While there are many types of sugars, some are sweet somethings, others are sweet nothings. Here are the more common sugars you will see in the ingredients list on a product label. Knowing what they are and their nutritional value will help you make wiser choices.
Glucose is the simplest sugar and the most rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. Glucose is often called dextrose when it is added to foods. The body eventually breaks down all sugars and carbohydrates into glucose, which is the form in which sugar enters cells to be used for energy.
Sucrose (otherwise known as table sugar) is composed of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose. This is the white sugar that comes in many forms, such as powdered or granulated. It is usually made from refining extracts of sugar beets or sugar cane.
Fructose is one of the main sugars found in fruits and honey. It is often preferred to straight glucose and sucrose as an energy source, since it is absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream and, therefore, has a less erratic effect on blood sugar levels. It is a popular sweetener.
Lactose is the primary sugar in dairy products and is composed of one molecule of glucose and one of galactose. Because of its galactose content, it is more slowly absorbed into the bloodstream than pure glucose and is therefore more blood-sugar-friendly.
Unlike glucose, which is quickly and easily absorbed through the intestines, lactose requires an enzyme in the intestines, lactase, to break down the sugars and allow absorption. People who are lactose-intolerant don’t produce enough lactase to break down milk sugars. The lactose ferments, causing gas and diarrhea.
Maltose is composed of two molecules of glucose and is the sugar found in barley malt and some cereals. The maltose in beer causes a rapid rise in blood sugar.
Corn syrup is a sugar extracted from corn. Being extracted from corn doesn’t make it any healthier than ordinary table sugar. Syrups are really sugar concentrates and one tablespoon of syrup, corn or maple, contains about twice the amount of calories as a tablespoon of granulated sugar.
While syrups do contain traces of a few minerals, such as calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, and sodium, they essentially have the same nutritional value as sugar. Because corn syrup is cheap to produce, it is the most popular sweetener for beverages, and even some juices.
Yet, because of its high calorie content, it is seldom found in diet drinks. People who are allergic to corn should check labels carefully, since corn syrup will trigger their allergies.
High-fructose corn syrup is a sweetener containing 40 to 90 percent fructose and a carbohydrate extract from corn. This is a popular and inexpensive sweetener in cereals and sodas.
Molasses is a thick syrup, a byproduct of the sugar-refining process. Yet, unlike ordinary table sugar, molasses contains other valuable nutrients besides carbohydrates. The darker the molasses, the greater its nutritional value. Blackstrap molasses, for example, is a valuable source of calcium, iron, potassium, and also contains traces of B-vitamins.
Brown sugar is simply ordinary table sugar made brown by adding molasses. Because of the added molasses, brown sugar contains a trace more nutritional value than white sugar, but not enough to make it any more valuable as a source of nutrients.
“Raw” sugar is more about a marketing gimmick than about a nutritional difference. The term “raw” implies a more natural sugar. Yet, raw sugar is nothing more than crystallized, refined white sugar with a touch of molasses left in. Because raw sugar appears in larger crystals than the refined granules of ordinary table sugar, it seems more healthful. But this belief has no basis in fact.
Because there are so many different names for sugar, it's important to know the differences. When reading nutrition labels, we always recommend looking for every sugar listed, keeping an eye out for less familiar names.
Originally published on Ask Dr. Sears; used with permission.
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