The world seems to have a very hot and cold relationship with sugar. The sweet taste is addictive to many and found in most foods consumed today. Yet, multiple studies today have connected sugar with heart disease, aging, diabetes, weight gain and Alzheimer’s, among other bad things.
What is sugar, and is it all bad for you? How much sugar and what types of sugar should I be consuming? Let’s deep dive into these questions and more!
Well, what’s sugar anyway?
Sugar itself is the name for a group of carbohydrates that are characterized by their sweet taste and cyclic structure. Monosaccharides, the simple sugars, are building blocks of certain carbohydrates, bonding to form a range of sugars. Two of the most common monosaccharides found are glucose and fructose.
Glucose is our main monosaccharide. It is the primary energy source for most living things and is transported by insulin to the body’s cells for strength.
Fructose, or fruit sugar, is the sweetest of sugars and is processed differently by the body. Instead of releasing insulin to process into immediate energy like glucose, fructose immediately travels to the liver where it is converted to triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat that your body stores until needed for energy.
Since sugar itself is a carbohydrate, sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates. Sugar has many roles beyond sweetness, as it is also used to enhance flavor, add texture or bulk, color, as well as for fermentation and moisture retention purposes. To make the variety of sugar products we see in stores today, sugar juice is extracted from sugar beet or sugar cane plants. The different variations of this process produce the wide range of results we see today.
How much sugar should we be having?
The RDA (Recommend Dietary Allowances) has not issued a formal number as to how much sugar Americans should consume, but The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men. More than half of Americans consume more than the recommended amount of sugar per day, about 17 teaspoons of sugar on average. This really isn’t surprising, as a single can of Coke contains 9.75 teaspoons of sugar, which is over the daily value for both men and women.
Sugar has been found to be as addictive as hard drugs such as cocaine or morphine, as fructose affects the dopamine system and create major changes in the brain. These facts and more have pushed scientists to advise against almost all sugars.
Well, what about fruit?
A high fruit diet has actually been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Fruit and vegetables with natural sugars contain fiber that drastically slows down the digestion of sugar, helping you maintain your insulin levels and stay satiated for longer. Your body can handle fructose when it’s eaten as whole fruit because of that. Fructose found in highly processed foods and beverages can greatly impact your body as most or all the fiber and nutrients have been removed. High amounts of fructose can weaken your body’s reaction to the hormone leptin, which is responsible for maintaining energy and body weight by inhibiting hunger. This means that consuming fruit juice or similar products can skyrocket your sugar levels and throw your hormones out of whack. Basically, fructose should be avoided unless consumed in a whole fruit.
Types of Sugar
Sucrose contains both Glucose and Fructose to make the common table sugar we see in our homes today. All the molasses, a dark syrup product made from the refining process, is removed from white sugar. This sugar has a virtually infinite shelf life and can be used for all different types of cooking and baking.
Powdered sugar is simply white sugar that has been ground into a very fine powder, with corn starch added to prevent caking. It is good for candy making, frosting and icing, as well as dusting and décor.
Brown sugar is the less refined version of white sugar, as it contains molasses and caramel in it. This gives brown sugar its dark color and damp consistency. There are varying degrees of brown sugar, with dark brown sugar having a stronger flavor and aroma. Dark brown sugar is recommended for BBQ sauce or gingerbread, as the molasses flavor in dark brown sugar can often compliment these dishes but be overpowering in others.
Course sugar has large crystals good for giving dishes more texture and pizzazz. It is fairly heat resistant and does not easily dissolve, making it perfect for decorative purposes.
Turbinado and Demerara Sugar
Turbinado and Demerara Sugar are very similar in texture and taste. They appear very similar to a light brown sugar, as they are lightly processed as well. Demerara does have slightly larger crystals, but both are used as good sweetener for coffee and a “raw” alternative to white sugar.
Muscovado is similar to brow sugar except that it comes from unrefined sugar that hasn’t had any molasses removed. This gives it its deep color and intense flavor. It is good for any dark brown sugar recipes that need an extra molasses kick.
This sweet product made by bees contains slightly more fructose and calories than white sugar, but also contains high antioxidant properties giving it health benefits. From grilling to baking, honey can be used in many different cooking methods to add a unique sweetness and texture.
Syrups can be made from a variety of plants through their sap and fruit. Some common syrups include maple, corn, agave and more. These syrups have varying levels of nutrition and sugar content. High fructose corn syrup is corn syrup that has been furthered processed to make an extremely sweet version. It is often linked to today’s obesity epidemic, as high fructose corn syrup contains 50-90% fructose whereas regular old table sugar only contains 50% fructose. Basically, we should avoid high fructose corn syrup at all costs.
Overall, sugar is a helpful method for your body to gain energy, but it should be limited. When consuming sugar, chose a whole fruit or pair the item with a protein rich food to increase satiation.
Sugar can be used for all sorts of interesting dishes and designs, so go forth in moderation!