What is Sugar? (Part I of the Sugar Series)

English: Sugar cubes. Français : Cubes de sucr...

Image via Wikipedia

I LOVE Splenda. It’s almost unholy really. I keep some on my kitchen counter right next to my Starbucks coffee grounds and coffeemaker. I keep a Ziplock bag of a few packets in my desk at work. And I even have a few beaten up packets at the bottom of my purse- just in case. 😉

My love of Splenda got me thinking about doing some posts on sugars and sweeteners. There’s a whole bunch of stuff out there and I thought it would be helpful to post what these little condiments are and what they do to our bodies. And I hope it will be helpful to everyone & especially helpful to those recently-diagnosed diabetics or caregivers! There’s a lot to say about sugar/sweeteners, so I’ve split this topic into three parts: Part I: What is Sugar? (where I’ll talk about real sugar), Part II: Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy? (where I’ll talk about artificial sweeteners) and Part III: What Are Natural Sweetener (where I’ll talk about new natural sweeteners, sugar alcohols & sum up). Hope you’ll stay tuned!

Part I: The Basics of Sugar

Okay, let’s go back to the start. What is sugar?

Sugar is an edible crystalline carbohydrate.[1] It’s tasty and sweet and we love it! Some even call sugar the ‘other white drug’! Sugar is found in many foods, including fruits, vegetables and starches. Sugar also comes in many forms, but to start, I’ll just highlight three: (i) sucrose, (ii) fructose and (iii) glucose. All three are used by your body for energy. When consumed in excess, all three are stored by your body as fat.

So what differentiates sucrose vs. fructose vs. glucose? Ugh, well  now I have to go back to chem class[2]:

  • Fructose is a “monosaccharide” which means it’s made up of one unit of sugar. Fructose is the main sugar you get from fruits. Of the three, fructose is actually the sweetest! Fructose uptake is not regulated by insulin, so eating foods that have fructose will not have the same effects as glucose (as described below). However, recent studies suggest that consuming too much fructose can cause damage to your liver (remember the mention of cirrhosis here?), lead to obesity and insulin resistance.[3] This is something important for diabetics (or caregivers) to note (and it will come up again in Part III)! Fructose contains 4 calories per gram.
  • Glucose is also a monosaccharide. Unlike fructose, glucose intake is regulated by the insulin created by your pancreas. This means that when we eat foods that contain glucose, our blood sugar rises and is brought down only by the secretion of insulin into our bloodstream. And another fun fact: did you know that glucose is the primary source of energy for our brains? Without it, mental and physical effort can be dangerously impaired (I tried the Atkins diet once and learned this the hard way!)[4] Glucose is found in almost everything- fruits, bread, rice, pasta, yogurt and milk. Many complex carbohydrates (eg. whole grains) also naturally contain glucose[5]. Glucose contains 4 calories per gram.
  • Sucrose is a “disaccharide” which means it’s made up of two units of sugar (fructose and glucose had a baby!) that are linked together. Sucrose is the white table sugar you get at your average diner and is manufactured from sugar cane or sugar beet. Because sucrose contains glucose, all the same blood sugar issues that I raised above apply.  Sucrose also contains 4 calories per gram.
I Want Some of Your Brown Sugar
Sugar In The Raw / Turbinado Sugar

Image via Wikipedia

A word on brown sugar. Is it healthier than white table sugar (sucrose)? Kind of like how brown rice is healthier than white rice?  I recently struggled with this issue while trying my glazed miso cod recipe.  Well as it turns out, it’s more complicated than “brown”= natural/healthy and “white” = unnatural/unhealthy. That’s because there are two types of brown sugar:

  • “Raw” brown sugar made from raw sugar cane; and
  • Brown sugar made by mixing molasses with white (table) sugar

There are differing opinions out there as to which type of brown sugar is healthier, but generally my view would be to check the brown sugar you buy and err on the side of using brown sugar “in the raw”. The farther away you can get from processed (white) sugar the better! Brown sugar made by mixing molasses with white table sugar has almost the same nutritional content as white sugar. [6] You’ll know if a brown sugar is raw because raw brown sugar tends to be coarser (larger granules) than regular brown sugar.

That said, here’s the breakdown calories and carbohydrate-wise:

Type White Table Sugar Brown Sugar Raw Brown Sugar
Brand Domino Superfine Sugar Domino Light Brown Sugar Batey Natural Turbinado Sugar
Amount 1 tsp 1 tsp 1 tsp
Calories 16 cals 14.8 cals 16 cals
Carbohydrates 4g 3.8g 4g

Cost-wise, brown sugar and white sugar tend to cost the same, while raw brown sugar tends to be a bit more expensive.

The Bottom Line
So this is all well and good, but you’re probably wondering is sugar good for you? Well, calories-wise all these sugars are somewhat similar, so I’d say you should keep in mind three things.

  • First, watch your portions.  Any excess sugar (white, brown, fructose, whatever) gets stored as fat! So whatever sugar you’re eating, keep your quantities low.
  • Second point, consider the source. While some might disagree, I’d advise opting for raw sugar if you have to choose between sugars.  I’d advise doing so, if only because you know that the sugar you’re eating is less processed and chemical free. And everyone can benefit from getting their sugars from healthier sources (fruits and whole grains).
  • Final point, think about your own body’s needs.   Blood sugar regulation point is an important point to consider. If you are diabetic or have liver problems, reconsider how sugar will fit into your diet.

Who knew something so sweet could be so complicated! There are a DOZEN topics I’ve left out of this post to be discussed for another day. If you have additional questions on sugar (I’d be surprised if you didn’t!) please leave a comment below! Look out for Part II: Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy?, featuring Sweet ‘N Low, Equal & my love, Splenda!

Happy clean eating!

[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19403641http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructose

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glucose

[5] http://www.livestrong.com/article/280192-list-of-foods-that-contain-glucose/#ixzz1o0BTa7Ai

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/12/health/nutrition/12real.html

DISCLAIMER: Please note that I am not a medical professional or a nutritionist. These posts are simply meant to provide my opinion/advice on sugars based on internet research. If you have specific questions about your consumption of sugars/sweeteners, please consult your doctor!


About ChicFitChef

My "deserted island" checklist: a BCBG dress, a healthy & diabetic-friendly meal and a few workout DVDs. ;-)
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7 Responses to What is Sugar? (Part I of the Sugar Series)

  1. Pingback: Healthy & Diabetic-Friendly Recipe #5: Glazed Miso Cod | ChicFitChef

  2. Jennifer says:

    Great article! I was having sugar cravings the other day, so sprinkled some Splenda on a Trader Joes low carb whole wheat tortilla wrap and rolled it up. Was pretty tasty and satisfied the cravings for something sweet.

    • ChicFitChef says:

      Thanks for the tip Jen! I may need to investigate Trader Joes low carb whole wheat tortillas; I just made some fish tacos (post to come!) and finding a low carb tortilla had me stumped! Look out for Part II of this post on sugar substitutes! -CFC

  3. Pingback: 4 Healthy Snack Substitutions!! | ChicFitChef

  4. Pingback: Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy? (Part II of the Sugar Series) | ChicFitChef

  5. Pingback: 3 Reasons Why Government Should Regulate Sugar (CFC Opinion) | ChicFitChef™

  6. Pingback: 3 Things Your Body Is Telling You About Your Health | ChicFitChef™

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