What are sugars?: Easy guide to sugars and carbs

What are sugars?: Easy guide to sugars and carbs
How sugars and carbs should make you smileHow sugars and carbs should make you smile

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.

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. Sugars, sugar, sugars? So many varieties of sugars… I’ll clarify the confusion.

  • Natural sugars are found naturally in foods, fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose), and include vitamins, minerals, and fiber. 
  • Added sugars often add calories without nutrients (“empty” calories).


Sugar refers only to sucrose, the most familiar form of sugar, a disaccharide (glucose and fructose). It is naturally found in plants while sugar found in the food supply is harvested from sugar beets and sugar cane. Sugar is a carbohydrate! Sugar is a natural ingredient that has always been part of the human diet. Carbohydrates comprising sugars and starches are broken down in the body into glucose. 

The body doesn’t distinguish between sugars used in food and drink manufacturing or in the home, and those found naturally in fruits and vegetables. However, the rate of which sucrose is absorbed can vary depending on if the source is solid or liquid food, for example in an apple or apple juice.


Sugars are a broad category of all monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, galactose) and disaccharides (sucrose, lactose, maltose, and trehalose): the simplest carbohydrates, having 4 calories per gram, and a high glycemic index.

Sugars are an important source of energy with glucose being the most important for the body. Our brain requires around 130 g of glucose per day to keep functioning.

Sugars can be naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and nuts, extracted from plants and dairy and added to foods, or manmade using various plant or dairy ingredients as a starting point.


Added sugars (added sweeteners) include any sugars or caloric sweeteners (both natural sugars and manmade sweeteners) that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation. Added sugars don’t include non- and low-calorie sweeteners.

FDA definition: sugars that are added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 % fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.

  • agave nectar
  • brown rice syrup
  • brown sugar
  • coconut sugar
  • corn syrup
  • dextrose
  • fructose*
  • glucose*
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • honey
  • invert sugar
  • lactose*
  • maltose*
  • malt sugar
  • maple sugar
  • molasses
  • nectars
  • raw sugar
  • rice syrup
  • sucrose*
  • sugar
  • white granulated sugar

*also naturally occurring sugars founds in whole foods

Finding added sugars in food

  • Total sugars include both added sugars and natural sugars.
  • Added sugars often add calories without nutrients (“empty” calories) and are the ones you want to limit.
  • Naturally occurring sugars are found naturally in foods, in milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose). They also contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. 

The major sources of added sugars: regular soft drinks, sugars, candy, cakes, cookies, pies and fruit drinks (fruitage and fruit punch); dairy desserts and milk products (ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and sweetened milk); and other grains (cinnamon toast and honey-nut waffles).


1) Monosaccharides

Simple sugars are made up of single sugar molecules.

Glucose (dextrose)

  • Most important monosaccharides
    It’s a body’s preferred form of sugar for energy. All other carbs (including other sugars) are converted into glucose during the digestion of food. When blood glucose levels rise, cells in the pancreas release insulin, signaling cells to take up glucose from the blood. As the cells absorb sugar from the blood, levels start to drop.
  • Glucose = blood sugar
    Glucose is the main sugar found in the blood and the main source of energy for your body.
  • Foods that contain glucose – fruits and vegetables, honey, and soft drinks.

Fructose (levulose)

  • 2 types of fructose
    occurs naturally in many fruits and even some vegetables, which is a good kind. Artificial fructose is the one you should avoid. 
  • Fructose is very sweet, roughly 1.5 times sweeter than sucrose (white sugar).
  • It’s also a component of table sugar. 
  • Foods that contain fructose (levulose) – most fruit, soft drinks, sports drinks, cakes, chocolate.


  • Galactose is a simple sugar found in milk crucial for metabolism and energy delivery in the body. 
  • Foods that contain galactose – yogurt, low-fat mozzarella, avocado, basil, beet, cherries, honey, celery, cherry, kiwifruit, hamburgers (with condiments), plums.


  • Sugar that is produced by the body
    Ribose is an energy source that the body makes from food. It is also used as a medicine by mouth: to decrease chest pain and improve heart function, to improve mental function, athletic performance, and exercise performance and recovery.
  • Foods that contain ribose – mushrooms, beef, poultry, cheddar cheese, cream cheese, milk, eggs, caviar, herring, and sardines, yogurt.

2) Disaccharides

2 simple sugars are joined together by a chemical bond.

Sucrose (table sugar)

  • The most common form of natural sweetener: crystallised white sugar from sugar cane or sugar beet. 
  • Sucrose (table sugar) = glucose + fructose
  • Foods that contain sucrose – Soft drinks, cookies, cakes, some fruits (tangerines), sugary cereals.

Lactose (milk sugar in milk)

  • It is broken down into 2 parts by an enzyme called lactase. Once broken down, the simple sugars can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
  • Whole milk is considered to be low GI food. It is broken down slowly and helps to increase the absorption of minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc. 
  • Lactose (major sugar in milk) = glucose + galactose
  • Foods that contain – Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt)


  •  It is found in molasses and is used in fermentation.
  • Maltose (product of starch digestion) = glucose + glucose
  • Foods that contain maltose – Grains and wheat (wheat, barley, malt, cornmeal, and sweet potatoes etc.)

3) Polysaccharide

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).

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:

Flavor enhancer

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 and processed meats.

Adding viscosity

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.

Bulking agent

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.

Fermentation agent

Producing ethanol, carbon dioxide and water. In baking (bread), pickles, and brewing, fermentation is a critical process.

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.

Carbohydrate consists of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Carbohydrates bound a wide range of sugars, starches, and fiber.

All carbohydrates are made up of one or more molecules of sugars. No matter how complex carbohydrate is to start with, once in the body, all carbohydrates are broken down to these three simple sugars: glucose, fructose, and galactose.

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.


Many of the foods we eat contain carbohydrates – which includes both sugars and starches, and our bodies will metabolize them in 3 main ways:

  1. Digestion
  2. Absorption
  3. Transportation

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.

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. Fruit and unsweetened milk also provides vitamins and minerals. Milk also has protein and fruit has fiber, both of which keep you feeling full longer and helps keep your metabolism stable.

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.

Refined sugar: Typically sucrose comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, which are processed to extract the sugar. Food manufacturers then add the chemically produced sugar, typically high-fructose corn syrup, to many packaged foods.

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.

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.


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.


High sugar consumption will lead to inflammation causing all kinds of diseases: heart diseases, cancer etc.


Many studies show that sugars consumption doesn’t affect hyperactivity, attention span, or cognitive performance in children. But I see the opposite opinions, too.


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.

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.

More Resources

How much do you know about type of sugars
Diabetes Education Online
Carbohydrate Calculator

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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