This article will uncover everything you need to know about sugar, what the different types are, how to identify different sources of sugars from food labels, and the impact of sugar on our health.
Let’s get back to basics. Simply put, sugars are a type of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are composed of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon atoms, and can be classified into the following subtypes:
Monosaccharides: These are the simplest form of carbs and consist of just one sugar molecule present in the carbohydrate structure.
Disaccharides: These are also considered a ‘simple’ carb but are composed of two sugar molecules.
Oligosaccharides: These types are considered ‘complex’ as they consist of 3-10 sugar molecules.
Polysaccharides: These are also a type of complex carbs and are composed of more than 10 sugar molecules.
Apart from monosaccharides, whenever any of these types of sugars are consumed, the chains which are formed from the sugar molecules are broken down during digestion to provide our body with the energy it needs to function.
The main difference between the simple and complex forms is that because the simple forms are composed of shorter sugar chains, it takes less time for our gut to break down these chains, meaning that sugars are absorbed relatively quickly.
Monosaccharide and disaccharides are sweet tasting and this is what we would refer to as sugar. The complex carbs are not sweet tasting and these are considered to be starchy foods such as potato, bread, rice and pasta; the chains however will also be broken down eventually by the body into a simple sugar.
There are various different types of sugar – here are the four most common:
All the cells throughout the human body, in particular those of the brain and nervous system, have a preference for glucose as a source of energy. Glucose is the final breakdown product of carbohydrates and enters the bloodstream. From here, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin which helps to shuttle glucose into the cells where it can provide the cells with energy.
The body is able to keep blood sugars tightly controlled through the regulation of different hormones released from the pancreas. When this balance is no longer fine-tuned, people are at risk of developing pre-diabetes or even diabetes.
Insulin resistance occurs when cells don’t respond to insulin as they should, so in an attempt to get the glucose into our cells, the pancreas works even harder to produce insulin in larger quantities. Over a period of time, the overworked pancreas eventually stops producing enough insulin leading to high blood sugars, also known as hyperglycemia. This causes symptoms such as fatigue, blurry vision, frequent urination, excessive thirst, and weight loss.
Fructose (fruit sugar)
Fructose is a monosaccharide and so, like glucose, it is considered to be one of the simple sugars. It is found in fruit, some vegetables, honey, sucrose and high fructose corn syrup and in recent years, it has started to get a bad rep. Worldwide, the consumption of fructose-sweetened products has increased exponentially and so fructose intake has quadrupled since the early 1900s. The overreliance on using high fructose corn syrup in our food supply over the past decades has mirrored an increase in a myriad of chronic health diseases. Due to this, fructose has become the center of debate as the potential cause of modern health woes.
But what makes fructose potentially harmful? The first issue is that when comparing fructose vs. glucose, fructose is not as readily absorbed by our small intestine as glucose. This means that some fructose is able to travel to the large bowel and get fermented by our gut bacteria present there. In addition to causing excess gas and bloating, it may lead to negative health effects. Secondly, the fructose that does get absorbed gets shuttled to the liver and — it has been hypothesized that excess fructose in our diet can lead to a fatty liver.
But is there more to the debate than meets the eye?
The reality is that at present, the quality of research surrounding the fructose debate is not of the best quality, making it difficult for the scientific community to reach a harmonious conclusion. Essentially, the divergence of conclusions is due to the research being interpreted differently by various groups of researchers, in addition to people cherry-picking studies that align with their own biases and dismissing those that don’t.
So, what does the science actually say from a neutral standpoint? We won’t bore you with the nitty gritty dismantling of the scientific studies, but in essence, here are a few pointers:
A lot of the studies use such an extremely high level of fructose leading to findings that aren’t at all applicable to the majority of the population.
Recent studies have shown that when calories are equal between a high fructose diet and a low fructose diet, we do not see an increase in fatty liver.
While fructose does increase triglycerides (our body’s store of fat), studies have shown overfeeding from other sources of sugar also leads to an increase in triglycerides.
Sucrose (table sugar)
Sucrose is a disaccharide made up of both glucose and fructose. That white table sugar you add to your hot drinks and baked food? That’s sucrose. It is produced from refined sugarcane with the final product having no nutritive value apart from being a carbohydrate.
Does this mean that sucrose is bad for you? The simple answer is no. It can have its place as part of an otherwise nutrient-dense diet. However, the issue is that the western palette has become very accustomed to very high sugar foods, leading to their overconsumption in place of healthier, more nutrient dense alternatives. People with diabetes in particular also have to be mindful of the amount of sucrose they have in their diet, because sucrose consists of 50% glucose which can increase blood sugar.
