A Sweet Guide to Sugars


Sugar is a soluble carbohydrate that makes an essential part of any diet. It is an excellent energy source for cells throughout the body, including your central nervous system and the brain. When sugar is ingested, it is digested and converted to glucose which is absorbed into the bloodstream. It is worth noting the effect of sugar on the body is dependent on the type of sugar consumed. This piece highlights the different kinds of sugars, their health benefits as well as dietary guidelines.

Types of Sugars

There are two major types of carbohydrates: simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are made of one sugar molecule (monosaccharide) or two sugar molecules (disaccharide). The common forms of simple sugars include glucose, sucrose ( table sugar), fructose( fruit sugar), and lactose(dairy sugar). On the other hand, complex carbohydrates, also known as polysaccharides, have three or more molecules. The distinguishing factor between simple and complex carbohydrates is how quickly they are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream, greatly influenced by their chemical structure. These sugars are classified further into natural sugars and refined or added sugars.

Natural Sugars

Natural sugars naturally occur in milk, fruits, and vegetables and cannot be manufactured. The main types of natural sugars include glucose, fructose, and lactose, to name a few. Foods with natural sugars provide the body with many health benefits as they tend to be packed with nutrients.

Fructose naturally exists in fruits and vegetables. It is directly absorbed into the bloodstream; it does not need to be broken down when ingested. However, it is worth noting that the fiber present in fruits and vegetables slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, which reduces blood sugar spikes. Fructose is not always considered a natural sugar; it is also added in processed foods as high-fructose corn syrup.

Lactose is a type of sugar present in dairy products such as cheese and milk. Just like fructose, lactose is packed with proteins and fats, which reduce the rate at which sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream, reducing the possibility of blood sugar spikes.

Refined Sugars

Refined sugar is also known as sucrose. Refined sugar is obtained from a natural ingredient that is processed to extract the sugar in it. Sugar beets, cane, and corn are some of the sources from which sugar is extracted. Refined sugars are added to foods to make them taste better.

Refined sugars provide little to no nutritional value in the body, and for that reason, they are considered

“empty calories”; they do not contain any fiber, vitamins, fats, proteins, minerals, or other beneficial compounds. Consuming foods with high amounts of refined sugars is detrimental to your health. Unlike natural sugars, which reduce blood sugar spikes, refined sugars have been found to cause a spike in blood sugar. Besides that, studies have linked refined sugars to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer.

Many packaged foods contain refined sugars mostly disguised under multiple names such as cane juice, caramel, brown sugar, white granulated sugar, molasses, confectioners powdered sugar, maltodextrin, raw sugar, barley malt syrup, agave nectar, rice syrup, and evaporated corn sweetener. One should ensure they consume less processed foods that contain refined sugars. Always check the nutritional label when buying packaged foods to determine if it contains refined sugar.

Common foods likely to contain refined sugars include:

-Bread toppings: spreads, nut butter, jams, fruit purees, etc.

-Canned foods: canned fruits and vegetables, baked beans, etc.

-Ready-made meals: mac and cheese, frozen meals, pizza, etc.

-Sauces: pasta sauces, salad dressings, ketchup, etc.

-Breakfast foods: cereal bars, granola, breakfast cereals, etc.

-Diet foods: low-fat peanut sauces, low-fat yogurts, low-fat peanut butter, etc.

-Beverages: tea, coffee, soft drinks, energy drinks, etc.

It is important to note just like refined sugars are added to foods, some natural sugars are considered added sugars, such as coconut syrup, maple syrup, and honey. For example, adding honey to oatmeal means the oatmeal will have added sugar but from a natural source.

What a Healthy Amount of Sugar Looks Like

When it comes to regulating sugar consumption, much focus is given to the intake of free sugars. This comprises syrups, honey, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, sucrose, maltose, fructose, and dextrose. According to WHO, an average adult with a calorie intake of 2000Kcal should consume 5-10 teaspoons of free sugars daily, translating to a maximum of 50g of sugar. One needs to know how much sugar is available in various foods to ascertain the amounts consumed. Focus on making good food choices daily. Opt to consume more whole foods instead of processed foods which helps reduce amounts of refined sugars consumed. Also, one can choose to use sweeteners like honey and coconut syrup as they have more nutritional advantages to table sugar. Keep these things in mind the next time you are looking for healthy snacks to buy.