The sweet truth about sugar
Sugar — this sweet treat has gathered a bad reputation for itself in health circles, and not without reason. The consumption of excess sugar has been linked to a number of chronic diseases, including diabetes and obesity, which is why people try to avoid sugar-laden foods when they’re watching their diets.
Sugar is present everywhere in different forms, under different names, and these different sugars have different effects on our bodies. It is therefore impossible to avoid sugar completely, but it does help to educate ourselves about it — what are the different types of sugar in foods? What are the different sugar names? What is a glycemic index chart and how is it related to sugar? What are the hidden sugars in food?
Types of sugars
In scientific terms, sugar is the generic name given to a type of carbohydrate which is naturally sweet, and contains carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Carbohydrates can be either simple or complex, the difference between which is determined by how quickly they are digested and absorbed, by the body. Complex sugars are composed of three or more sugar molecules, whereas simple sugars are composed of either one sugar molecule (monosaccharides) or two (disaccharides).
The most common types of simple sugars are glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose and maltose. Read on to know more about different types of sugar and their effects on our bodies and health.
All forms of sugar or carbohydrates that we consume are broken down into glucose, which is the body’s main source of energy. Glucose stimulates the release of insulin in the pancreas, which is then distributed throughout the body to fuel the cells. Once inside your cells, glucose is either used immediately to create energy or turned into glycogen to be stored for future use. An imbalance of glucose can have harmful effects on your body, with low glucose causing low blood sugar and weakness, and high glucose causing type 2 diabetes if left untreated.
Fructose is the sugar that is found naturally in fruits, honey, and some root vegetables, and is the sweetest of all naturally occurring sugars. Unlike glucose, fructose does not raise your blood sugar level right away, but is instead metabolised in your liver which uses it to produce glycogen, lactate, glucose and triglycerides.
While fructose from fruits and honey is beneficial to your body, excessive consumption, especially in the form of products like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) present in sugary beverages that suppresses the release of essential hormones like leptin, ghrelin and insulin, which adversely affect the metabolism, increase inflammation, and increase chance of diseases such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases.
Sucrose is a disaccharide made of one part glucose and one part fructose joined together. It is naturally found in sugarcane, beetroot, maple syrup, dates and honey, but it is also added to many processed foods, such as candy, ice cream, breakfast cereals etc. Sucrose has to be broken down by the body into glucose and fructose before being put to use. The presence of glucose thus increases the amount of fructose that is absorbed, which means that more fructose is used to create fat.
Lactose is the sugar naturally found in milk and dairy products, and is made up of glucose and galactose. It is broken down in the body with the help of an enzyme called lactase, the lack of which causes some people to be lactose intolerant. Lactose affects blood sugar less significantly than other forms of sugar.
Maltose is a sugar made out of two glucose molecules bound together. It’s created in seeds and other parts of plants as they break down their stored energy in order to sprout. Maltose is broken down into glucose when digested and its health effects are similar to other sources of glucose. Nutritionally, maltose provides the same number of calories as starches and other sugars.
Natural vs Added Sugar
Added sugar is any sugar that was added to the food at some point, while naturally occurring sugar is just inherently already in the food. Naturally occurring sugars are the kinds found in all fruits, many dairy products (like milk and yogurt), and some vegetables (like sweet potatoes and corn). Added sugars, on the other hand, are the kinds created or put in during the manufacturing process.You can find added sugars in the obvious (pastries, ice cream, cereal, cookies, candy, soda, muffins, cakes) and the stuff we don’t think of as classic sweets (bread, salad dressing, crackers, pasta sauce), typically in smaller amounts.
What are different names for sugar?
When you’re consuming packaged foods, it becomes important to demonstrate nutrition label awareness and read the ingredients carefully to assess its nutritional value. As easy as it may sound, it is actually quite a challenging task, for sugar has over 61 different names! While we’re familiar with names such as cane sugar or honey, some added sugars can easily hide themselves in ingredient lists under names such as agave nectar, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, molasses, dextrose, malt syrup, evaporated cane juice etc. Foods with high sugar content lie higher on the glycemic index, and can cause rapid spikes of insulin. Make sure to check the ingredients of any packaged food you eat to look for any hidden sugars, so that you can successfully manage your blood sugar levels
Glycemic Index and its effect on insulin
The glycemic index is a tool that is used to promote better blood sugar management by helping you increase awareness. Foods that are low on the glycemic index scale tend to release glucose slowly, with gradual rise in blood sugar and insulin levels, while foods high on the glycemic index release glucose rapidly, with large changes in blood sugar levels. The fast glucose release from high GI foods leads to spikes in blood sugar levels, while the slow and steady release of glucose in low-glycemic foods helps maintain good glucose control. Thus, it is especially important for people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes to be mindful of the glycemic index of foods while consuming food. Foods high on the glycemic index include refined and processed carbohydrates such as white and whole wheat bread, white rice, breakfast cereals, while some examples of foods low on the glycemic index include green vegetables, fruits, raw carrots, kidney beans etc.
Excess of anything is bad, and sugar is no exception to this rule. However, the sweet truth is that sugar is not the devil we make it out to be. Being aware of the different types of sugar and being mindful of what we’re consuming can help us maintain a healthier lifestyle, without compromising on the occasional sweet treats that keep us all going.
Now that’s a sweet deal!