We love the sweet taste of sugar. The average American consumes more than 120 pounds of sugar annually. Just walk down the aisle in any grocery store or health food market, and you are bombarded by sweet choices. But are all sugars the same?
Even though commonly consumed sugars provide basically the same number of calories, they are metabolized and used by the body in different ways. While we’re all familiar with white table sugar, found in everyone’s sugar bowl, there’s also brown sugar, turbinado sugar, molasses, honey and syrups such as agave, brown rice and maple.
In addition to sweetness, there are other characteristics to sugar. The quick explanation is that sugar is a general term describing a large number of organic compounds that have varying degrees of sweetness.
- Sucrose is common white table sugar. Sucrose gets broken down during digestion into two simple sugars; glucose and fructose. Glucose is essential for the body and is its main source of energy.
- Fructose is one of the main types of sugars found in fruits such as apples, in fruit juices and in honey. Fructose is predominantly metabolized in the liver, but unlike glucose it does not require insulin to be used by the body.
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is also a sweetener and is used to sweeten foods and beverages. However, HFCS is not the same as fructose. HFCS is a mixture of fructose and glucose, made by an enzymatic process. Misinformation about fructose always appears in the media. The terms “fructose” and “HFCS” can not be used interchangeably.
- Other sugars that are commonly found in food are maltose (malt sugar) and lactose (milk sugar).
While rising obesity rates are linked to the presence of sugars in the food supply, recent research indicates that fructose may be a beneficial part of the diet, and this is good news. So many fad- and low-carbohydrate diets discourage or moderate the consumption of fruits, honey and other natural sweeteners.
The bottom line? We can have our sugar and stay healthy, too. The challenge lies in reconditioning our palates to appreciate what “natural sweetness” truly is. Certainly, this isn’t easy to do since we’re used to overly-sweetened foods, but the benefits of retraining our palates far outweigh the consequences of metabolic changes that can make us more prone to heart disease, obesity and diabetes.