Q: Do our bodies need sugar, and if so, what kind is best?
A:Last quarter in Sugar 101 we had a quick overview of sugar’s effects on taste, energy, metabolism and baking, but what makes sugar sweet and what are good alternatives? Let’s travel back in time to your first biology course.
Sugars, in their simplest form are the monosaccharides: glucose, fructose and galactose. Sugar is a necessary fuel and energy source for muscles, brain and bodily functions.
Glucose is the basic building block of the simple sugars: sucrose (table sugar), maltose (malt sugar) and lactose (milk sugar), fat storage molecules and starches. Due to this fact, all the glucose we need for essential functioning can be found in a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables—no need to touch a morsel of processed sugar! Fructose is much sweeter than table sugar and found in honey, fruit and sucrose. Currently digestion is held to the laws of thermodynamics—basically energy in is equal to energy out, but new research is showing that thermodynamics is not the whole answer, particularity as it relates to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and that increases in dietary fructose in the form of HFCS may be a leading factor in the development of metabolic disease. That’s a topic for another day.
In a taste test you may notice that sucrose, maltose and lactose do not have the same sweetness. All sugars whether brown, beet, molasses or HFCS have glucose and will fall somewhere along a relative sweetness scale compared to sucrose. To satisfy your sweet tooth, adjust the amount of sweetener you need based on the relative sweetness to table sugar. Honey for instance, is a mixture of sucrose and fructose has a relative sweetness comparable to table sugar making it a great vitamin packed “alternative sugar.”
The sensation of sweet is related to the structure of sugar and the ability to interact with the sweet taste buds. With slight structural modifications you will perceive sweetness without completely digesting the molecule, thereby not providing the same calories. This phenomenon is most evident in the case of sugar alcohols and the chemical sweetener Sucralose. The sugar alcohol, sorbitol, differs from glucose by two hydrogen ions, but as we know, nothing comes without a price. You may have learned this the hard way after consuming a handful of sugar-free candies, resulting in gas, cramping, bloating and diarrhea. (Fun!)
The most common alternative sweeteners in the United States are: Sucralose, Aspartame and Saccharin, with natural alternatives like stevia hot on their trail. These sweeteners are “generally recognized as safe” and mimic the sweet sensation on the tongue. Recent studies are questioning the safety of many chemical sweeteners and whether or not they do partially metabolize in the body. While the jury is still out on the safety of daily use, a sweetener such as stevia is a great alternative because it is an extract of a naturally sweet leaf and not a chemical sweetener.
Sugars do have a role in maintaining the body’s equilibrium and cannot be eliminated, but as we have learned: All calories are not created equally. Best to stick to real foods when satisfying a sweet tooth!
Joey Miller has a passion for good food, health and nutrition, which led her to become a registered dietician after receiving a BS and MPH from UC Davis. She has worked in the natural foods industry for over 15 years, including eight years at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Joey specializes in longterm care with experience in infant and child nutrition.