What are sugars?: Easy guide to sugars and carbs
What are sugars? Sugars, not sugar. There are so many different types of sweeteners and it’s very very confusing. Learn about sugars and carbs so that you can enjoy them with caution.
Table of Contents
What are Sugars?
I’m talking about sugars, not sugar. When you think of the term “sugar”, you often think of the familiar sweetener in your kitchen. That sugar is sucrose and is the most familiar form of sugar. Sugar refers only to sucrose.
Sugars are a broad category of all monosaccharides and disaccharides: the simplest carbohydrates, having 4 calories per gram, and a high glycemic index.
Important roles of sugars
Sugars are not just sweet. They have numerous important properties that contribute to the appearance, texture, and shelf life when it’s added to foods:
Adding a little sugar to foods such as sour fruits (frozen berries or rhubarb) helps to balance the flavor and make them more palatable. Without sugar, some of the nutritious foods might be harder to eat enjoyably. Sugar also enhances fruit flavors in foods.
Sugar helps to provide a thickness and consistency in various types of drinks and in semi-liquid foods like syrups and sweet sauces.
When it’s heated, sugar delays the coagulation of proteins (or the change to a more semi-solid state), which is useful for products such as desserts like baked custards.
Sugar plays an important part as a bulking agent on the physical characteristic of food and texture. For baking, it helps to promote airly lightness and stops cookies from cracking.
Maillard reaction: When it’s heated, sugar reacts with proteins as they break down in the cooking process providing desirable color and flavor that characterizes many cooked foods (caramel color on the top of a Creme brulee). Each of the stages of cooked sugar offers a gradually darker color.
Like salt, sugar helps to prevent or slow the growth of bacteria, molds, and yeast in food and to prolong the shelf life acting as preserves.
That’s the reason why many food and beverages containing lots of sugars and don’t require refrigeration.
Are sugars safe?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that sugars are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). However, you need to realize the overtake of sugars WILL be harmful to your health. Minimizing your sugar intake is always the best bet for your health. Of course, you can enjoy it sometimes. MODERATION is the key.
How can we reduce/remove sugars?
People start demanding to reduce sugar in food products for health improvement. However, reducing or removing sugars from products requires a number of substitute ingredients to maintain the same quality, taste, and texture that sugars provide.
The attempts by the food manufacturers often end up with a longer list of ingredients, less preferable taste, and texture.
Just swapping the ingredients wouldn’t cut it. When sugar is removed from a product, or replaced with a non-nutritive sweetener, its preservative properties are lost, which will have a shorter shelf life. Preservatives might need to be added to the products, which is often less desirable results for consumers in a healthy eating mind.
Some reduced sugar products can also be equal or higher in kilojoules to the original product. These are the difficulties that food manufactures must face.
However, there are many natural ways to enjoy food without sugar or less sugar. Eat whole foods, use fruits instead of sugar etc. Use your imagination or use healthy recipes available online – the possibilities are endless.
Sugars & Carbs
As mentioned above, sugars are the simplest carbohydrates. Let’s deconstruct carbs and sugars.
Carbs (carbohydrates) are one of the 3 basic macronutrients (proteins and fats) and offer nutrition to the body: vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals.
Carbohydrates mostly come from plants (fresh produce and grains), lactose from milk, and a small number of sugars in red meat. When consumed, carbohydrates provide energy to our body cells.
Carbohydrates bound a wide range of sugars, starches, and fiber. Carbohydrate consists of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.
Forms of Carbohydrates
Simple sugars are made up of single sugar molecules.
- Glucose (dextrose) is one of the most important forms of sugar used by the body for energy. All other carbs (including other sugars) are converted into glucose during the digestion of food.
Grapes, dried apricots, honey, and soft drinks.
- Foods that contain fructose (levulose) – most fruit, soft drinks, sports drinks, cakes, chocolate.
- Foods that contain galactose – yogurt, low-fat mozzarella, avocado, basil, beet, cherries, honey, celery, cherry, kiwifruit, hamburgers (with condiments), plums.
- Foods that contain ribose – mushrooms, beef, poultry, cheddar cheese, cream cheese, milk, eggs, caviar, herring, and sardines, yogurt.
2 simple sugars are joined together by a chemical bond.
- Sucrose (table sugar) = glucose + fructose
The most common form of sugar from sugar cane or sugar beet.
Soft drinks, cookies, cakes, some fruits (tangerines), sugary cereals.
- Lactose (major sugar in milk) = glucose + galactose
Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt)
- Maltose (product of starch digestion) = glucose + glucose
Grains and wheat (wheat, barley, malt, cornmeal, and sweet potatoes etc.)
Any carbohydrate that is made up of more than two simple sugars. Starches and fiber are made up of many simple sugars. Naturally found in some fruits and used commercially in like gum.
