So, there’s a lot of buzz, hype, and confusion about eating sugar. Is it good? Bad? Am I overeating it? Well, this post comes after much thought and years of research, reading, and also working with people who are looking to change their eating habits. It’s easy to get confused about sugar, and truthfully, trying to get to the bottom of the truth about sugar, is enough to make you stress eat Skittles, am I right? If you want to navigate your way through the (not so sweet) confusion when it comes to sugar and your diet, you need only to read on as a nutritional therapist explains sugar.
By now, it’s almost a broken record to hear about how sugar is the enemy, and it no doubt is public enemy number one in obesity (childhood and adult), heart disease, and diabetes. The truth is, most people don’t know the difference between the various types of sugars in the foods they eat.
A sugar calorie, unrefined
Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose.
Monosaccharides are the simplest units of carbohydrates and the simplest form of sugar. They are the building blocks of more complex carbohydrates such as disaccharides and polysaccharides. Some examples of monosaccharides are cane sugar, honey, agave, and molasses.
A disaccharide is a sugar composed of two monosaccharides and is formed when two sugars are joined, and a molecule of water is removed. For example, milk sugar (lactose) is made from glucose and galactose whereas cane sugar is made from glucose and fructose.
Polysaccharides are formed by three or more monosaccharides. An example of a polysaccharide is starch found in corn and potatoes.
To break sugar down even further we can talk about sugar called by many other names (and, yes, some taste just as sweet — some MUCH sweeter).
Glucose is a simple sugar or a monosaccharide because it is one of the smallest units which has the characteristics of this class of carbohydrates. When oxidized in the body, (metabolism), glucose produces carbon dioxide, water, and some nitrogen compounds, and in the process provides energy which can be used by the cells. In the human bloodstream glucose is referred to as “blood sugar.”
Fructose is sugar found in fruit and honey. Used as a sweetener for soft drinks and processed food and is processed solely by the liver. Fructose, particularly in liquid form (outside of whole fruits and vegetable liquid form) is not to be confused with HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup).
Sucrose is a basic table sugar, also found in fresh fruit. When sucrose is consumed, the enzyme beta-fructosidase separates sucrose into its individual sugar units of glucose and fructose. Both sugars are then taken up by their specific transport mechanisms. The body will use glucose as its primary energy source and the excess energy from fructose, if not needed, will be poured into fat synthesis, which is stimulated by the insulin released in response to glucose.
Galactose is a monosaccharide commonly occurring in lactose. Also called brain sugar.
High Fructose Corn Syrup, also known as glucose-fructose syrup, is a combination of fructose and glucose made by processing corn syrup. Processing converts a portion of the corn syrup’s glucose into fructose to produce a desired sweetness. The resulting syrup is sweeter and more soluble. HFCS 55 (mostly used in processed foods) is approximately 55% fructose and 42% glucose.
Dextrose is another name for glucose and is often listed on processed foods (such as french fries and processed bread) as “natural sweeteners” and can be found in High Fructose Corn Syrup formulas.
Maltodextrin is a highly processed powdered sweetener derived from starch, resulting in a mixture of Glucose, Maltose, Oligosaccharides, and Polysaccharides. Maltodextrin can be found in many processed foods such as salad dressings and frozen foods.
Maltose is (aka Malt Sugar) starch and malt broke down (mashed) into simple sugars and regularly used in beer, cereals, bread, and baby food.
Stevia,also known as sweet leaf, sugar leaf, are dried and subjected to a water extraction process — 300 times sweeter than sugar with zero calories.
Sucralose (aka Splenda) is an artificial sweetener that is 600 times as sweet as table sugar, twice as sweet as saccharin, and 3.3 times as sweet as aspartame. Sucralose can be found in many low-carb and lower-sugar processed food products.
