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How Sweet It Is: Different Types of Sugar

Posted Jan 27 2012 7:00am

   What exactly is sugar?  To understand what sugar is you have to go back to junior high science class and do a brief review of photosynthesis.

All green plants manufacture sugar through photosynthesis, which is how plants use sunlight to make energy. This energy is in the form of sugar and more specifically sucrose.  Sucrose is found in fruits and vegetables. Once photosynthesis creates sugar (or sucrose), plants have the unique ability to change this sugar into starch and various other sugars for storage. This process is what gives us such a variety of fruits and vegetables, from a sweet pear to starchy corn on the cob.

Sugar cane and sugar beet plants contain sucrose in large quantities, and that’s why they are used as commercial sources of sugar. A stalk of the cane plant contains about 14% sugar. Sugar beets contain about 16% sugar. There is no difference in sugar produced from either cane or beet. The chemical makeup of sugar from a sugar beet and from sugar cane is identical.  Cane sugar and beet sugar taste, smell and behave exactly the same.

The processing of sugar cane and sugar beet plants is what gives us different types of sugars (with the exception of honey and high fructose corn syrup) When it comes to sugar, the term refining means ‘to make pure’.


Raw Sugar: The intermediate product during the processing or refining.  It is a tan, coarse granulated product obtained from the evaporation of clarified sugar cane juice. It is difficult to buy 100 percent raw sugar because of its impurities.

Brown Sugar:  Essentially sugar crystals coated in molasses. Created my mixing molasses with white sugar crystals, or boiling a molasses syrup until brown sugar crystals form.

Molasses: The syrup remaining from processing cane or beets.  Light molasses has the sweetest flavor and is generally used in baked goods whereas dark molasses has a less sweet flavor and is used in more savory dishes (baked beans)

Turbinado sugar:  Raw sugar that has been refined to a light tan color by washing to remove surface molasses and impurities. In total sucrose content, turbinado is closer to refined sugar than to raw sugar. Nutritionally speaking, its calorie and carbohydrate content are the same as table sugar.

Honey:  A mixture of sugars formed from nectar that bees make.  Honey varies in composition and flavor, depending on the source of the nectar. Honey contains much more fructose and much less sucrose than other sugars.  Honey is sweeter than table sugar.

High Fructose Corn Syrup:  This is made by treating corn to produce corn syrup.  The corn syrup is then treated to produce High Fructose Corn Syrup by converting much or all of the glucose to fructose. The resulting product is sweeter than sucrose.   The composition is then a high amount of fructose and some dextrose. Estimated to be about 1 1/2 times sweeter than table sugar.

Which sugar is best to use?

A little chemistry before answering this question.  All carbohydrates are made up of one or more molecules of sugars. The family of sugars includes:

Monosaccharides (one-molecule sugars)
• glucose (dextrose or blood sugar)
• fructose (levulose or fruit sugar)
• galactose (occurs only in milk)
Disaccharides are two monosaccharides linked together • sucrose (table sugar) = glucose + fructose
• lactose (milk sugar) = glucose + galactose
• maltose (malt sugar) = glucose + glucose

All sugars breakdown to monosaccharides (single sugars) during digestion.  Your body doesn’t distinguish what foods or sugar sources they came from.  Single sugars such as fructose in fruit and honey, can be absorbed exactly as they are, they don’t breakdown anymore.  Other sugars (sucrose in table sugar, brown sugar, etc) lactose (milk sugar) have to be broken down to their single sugar components for your body to absorb them.  So your body breaks down all sugars into the same 3 things: fructose, glucose and galactose.

While all sugars contribute four calories per gram, some foods contain more concentrated sources of calories than others. For example, a teaspoon of table sugar contains 16 calories. Honey is a more dense calorie source – a teaspoon contains 22 calories. But a teaspoon of orange juice or applesauce has just four calories, and also contains vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Because added sugar gives us calories without nutrients, it is best to enjoy foods that are naturally sweet, without added sugar.  And when you do add sugar,  use whichever kind you prefer in moderation.



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