Information on Sugar

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Information on Sugar

Much of the sugar consumption comes from sweeteners added to the food we make and buy, it is not misleading to describe sugar as the number one food additive.


DEFINITIONS  The word "sugar" actually applies to more than a hundred substances that qualify as "sweet" - including honey, corn syrup and molasses.  The most basic of all sugars are fructose and glucose - the so- called "simple" sugar molecules (meaning only six carbon atoms) made by the green leaves of plants using energy from sunlight with water and carbon dioxide as raw materials.  Remember that photosynthesis equation we all had to learn in school?  From these basic building blocks, more complex sugars and carbohydrates are made and consumed by both animals and man.


When most people speak of sugar, they are referring to sucrose, a 12-carbon molecule resulting from the linkage of glucose to fructose; sucrose is the sugar that is ultimately obtained from sugarcane or beets and refined to the white granules on our tables.  The consumption of sucrose has remained stable for many years, just under 100 pounds per year per person in a country.  However, the use of sugars derived from corn starch (corn syrup, corn sugar, corn sweetener) has jumped dramatically in the past thirty years from an estimated 13 pounds per person to over 30 pounds recently.  In other words, most of the increase in sugar consumption in a country in recent times has come in the form of sugars not usually identified as "sugar" but, in terms of sweetness and calories, very much the same as table sugar (sucrose).


Indeed, this lack of precision in defining "sugar" on labels makes it difficult for the average consumer to know how much sugar he is getting in the food he buys.  In reading labels, it is important to remember that all carbohydrate sweeteners qualify as sugar, even though they may be called by other names.


Ordinary table sugar (sucrose) is, as mentioned, derived from sugarcane or beet plants.  In initial stages of processing, the juice obtained from the cane is separated into raw sugar (crystals) and molasses (syrup).  Raw sugar is banned because of impurities such as insect parts and bacteria; white refined sugar, which results from several additional stages of raw sugar processing, is "safer" if not more "healthy."  Brown sugar consists of sugar crystals coated with molasses syrup; in some countries, most of it is made by spraying refined white sugar with molasses syrup.  Honey varies in composition depending on its nectar source, but it is essentially a mixture of simple sugars, mostly fructose.  Maple sugar and syrup are, of course, derived from the sap of the maple tree and consist largely of sucrose.  The various corn sweeteners are derived from corn starch and are composed mainly of dextrose, maltose and more complex sugars.


The important point to be made is that all these sugars are essentially the same in that they consist largely of calories with very little else of nutritional value.  There may be minor differences between various sugars in terms of minimal nutrients or sweetening power per calorie, but these differences are indeed minor.


Is Sugar bad for us?  Given the discussion thus far, you might be surprised to be reminded that blood sugar (glucose) is absolutely essential to the body's cells as an energy source.  Indeed, almost all of the sugars and more complex carbohydrates we eat are processed, at least in part, into glucose by our bodies.  A metabolic system of elegant precision maintains the amount of glucose in the blood within a relatively narrow normal range; excess amounts are stored in the liver as glycogen or (the bad news) converted into fats to be stored you-know-where.  Although some sugar in our blood is essential to life, that "blood sugar" can be obtained from almost any source - including fruits and vegetables.  So we might as well pick up some other useful nutrients (minerals, vitamins) along with the calories.  It is not even necessary to rely on commercial sugar products for so-called "quick energy", for unless we have been on a prolonged fast, our body stores of glycogen can be quickly converted to blood sugar to meet any sudden demand.  Also, the inherent sweetness of sugar tempts us to eat more calories than we otherwise would.


In addition to this basic "empty-calorie" problem, sugar products may be associated with other health problems.  There is a firm link between sugar exposure and tooth decay though individual resistance and manner of exposure (constant caramels versus sugar with meals quickly brushed away), can make an enormous difference.  Any causative role of sugar in diabetes is far from certain - though it may contribute indirectly via obesity.  The same can be said of heart disease, possible indirect contributions.


In summary, most of us need some sweets in our lives.  The question, as always, is one of balance - in our diet and on the scale.


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