Lactose (dairy sugar)
Lactose is a type of sugar found naturally in large quantities in dairy products. It is considered to be a simple sugar since it is a disaccharide made up of the monosaccharides glucose and galactose. An enzyme called lactase breaks up lactose in the small bowel during digestion; the glucose is then absorbed into our bloodstream whereas the galactose is taken to the liver in order to be converted into glucose for instant energy, or stored for later use.
Lactose intolerance is a common condition worldwide. Many people do not have enough lactase to break down the lactose which moves through the small bowel into the large bowel undigested. Since it has not been digested, our body is unable to absorb it, leading to symptoms such as:
The good news is that for people with lactose intolerance, there is no need to completely avoid dairy. Whilst milk will have the highest amount of lactose in it, there are lactose free milks available on the market. Additionally, most people are able to tolerate cheese and yogurt as they naturally have a much lower lactose content in comparison to milk.
When you hear the word ‘sugar,’ visions of Big Gulps and Halloween candy come to mind. The type of sugar in these treats is referred to as ‘added sugar.’ As the name suggests, these sugars are added to foods and drinks to make products more palatable, in addition to enhancing shelf life. These products include your favorite candy bar from the gas station, or it could be the maple syrup you yourself added to your homemade cookie. You may have heard of the phrase ‘empty calories’ and this often refers to food and drinks that are high in these added sugars but offer little other nutritional value.
But not all sugar in food is considered an added sugar. Another category of sugars are known as ‘natural sugars.’ Again, as the name implies, these foods are found naturally in foods- for example, in fruit or dairy. These types of sugars are held within the food matrix of the food, meaning that the effect they have on our body is not as pronounced as the effects of added sugar.
But it gets a little more complicated here. It can be quite common to see honey or maple syrup referred to as ‘natural’ sources of sugar as they have nothing added to them when they are processed. However, when it comes to healthy eating guidelines, they are not considered natural sugars but are in fact considered to be added sugars. Why? Because you use these sugars the same way you would use table sugar; you add it to food and beverages and sweeten them.
So, is all added sugar bad for you? In moderation, no. But the reality is that we love sugar- there’s no denying that. In fact, the FDA reports that on average, Americans consume approximately 77g of added sugar daily. It’s this excessive intake of added sugar over several years that can contribute to the development of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. This is why familiarizing yourself with food labels can be helpful in ensuring that you are not consuming it in excessive amounts.
It’s all good and well knowing about the different types of sugar and their effects on the body, but it’s even better to be able to identify them from a food label.
It has been made mandatory by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food and beverage manufacturers to include the amount of both total and added sugars that are present in a serving.
Total sugars include the sugars that occur naturally in foods and drinks such as those in dairy, fruit and vegetables, in addition to the added sugars.
In contrast, added sugars include only the sugars that have been added to foods and beverages during the manufacturing process in addition to foods that are to be used as sweeteners such as table sugar, honey and syrups. Added sugars can also be listed by other names including:
Evaporated cane juice
Fruit juice concentrate
High-fructose corn syrup
So, why is sugar such a major cause for concern in the western diet? As alluded to above, we are having way too much sugar in our diet, which can contribute to a myriad of health problems. Here are just some health conditions which can be exacerbated by an excessive intake of added sugars:
-Overeating: High sugar foods are often very palatable which encourages people to have a larger quantity. They are often not very filling which leads to increased hunger later on and frequent eating throughout the day.
-Tooth decay: Excess sugar consumption is one of the leading causes of tooth decay- this is because sugar interacts with bacteria on our teeth to produce acid. Over time, this acid leads to the development of cavities.
-Nutritionally inadequate diet: Foods high in added sugars are often consumed more often than nutritionally dense alternatives.
-Higher risk of heart disease: Foods high in added sugars are often married with unhealthy fats, producing foods that are highly palatable. Our taste buds love this combination. Our hearts? Not so much.
-High blood pressure: In recent years, some studies have suggested that a diet high in added sugar may play a role in increasing blood pressure.
-High triglycerides: excess added sugars have the potential to increase this type of fat in your blood, which can then go on to increase your risk of heart disease.
This is why kencko doesn’t use any added sugars - so you only get the good stuff! Try our delicious smoothies for a sweet fix without the added sweeteners. And if you’d like to find out more about sugar, you can find out what our Head of Nutrition has to say about sugar.