How Different Sugars Affect Your Body

How Different Sugars Affect Your Body

We’ve heard sugar is an ingredient in everything from bread to candy to fruit. Mainstream media can be confusing, leading consumers to believe that almost all foods have sugar, and all the sugar is the same.

Believe it or not, however, not all sugar is the same. Each form of sugar acts differently within the body, and they all influence health outcomes differently. In fact, some forms in which we may eat sugar are significantly healthier than others.

Read on to discover how sugars act within the body how you can make healthier choices.

What exactly is sugar?

Sugar may be a misnomer for what we are talking about. Usually, when we are asked to “pass the sugar” we are talking about sucrose, or table sugar. This is only one type of sugar. There are many other types of “sugar” that all fall into the carbohydrate category, which we will talk about in the next section. More broadly, sugar can be defined as follows: any monosaccharide or disaccharide used especially by organisms to store energy.

At the same time, however, when you see the term “sugar” on nutrition labels, it refers specifically to sucrose, or common sugar, obtained from sugar cane or beets. For the purpose of this article, we have defined sugar so as to include not only sucrose, but other forms of sweetness naturally found in foods, as well.

What are the different forms of sugar?

To really understand the different forms of sugar, we must talk briefly about the chemistry involved. If chemistry isn’t your best subject, don’t worry, this will be pretty straightforward.

The most basic building blocks of sugars are called monosaccharides. You are most likely familiar with at least some of these. The one that we've all heard of is glucose. Glucose is the ideal form of energy for the body, because it is processed so quickly. Second is fructose, and third is galactose.

After monosaccharides come disaccharides, which result from the union of two monosaccharides. These probably sound most familiar:

  • Table sugar, or sucrose, is formed by glucose and fructose.
  • Lactose, the sort of sugar found naturally in milk, is formed with galactose and glucose.
  • Maltose, which is found in beer, cereal, pasta and potatoes, is formed by two units of glucose.

How to each of these sugars differ when we eat them?

The main ways in which the different sugars differ when we consume them are detailed below:

  • Fructose, when eaten in its natural sources like in fruits and vegetables, is an important, healthy form of carbohydrates. This is because of the fiber content found in fruits which promotes digestion, the key micronutrients it has, and the moderate amount of energy provided by the fructose.
  • Keep an eye out for high fructose corn syrup and other products high in fructose, since this is added, and not natural. Thus, the benefits that come along with eating foods naturally sweetened by fructose are lost, and instead promotes weight gain.
  • Maltose is readily broken down, or metabolized, since it is made up of two glucose molecules. This is the form of sugar found in breads and pastas, as well as in beers and other fermented products. Because it is so readily metabolized, it make the energy it releases readily available. It causes a spike in our blood sugar, and, if we overdo it, could lead to weight gain.
  • Sucrose (what we know as table sugar) is naturally found in foods we don’t usually eat in raw form, like sugar cane. So, the large majority of the sucrose we consume comes from it’s crystalized form and is added to many common foods.

All of these forms of sugar in their natural form usually come along with nutrients that are essential for maintaining health. However, concentrated forms of these sugars, or foods that use significant amounts of sugar as an additive, may lead to a series of health issues including a metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain.

In the end, remember that the function of sugar in plants and in animals is to act as an energy store. When we consume sugar, we are essentially taking away the energy store of the plant or animal that sourced the food and we are making it our own.

For this reason, it is important to balance sugar intake carefully with our energy needs. In general, it is safe to choose sweet foods made my nature when you have a sweet craving, rather than those artificially sweet foods made by man.