...but it's addictive.
It's found naturally,
...but its mass-produced and altered.
It's a runner's best friend,
...but it's the cause of chronic health concerns.
Indeed, sugar is one of the nutrition industry's most controversial topics.
In one of my recent blog posts, "What is means to FUEL" I mentioned that sugar can be considered "high octane" fuel for an athletes' performance. Yet, for others, too much sugar can lead to leads to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and more, being a barrier in their road to good health. The polarity of sugar's effects often leaves people stopped in their tracks, unsure of what to do and where to turn.
Eat less? Eat none at all?
Eat different types? Eat only natural sugars?
The answer to these questions is often individual to your diet, lifestyle, exercises level, genetics, and personal preferences. But not everybody has the time, money or resources to work with a dietitian and figure out what is best for them.
Sugars are often called "simple sugars" due to their simplicity in the world of organic chemistry. And although most would agree that organic chemistry is one of the most challenging college courses, you may be surprised to find out that sugar's use and role in the body truly is... simple.
The answers to your sugar questions may be as simple as learning a few facts...
In the kitchen, sugar is most commonly known as the white crystallized substance that we add to coffee, cakes, and cookies. But this is only one specific sugar.
Despite some crazy names you may read on the ingredients list of packaged foods, there are only 6 types of sugar that naturally occur in this world:
Some of these words may already sound familiar but in different contexts such as "high fructose corn syrup," "lactose intolerance" or "blood glucose levels." Once you understand what these sugars are, then those terms will become easy to understand as well. So let's break it down:
Glucose is the most common form of sugar found in nature. If you think back to 8th grade biology, you may remember the formula for photosynthesis:
6(CO2)+ 6(H2O) + sunlight and chlorophyll= C6H12O6
Well in words, that says plants use carbon, oxygen, and water to make glucose.
It means that plants make sugar.
That's it! A simple and natural process resulting in the presence of sugar in plant-based foods as healthy as spinach, broccoli, corn, kale, wheat, oats, beans, and so much more!
Another unique fact is no matter what sugar we eat (perhaps a fructose or sucrose), inside of our bodies all types of sugar are ultimately converted into glucose. Glucose is what our bodies can transport through the blood and use within our cells, our muscles, and our brains for energy. Doctors often draw a "blood glucose" sample to measure how much sugar is in your blood at any given time. Having too much or too little is a reflection of your body's ability to break it down, use it, or store it.
In summary, glucose is found in all plant-based foods and it circulates in our blood to sustain life.
Fructose is another well-known sugar naturally found in all fruits, some vegetables, and honey. Bananas, apples, and strawberries are all great examples of fructose. Fructose is well-known for being the sweetest tasting sugar.
Unfortunately, it's also notorious for contributing to obesity more so than other sugars. This notion is still up for debate by scientists and nutrition professionals. Unlike other sugars (we'll cover that next), fructose is not taken up directly into the bloodstream, but rather sent to the liver first. This process means insulin is not released, feelings of fullness are not triggered, and triglycerides (fats) in the blood are slightly raised if fructose is over consumed. The key phrase is: "if over-consumed." In a well-balanced diet, issues of disease or obesity are not observed by eating fruit and natural sources of fructose. These health issues have coincided with the introduction of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the 1970s. HFCS is exactly as the name spells out: corn, essentially melted down into a syrup, and engineered to be higher in fructose. This resulted in a sweetener that was far sweeter than cane syrup, easy and cheap to make, thus, adored by candy and soda companies, and their customers alike. The debate of HFCS's contribution to the obesity epidemic lies in whether its due to the body's metabolism of fructose, or the simple over consumption of added sugars in the food industry.
Bottom line: The harm of HFCS is still a debate, however fructose found in natural fruits is nothing to be worried about.
Have you ever even heard of this before?
Few have. Galactose is rarely talked about because its not actually found in nature by itself. Galactose pairs with glucose to form lactose. Now that, I bet you've heard of...
Lactose = Glucose + Galactose
Lactose is a natural sugar in all milk products, including human breast milk. Despite some people's arguments that humans should not drink milk, it's important to understand that life, in the beginning, is sustained on the ability to digest lactose. We have an enzyme in our intestines, called lactase, which breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose, so the two sugars can then be transported in our blood for use in our bodies. As we age, some people experience a reduction in the lactase enzyme, which alters the ability to digest milk. This condition is known as "lactose intolerant." It doesn't happen to everybody, but it does happen to some. So though adults do not need to drink milk, its within our nature to digest it at the beginning.
Yogurt is food that many are shocked to find a high sugar content. I always like to point out the difference between natural and added sugars. If you look at the label of "plain flavored" yogurt, there will still be approximately 6g of sugar per half cup. You can rest assured this is natural lactose. Now if you look at "strawberry yogurt" now may see something closer to 20g of sugar, which you can deduct that 12g are added from other sources (hopefully from fresh strawberries which, we now know, is fructose, and hopefully not from high fructose corn syrup, or possibly from sucrose which we'll get to in just a moment).
So despite many popular diet trends encouraging the elimination of lactose or dairy, our bodies are created to digest and process these natural milk sugars. What happens to our ability to digest lactose over time is unique to each individual.
Maltose = Glucose + Glucose
For the over-21 readers, maltose may be your favorite sugar. Maltose is a by-product of other natural sugars fermenting. In the case of alcohol, sugars from sucrose or fructose, perhaps from grapes such as in wine or wheat and sucrose such as in beer, are fermented by yeast bacteria, and maltose is created. But sadly, by the end of the fermentation process, hardly any maltose remains in the finished product.
So, no, you cannot carb-load with beer.
Sucrose = Glucose + Fructose
Our 6th, and final, natural sugar is one we all know very well. Sucrose is the same sugar we find in our kitchen, whether its white sugar, brown sugar, light brown sugar, raw sugar, turbinado sugar, confectioner's sugar, granulated sugar... it's all sucrose! These "table sugars" are made by the process of refining of sugar cane and sugar beets. However other foods contain natural sucrose as well, including honey, maple syrup, some fruits, and vegetables. By now, you may have gathered that some foods, such as honey have a mix of many sugars. Unlike sugar-cane derived table sugar, which is nearly 100% sucrose, honey is a mix of fructose on its own, glucose on its own, and sucrose. Contrary to popular belief that honey is healthier than white sugar, they have the same nutritional value as they are both comprised of all the same sugar compounds. The difference lies in the proportions of glucose versus fructose vs sucrose which alters the taste and texture profile, and possibly altering your body's digestion rates.
Sucrose, in and of itself, is as healthy as any other sugar can be, in moderation. But once again, we have the dilemma of overproduction and overuse in the food industry, combined with over consumption by the consumer.