Sugar Alcohols, also known as polyols, derived from a plant sugar which is extracted by differing means, then reduced and then hydrogenated, then recrystallised. Sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol. However, they resemble their molecular structure. Sugar alcohols contain about 2.6 calories per gram, and they occur naturally in plant products such as fruits, berries, starches, seaweeds. Sugar alcohols will be listed as Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol, and Maltitol.
Are you dizzy now? That’s not even all the sweet substances out there, but these are the main culprits in most of the foods on the market today — especially processed foods.
Sugar: Not good vs. bad, but better vs. worse.
When talking about the body’s metabolic processes, and the fact that we need glycogen in our body to move, breathe, and function; it can be challenging to think that eating something with sugar isn’t a good choice.
Also, sugar — by its very makeup — IS carbohydrate, which is something we need to produce and store glycogen for all of our essential body functions.
So, if we have to eat carbohydrates — including sugar — how can it be so “bad” for us??
In the description of sugar types posted above, you can see that fructose, a sugar found in honey and fruits, is processed solely by the liver. But wait, the fruit is good for you, right? Yes, the fruit is good for you. Here’s the deal, eating an apple, as opposed to a teaspoon or two of table sugar, (sucrose – which is part fructose) is different. But how? When it comes to sugar calories, they are NOT all created equally.
About those sugar calories
Low carb, no carb, paleo, and IIFYM (just to name a few) are eating plans that discourage the consumption of refined sugar, and some of those plans even prohibit fruit due to its sugar content.
While I agree that when it comes to your overall health, sugar consumption is something to keep in check, however, it’s where you’re getting your sugar calories from that is an intricate part of your overall health.
Look, sugar is somewhat unavoidable — it is a naturally occurring ingredient. One way you can break through the sugary confusion is to ask yourself this simple question — to this complicated question: “In addition to the sugar in this item, what other benefits will I receive by choosing to eat this food?” If you can’t list any actual health benefits to consuming that food, it’s probably safe to say that it’s not the best form of sugar to be eating. Let’s take a look at the two examples below.
1. Soda vs. Fresh Juice
I’ve heard this before, “If a glass of fruit juice is just as sugary and has as many calories as a can of soda, than I’m going to have the soda.” While 12 ounces of soda and 12 ounces of juice are close in calories and sugar content, there is a significant difference between the two beverages and how they affect the body.
A can of soda has 140 calories, 39 grams of processed sugar (HFCS), and no fiber, so, therefore, it has ZERO health benefit. Whereas, a glass of fresh fruit and vegetable juice has 177 calories, 32 grams of natural fructose sugar, 2 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, vitamins A and C, Iron, calcium, and potassium.
2. Milk chocolate vs. Dark Chocolate
One ounce of milk chocolate has 38 calories, 2 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, 4 grams of sugar and no added vitamins, minerals or nutrients. Dark chocolate also has 38 calories, 2 grams of fat, no saturated fat, and 4 grams of sugar, however, dark chocolate also contains antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, iron, and Vitamin B12.
Let’s summarize it all.
Sugar comes in a lot of different forms. Some types of sugar come in the form of “empty calories” or “nutrient sparse” foods such as many processed foods, candy, soft drinks, and concentrated juices. While eating sugar may seem unavoidable, you need to ask yourself which health benefits are closely associated with the sugar containing foods you’re about to eat. If you can’t find a single vitamin, mineral, or nutrient in a sugary product in question– you won’t be missing out by giving IT a miss. Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables are essential to our diet. We need a balance of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes to fully absorb the nutrition in the foods we eat. While it’s okay to enjoy an occasional chocolate bar, ice cream, and other sweets — they are not the best source of energy for our bodies.
While your tastebuds may struggle to know the difference between table sugar, and, say, sucralose, your body recognises the difference between foods with fibre, protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
If you get the best stuff to your plate, your body will do take care of the rest.
Hopefully, this has helped to clear up some of the confusion sugar causes for so many people. If you liked this post, check out some more of my eating psychology posts to learn more about how your relationship with food helps to form dietary choices.