- Foods that contain cellulose – fruits and vegetables (including the skin of apples and pears), wheat bran, and spinach.
- Foods that contain starch or ‘starchy carbohydrates’ – potatoes, corn and rice.
- Foods that contain fiber – split peas, chickpeas, beans and lentils.
- Foods that contain gums – vegetable gums (agar agar, guar gum or xanthan gum used primarily as a thickening agent), carrageenan and alginates (used as a vegetable substitute for gelatin).
Many of the foods we eat contain carbohydrates – which includes both sugars and starches, and our bodies will metabolize them in 3 main ways:
When our body metabolizes carbohydrates it results in the production of glucose molecules which are the most efficient source of energy for our muscles and our brains.
When we digest sugar, enzymes in the small intestine break it down into glucose. Then, this glucose is released into the blood, where it is transported to tissue cells in muscles and organs and converted into energy.
Everything we eat contributes to cell growth, repair, and normal cell functioning. If too much food (energy) is consumed, the body stores this excess in the body.
The body constantly monitors the glucose level in the blood and releases insulin to control it. Low insulin levels allow sugar and other fuels to be released into the blood.
High insulin levels drive sugar into muscle, fat, and liver cells where it is stored for future use. If your body has problems producing insulin, responding to insulin, or both, this can result in rising blood sugar to dangerous levels.
Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that occurs when the body cannot regulate blood glucose levels properly.
The body’s cells can use glucose directly for energy, and most cells can also use fatty acids for energy.
However, glucose and fructose are metabolized differently. While every cell in the body can use glucose, the liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose in large amounts. When you have a diet that is high in calories and high in fructose, the liver gets overloaded and starts turning the fructose into fat.
The most notable exception to the carbohydrate metabolism explained above is dietary fiber. Dietary fiber – a type of polysaccharide, can be classed as either soluble (dissolves in water) or insoluble (cannot be dissolved in water).
The body can’t digest or absorb dietary fiber like other carbohydrates. Instead, a portion is fermented by colonic gut bacteria. As a result, it passes relatively untouched through the digestive system and is removed in stools.
As I explained it at “Metabolism”, diabetes is a metabolic disorder that occurs when the body cannot regulate blood glucose levels properly. In diabetes, either the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin (type 1 diabetes) or the body can’t respond normally to the insulin that is made (type 2 diabetes).
The causes of diabetes could be both genetics and environmental factors. Diabetics don’t need to avoid sugars but must manage the proper amount of carbohydrates and sugars (and fat) intake. Also adding exercise in your daily activities is extremely important.
Calories are needed for the body to function. Mechanism of weight is quite simple: You gain weight when you take more calories than your body needs for your daily activities. The excess calories can come from fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and alcohol. Reduce the total calories (sugars calories included) to control your healthy weight.
- Get the majority of their daily calories from carbs – 45 to 65 % of daily calorie intake. Humans need a minimum of 130 g of carbohydrates per day for proper brain function.
- Limit the intake of solid fats and added sugars: No more than about 5 to 15 % of calories. Limit the intake of added sugars to less than 10% of total calories per day.
You must watch out carbo-rich food – sugars and cooked starches like bread and pasta for your dental health. Proper tooth brushing, mouth washing, the dental frosting will do the work. Limit carbs between meals. If you must have sugary food or drink, take it during the meal.
Types of sugars
There are many types of sugars, which scientists classify according to their chemical structure. When nutritionists talk about sugars, they usually classify them as 2 types:
1. Natural sugars
The naturally occurring forms of carbohydrate in whole foods – fruit, vegetables (fructose), and dairy foods (lactose) that contain beneficial nutrients to your body. Fructose and lactose are safe.
2. Modified sugars
Modified sugars are typically produced by converting starch using enzymes – artificially. They are mostly mixtures of glucose and fructose with some sucrose.
The refined crystals and syrups are added to enhance functions to food: sweetening and flavor enhancement, adding texture and structure, controlling crystallization, growing yeast in baked goods, and preventing spoilage.
Which foods to be added? Tons of unhealthy foods: processed foods, cordials, soft drinks, energy drinks, etc. This is the type of sugar that you need to avoid/reduce because it only offers harmful health benefits. They are low in nutrients, tend to have a high glycemic index and can be harmful to teeth.
Examples: sugar (ex. white, raw or brown sugar, icing sugar) contains sucrose. It’s refined from cane sugar or sugar beet. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, agave, maple syrup, refiners syrup, golden syrup, inverted sugar, caramel.
Conclusion: Sugar is one of the most important carbs you need for your body to function well. It doesn't mean you can consume it a lot. It doesn't mean you should cut it all. I love to eat but don't want to gain weight. That's why I learn and know about your intake so that I can make wise decisions including some cheating days. Eating should be fun! I'm here to make your learning much more fun and easier for you.
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