Are all sugars created equal?
Sugar, spice, and everything nice, they say. More like, sugar and spice are everyday nice, considering how these two ingredients… well, spice up our lives. Without them, life would be as tasteless as the food we’d be forced to eat, Dark Age style. Heck, wars have been fought for their supply for centuries! Only goes to show how far mankind would go to get some sugar (sorry!).
But first what is Sugar?
Sugar is the generalized name for sweet, short-chain, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. Sugar is a common everyday ingredient used to sweeten food. Having been used as a natural taste-improver for thousands of years, it has become a staple of daily meals. It also has bacteria-killing abilities, which has led to it being used as a preservative.
There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. The main types are Glucose, Fructose and Sucrose. You have probably heard of glucose or “blood sugar” before and rightly so as it is the most important simple sugar in human metabolism, used as an energy source not just of humans, but also of almost every single living organism, down to bacteria.
The white, powdery stuff we often see those sneaky ants feasting on when we’re not careful, is a crystalized form of Sucrose extracted from sugarcane or sugar beet. Sucrose consists of a fructose molecule bonded to a glucose molecule. After being extracted and boiled for an eternity, the moisture is drained away, leaving only the soft, shimmering granules we commonly see in our glass jars at home. t’s been grown on the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, and was only discovered by the West during the Crusades, who called it “Sweet Salt”.
This stuff is 99% sucrose, sweeter than your boy/girlfriend at his/her best, and to consume in moderation. Yes just don’t eat it on its own.
So, what about the other kind of sugar, the one that’s less attractive but no less sweet? Brown sugar is brownish in color, simply because it has molasses in it, derived from the brownish liquid that sugarcane (and belatedly, caramel) evaporates into when melted. It is 70% white sugar in itself so the taste is roughly the same. Aside from that, it is said to be healthier than the white variety (though there are no scientific studies to prove this), and caramelizes much more readily than other sugars.
Other forms of sugar aside from Sucrose include Lactose (Milk Sugar), which can be found in dairy products; Maltose (Malt Sugar) extracted from Malt, used liberally for everyone’s favorite beverage (beer); and Liquid Sugar, the stuff that Sugarcanes are boiled down into.
But of course, what we’re really concerned about is how it affects us humans, no?
While sugar is a lovely part of our childhood, as we grow older, our once boon starts to become our bane. You probably know it already, too much sweets can cause your blood sugar levels to fluctuate, makes you prone to weight gain or diseases like diabetes and rots your pearly whites.
But let us not make a total villain out of this sweet substance; it still has its benefits: it gives you an instant energy boost, perks up your mood, and keeps your brain functioning properly.
Because yes you guess it already, all sugar are not created equal, one important distinction to make is between:
Simple Added Sugar Vs Natural complex Sugar
The distinction is important as your body does not assimilate both the same way.
Simple processed white sugar contains no other nutrients so it actually uses up valuable vitamins from our organism just to process it. In addition, the sugar we get from refined carbohydrates and sweets etc is too simple for our bodies to break down. Thus it causes a sudden rise in our glucose levels which has to be stored by the body causing weight gains. The body manufactures insulin to process the glucose - which is then stored as glycogen in the liver. What you experience then is a sudden sugar crash (hypoglycaemia) i.e. your body actually ends up with too little sugar in your blood, leaving you feeling weak, hungry and tired.
Natural foods are full of complex carbohydrates, which turn into sugars when they are broken down by the digestive system. Those "better" sugars are natural complex carbohydrates, which release sugar slowly into your bloodstream over time. This gives you the right amount of energy at the right time and you feel fine.
Fruits are suspiciously sweet, should I stop eating them?
Well, it is true that fruits contain Fructose, commonly called fruit sugar, and one of the two components of our white table sugar, the same one which can mess up our blood sugar level as we have just seen.
However besides fructose, fruits contain also a lot of vitamins and minerals needed to keep the body functioning well. Moreover, fruits have a ton of fiber, which not only makes your mornings easier by keeping constipation at bay, but also slows down your glucose digestion, thus preventing a crazy sugar rush (and crash afterward).
Finally, fruits contain far less sugar by volume than found in cakes, sweets, ice-cream, sodas, and other processed food. For example: half a cup of raspberries: 3.5 grams of sugar. Half a cup of raspberry ice cream: 15 grams, which is about 4 times more. Fructose is only harmful in large amount and realistically it is very difficult to over ingest fructose by eating fresh fruits.
So how much added sugar can you indulge daily?
To give you an idea the American heart Association suggest a daily added sugar maximum limit of 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for Men and 6 teaspoons (24 grams) for Women. However given the variety of strange names given by sugar on the food labels, it can become a real detective job, to track your consumption accurately…Therefore a good rule of thumb is to favor whole and natural food including fruits and veggies over processed food given a vast majority of the later contains simple added sugar.
When it comes to health and diet, it’s safe to believe in the old adage that too much of a good thing is bad for you. The key is moderation and as long as you’re eating a balanced diet and exercising, don’t worry you may eat a cup of your favorite Ben and Jerry’s once in awhile!