Sugar 101: Diet, Health, and Nutrition

Sugar is a readily accessible and cheap source of energy; it is also one of the most commonly used ingredients for flavoring. The word sugar evokes images of fine crystalline packed with sweet flavor sprinkled generously over deserts and beverages; or a powdery substance coating pastries and other baked goods. But what exactly is sugar? Is sugar limited to these forms? And how do we measure the content of sugar in our food?

What is Sugar?

Sugar is generally known or referred to as table sugar, a white crystalline solid with sweet taste. In reality, sugar is a carbohydrate. There are 2 kinds of carbohydrates: simple sugars and complex carbohydrates (starch and fiber).

The simple sugars are:

  • Monosaccharides – single unit sugars; monosaccharides commonly found in food are glucose (blood sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), and galactose (milk sugar); and
  • Disaccharides – two units of monosaccharides linked together; disaccharides commonly found in food are: sucrose (table sugar; glucose and fructose) lactose (milk sugar; glucose and galactose),and maltose (malt sugar; glucose and glucose)

Measuring Sugar

The Food Guide Pyramid prescribes that total added sugars should not exceed 6 teaspoons or 24 grams for a 1,600 calorie diet;12 teaspoons or 48 grams for a 2,200 calorie diet; and 18 teaspoons or 72 grams for a 2,800 calorie diet. Ideally, we should only consume the right amount of sugar to ensure that our bodies function normally but recent surveys have revealed that there is a significant increase in our consumption of added sugar, with 2/3 of the added sugar coming from soda beverages. So how do we measure the content of sugar in the food we eat?

The Glycemic Index (GI) The glycemic index measures the absorption rate of carbohydrates by the bloodstream; it ranks food according to the speed it raises the body’s blood sugar level. Pure glucose is the standard used for the GI index, with a rating of 100; the closer a particular food is to 100, the higher its glycemic index. A food with a GI of 70 and above is considered within the high GI range; a GI index of 56 to 69 places a food within the moderate range; and a GI of 55 or less mean a low glycemic index rating.

The GI does not measure sugar content per se but it can be a basis for determining sugar content since foods with high GI are tend to have high sugar content. Some of the factors that determine GI content are sugar content, fat content, processing method, fiber content, and the combination of eaten foods.

The Glycemic Load (GL) – The common problem of medical and health experts have with the GI system is although it may tell you how quickly blood sugar level is raised by a particular food, it does not reveal the amount of sugar in the food.

The glycemic load is derived by multiplying the glycemic index with the amount of carbohydrate of a particular food serving, and dividing the product by 100. In effect, the GL index provides a ranking of how certain amounts of foods raise the body’s blood sugar level. A GL of 20 is considered high, a GL of 11 to 19 is considered moderate, and a GL of 10 and below is considered low.

The glycemic value of food are affected by cooking processes and fiber amount; fat, acid and vinegar tend to lower glycemic value.

Make the food label your best friend
All manufactured foods are required by law to provide a nutrition panel on the food label; the grams of added sugar per serving of food are usually listed under total carbohydrates and usually make use of the following terms:

  • Sugar Free: Less than 0.5 g sugar/serving.
  • Reduced Sugar: The sugar content of the product has been reduced by at least 25%.
  • No Sugar Added: No sugar or any other ingredient containing sugar added to product.

Sugar and Diet

Sugar has been a victim of bad publicity lately; people are going out of their way to minimize or omit sugar in their diet. As sugar is scourged with accusations of being nothing more than a source of empty calories; its sweet taste can do little to salvage its fast souring image. To date, sugar has become synonymous with tooth decay, diabetes, obesity and other undesirable illnesses. Sugar, like fat, has been elevated into the most unwanted list.

Food manufacturers are taking advantage of the new market segment by continuously releasing products proudly bearing phrases like “sugar-free” and “reduced sugar.” Is it possible to totally omit sugar from our diet by avoiding foods we have come to know as high in sugar? When we crave for something sweet, do we avoid sugar by opting to eat fruit over cake or taffy? Are we really aware of the foods that are high in sugar?

Sources of Sugar

The term sugar is commonly used to refer to table sugar, typically sold in white crystalline or powder form in supermarkets. Table sugar is a form of processed sugar; it is extracted from plant sources such as sugar cane and beets. Other sources of sugar occur naturally in fruits and milk; while others are added during the manufacturing process of certain food items.

Natural sources – Sugars naturally occur in many foods such as fruits, honey, milk, and cereals. Fruits like bananas, prunes, pineapples, tangerines, certain oranges, grapefruits and grapes are known to have particularly high sugar content; while vegetables like potatoes, peas, carrots and corn also have high sugar content.

Processed sugars – Processed sugars are extracted from plant sources, the plants generally harvested to extract sugar from are sugar cane and sugar beets. There is no significant difference between sugar derived from sugar cane and sugar beets; the preference for either plant by sugar manufacturers are determined more by economic considerations like operating costs rather than the taste or quality of the finished product.

The common processed sugars are:

  • Raw sugars – Raw sugars are either yellow to brown sugar in color; the color is due to the minimal chemical processing the clarified cane juice undergoes. Raw sugars are not always in granule or powder form; sometimes they are manufactured in big chunks such as loaves or irregularly shaped blocks and half spheres.
  • Mill white sugar – It is still raw sugar; the white color is achieved through bleaching by exposure to sulfur dioxide.
  • White refined sugar – Raw sugar is dissolved and purified with phosphoric acid; the white color is achieved by filtering the purified raw sugar through a bed of activated carbon or bone char. The finer grades of sugar or those less coarse in texture (including powdered sugar) are produced through extensive sieving or grinding.
  • Brown sugars – There are two kinds of brown sugars; those that do not go through the later stages of refining, and those that have been processed as white refined sugar and are coated with cane molasses.
  • Prepared sources – Processed sugars are added during the preparation of certain foods; for baked goods, sugar improves the taste, texture and color of the goods; for jams, jellies and puddings, sugar serves as a preservative and gives the product a viscous or firm quality; and sugar makes possible fermentation by yeast. Manufactured goods like candies, chocolates, cakes, ice creams, cookies, sodas, and juices typically have high sugar content.
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