warnings and a campaign from Public Health England to reduce refined sugar in everyday foods in the UK2, it seems we still can’t get enough of it.

Although unrefined sugar is often considered a healthier alternative to refined sugars, all sugar we consume has undergone some form of processing and is unhealthy if consumed in large quantities.

Want to know how you can cut down on sugar? Check out how to give up sugar.

Last updated: 29 April 2020

FoodFood & Drink