Given the wealth of confusing research, when in doubt, stick with natural sugar. And take a hard look at the ingredients of packaged food.

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On Nutrition

Sugar’s not getting a lot of love lately.

First came recommendations from groups like the American Heart Association that we limit sugar in order to prevent not just cavities, but heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Then there were last year’s revelations that Coca-Cola funded research designed to suggest that food and beverages aren’t responsible for increasing rates of obesity.

In September came news the sugar industry spent 50 years burying evidence about the links between sugar and heart disease. Finally, a report published earlier this month, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded that industry-supported studies found no link between soda and poor health — but independently funded studies found the opposite.

So does this mean that we should completely shun sugar? Not quite, because not all sources of sugar are created equal. What really matters is whether we’re talking about natural or added sugar.

Vegetables, fruits, grains, pulses (beans and lentils), milk and other dairy products all contain natural sugars in various amounts, either in simpler forms (glucose, fructose, lactose) or as complex carbohydrates that our bodies break down into glucose. Natural sugars come as part of an intact, complete nutritional package with fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, so this type of sugar is not a concern, as long as your diet also contains a balanced mix of nutritious foods that provide protein and healthful fats.

Added sugars are another story. Added sugars include the white sugar or honey you add to your coffee or tea, the brown sugar or molasses you add to your holiday cookies, and the sucrose, dextrose, maltodextrin, juice concentrate and high-fructose corn syrup — to name a few of sugar’s aliases — that food manufacturers add to processed foods. These sugars are highly refined from their original source and add calories without nutrients.

The problem isn’t so much a teaspoon of sugar in your morning coffee or occasional homemade desserts. The problem is the ubiquitousness of highly processed foods in our everyday life. Sugar is added to most of these foods, even foods that you probably wouldn’t add sugar to if you made them from scratch at home. Research shows that it is difficult to get enough of the nutrients we need for good health without exceeding our calorie needs, if we get more than 10 percent of total daily calories from added sugar. The average American gets more than that, especially children, teens and young adults.

What about healthful alternatives to sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? While honey, maple syrup, molasses, and rice syrup contain trace amounts of nutrients, it’s not enough to matter. Agave has enjoyed a “health halo” for years, but this highly refined syrup contains even more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup, ironically. In the end, added sugars are pretty much the same, regardless of their original source.

It will be easier to sleuth out added sugars in packaged foods once changes to the “nutrition facts” panel go into effect in the next few years. The new labels will include a separate line item for added sugars.

For now, if you want to know how much added sugar is in your yogurt, bread or jarred spaghetti sauce, or any other packaged food that contains both added and natural sugars, your best bet is to take a hard look at the ingredients list.