So, there’s a lot of buzz, hype, and confusion about eating sugar, right? Is it good? Is it bad? Am I eating too much? 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 a Snickers, 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 ask this one question to solve sugar confusion.
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 at the moment. The truth is, most people don’t know the difference between the different types of sugars that are in the foods we eat.
A sugar calorie, unrefined
Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose. What are monosaccharides?
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. Some examples of polysaccharides are starch (corn, white potatoes), cellulose (fruit skins and seeds), and pectin (soluble fibers such as dried beans, flaxseed, and nuts).
Let’s break it down further.
Glucose: 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: Sugar found in fruit and honey. Used as a sweetener for soft drinks and processed food. 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: 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. A combination of fructose and glucose made by processing corn syrup. Enzymatic processing converts some 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: Another name for glucose.
Maltodextrin: A highly processed powdered sweetener enzymatically derived from any starch, resulting in a mixture of Glucose, Maltose, Oligosaccharides, and Polysaccharides. In the US, the starch is usually corn, rice or potato; in Europe, it is commonly wheat.
Maltose: (aka Malt Sugar) Starch and malt broke down (mashed) into simple sugars and regularly used in beer, bread, and baby food.
Stevia: Also known as sweet leaf, sugar leaf. Stevia plants are dried and subjected to a water extraction process. 300 times sweeter than sugar with zero calories.
Sucralose: (aka Splenda) 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.
Sugar Alcohols: Also know as polyols, derived from a plant sugar which is extracted by differing means, then reduced and then hydrogenated, then recrystallized. Part of their structure resembles sugar and part are similar to alcohol, yet they are neither sugar nor alcohol, they just resemble their molecular structure. Contain about 2.6 calories per gram. Occur naturally in plant products such as fruits, berries, starches, seaweeds.
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 difficult 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, c’mon, if I have to eat carbohydrates — including sugar — how can it be so bad??
In the description of sugar types I posted above, you can see that fructose, which is a sugar found in honey and fruits, is processed solely by the liver. But wait, fruits are good for you, right? Yes, fruits are good for you. Here’s the deal, eating an apple, as opposed to a teaspoon or two of table sugar, or sucrose (which is part fructose) is different. Why? When it comes to sugar calories, they are NOT all created equally.
The raw truth about 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.
Soda vs. Fresh Juices
I’ve heard this before, “if a glass of fruit juice is just as sweet and just 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.
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.
Wow! A lot of information. 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 body DOESN’T know the difference between table sugar and fruit, your body DOES know the difference between foods with fiber, protein, simple and complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
If you get the proper stuff to your mouth, your body will do take care of the rest.
Have you ever been confused by sugar? Do you live a limited sugar lifestyle? If you had 10 minutes how would you fit in something healthy?
***Helpful resources I used in addition to my nutritional knowledge about sugar to create this post.
Nerd Fitness – Super Awesome Blog, btw.