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Good sugars or bad? It’s all about the company they keep

”The principle difference between heaven and hell,” said Lois McMaster Bujold, a Hugo-award-winning science fiction writer, “is the company you keep there.”

And the same might be said for the principle difference between added sugars and syrups and sugars that occur naturally in various foods, from strawberries to 100-percent whole grains.

We’re always going on about the evils of added sugars, but conversations with folks around the country have made us realize that you may not understand why it makes a difference to get moderate levels of glucose and fructose from fresh foods instead of highly processed and packaged foods. It’s all about the company they keep!

Carbohydrates (sugars are carbs) are found in all fruits, veggies and whole grains. You need them to live. All carbohydrates metabolize into simple sugars (glucose and fructose) in your body, feeding your brain, which feasts on glucose. It provides you with energy and interacts with insulin secretion to maintain healthy blood glucose levels.

When the sugars are found in or metabolized from fiber-rich veggies, fruits and 100-percent whole grains, they’re digested slowly, fueling you without causing an unhealthy rise in blood sugar levels, damaging your gut biome or disrupting your metabolic processes.

But, when carbs and sugars are fed to your body in highly processed foods, they’re digested quickly and spike your blood sugar levels. That hit of glucose attaches to proteins in your blood and renders them dysfunctional.

When your proteins malfunction they challenge your body to secrete sufficient insulin. When challenged over and over again, your body may become insulin-resistant, and chronic high blood sugar results, heading you toward full-blown Type 2 diabetes.

>> QUESTION: Does that mean you can eat naturally occurring sugars without restraint?

No. Once again it depends on the company they keep.

For example, we advocate skipping even 100-percent fruit juices (stripped of fiber) in favor of the whole fruit. Why? One medium-size orange has about 10 to 13 grams of sugar; a 16-ounce glass of orange juice packs in 37 grams of the sweet stuff. You’d never eat three oranges in one sitting! And too much sugar, even natural sugar, has metabolic consequences, including packing on pounds and triggering inflammation.

>> QUESTION: But what about high fructose corn syrup?

When you down a dose of (always added, never natural) corn syrup — which is packed into many processed foods, from ketchup to frozen dinners — studies show that it affects liver function and can boost uric acid levels (gout anyone?) and blood lipids.

There’s also evidence that it’s particularly damaging when combined with excessive added glucose/starch intake (French fries dipped in ketchup, for example!). Reduce your intake, and you reduce risk factors for metabolic disease and obesity.

The debate over the evils of corn syrup goes on since its widespread use began in the mid-70s.

Is it a coincidence that that’s when our obesity epidemic burst upon the scene? But we think the important point is that all added sugars should be avoided. Just don’t keep company with any of them!

Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D., is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email questions to

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