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simple sugars
carbon hydrogen
types of sugar
bad reputation
sugar substitutes
chemical compound
national television
new york times
quite some time
What Is Sugar?
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What is Sugar?

With all the buzz and controversy about sugar that has appeared on national television news, the New York Times and a multitude of other publications in the past few months, there is a basic question to be answered if we're going to sort all this information out:

What is sugar?

Here we're going to define sugar and take a look at many of the types of sugar there are and see if we can reach a basic understanding of what is sugar and what is not sugar.

Sugar is defined as a refined sucrose (a chemical compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) produced by multiple chemical processing of the juice of the sugar cane or beet and removal of all fiber and protein, which amount to 90% of the natural plant.

We mostly recognize sugar as the white granulated crystals used to sweeten coffee, cereal, desserts and many other dishes. But sugar has had a very bad reputation for quite some time and so there are a lot of other types of sweeteners that are marketed as sugar substitutes and are touted as being more healthy for you. In fact there are so many of these that it becomes extremely confusing for us to know whether we are getting sugar or not and if we are eating something that is going to give us the bad effects of sugar.

For now, I am going to take the entire group of what are known as synthetic sugar substitutes--the ones that come in the pink, blue or yellow packets-- and set them aside. I will only say here that you absolutely should not consider consuming them. I should probably write another article just about them and maybe I will!

This is for those of use who are trying not to eat fake sugar or substitute sugar. There are other things we refer to as "sugars" that are not sucrose, but they have very similar effects to those of sugar. The term I use for them is "simple sugars" and they mostly end in the letters "ose."

Fructose: Fructose is a yellowish to white, crystalline, water-soluble, sugar, that is sweeter than sucrose and is found in honey and many fruits. There is natural fructose that you can get when you eat a whole piece of fruit such as an apple, some blueberries or some grapes. Different fruits have different amounts of fructose and the advantage of consuming fructose in the form of a whole food is that all the other nutrients are there that make a balanced food and most importantly, the fiber that is also present in the fruit slows down the release of the "sugar" in your body so you have a less drastic change in body chemistry than if you consumed fructose in some other form like as an ingredient in a sweet food product or even by drinking only the fruit juice.

High-fructose corn syrup: High-fructose corn syrup is a manmade sweetener used in foods and is about 50% fructose. Chemically, it is not much different from sucrose (table sugar) and your body breaks it down and uses it the same way it uses sugar. It is made from corn and by the way, that corn is most likely genetically modified and grown in farms owned or controlled by big chemical companies like Monsanto who have a huge stake in making sure you keep eating their high-fructose corn syrup in as many food products as possible. Another big topic, for sure. Anyway, scientists and nutritional experts agree that high-fructose corn syrup acts exactly like sugar (sucrose) in your body and is basically no different than eating refined sugar. Even though to some people it sounds like it is better or healthier or something. Even though it is an ingredient listed in so-called "natural food products."

As you can see, there is a gradient scale to these things--everything from an off-the-chart hit of an intense quantity of fructose, to a lesser drastic measure of fructose by drinking some fruit juice (and again there is a gradient scale of this depending what kind of fruit juice and how refined and processed it is), to a low gradient consumption as in eating the apple.

Glucose: This is grape sugar and it is also called "dextrose." It is a simple sugar occurring in fruits and some animal foods. Mostly when you see it as an ingredient the definition would be a syrup that has a combination of simple sugars. They say glucose is about half as sweet as sugar but it is still sugar. It is what diabetics test for in their blood and what many people with allergies have to monitor so they don't get too much of it.

Maltose: Is the sugar that you get when you chew and digest starch. Sometimes called "malt sugar," it is naturally occurring in grains such as barley. When the seed germinates the naturally occurring maltose breaks down the starch in the seed so the plant can grow. Plain maltose has a sweet taste, about half as sweet as glucose and about one-sixth as sweet as fructose. It is basically a very simple sugar. There is a product called "barley malt" that is used in whole food cooking to sweeten things. If the barley malt is made with whole grain barley by natural fermentation process, it can be an acceptable substitute for more simple sugar or honey.

Honey: So that brings us to honey. I don't want to upset health and nutrition people by saying honey is bad, but let's just look at it from the viewpoint of sugar. Honey consists of the same basic simple sugars as table sugar: glucose and fructose. There are differences in how honey is assimilated and there can be other things in honey that may be beneficial, depending on how processed the honey is. But for this discussion, honey acts basically like a simple sugar in your body. The only advantage really, is that 100% raw honey is way sweeter than sugar so you may tend to use less of it.

Molasses: Molasses is a thick, dark syrup made by processing cane sugar or beet sugar. Despite it being brown which is popularly marketed as a color that indicates something is more natural or healthy, it is still sugar. The natural, blackstrap molasses Granny said was good for you does have some minerals in it. Probably this was easier to get kids to swallow as a mineral supplement because it was so sweet.

Brown sugar: I was hoping I didn't even have to include this one but I decided not to risk having someone think that because it's not on my list then it is okay. Brown sugar is made by putting molasses on regular sugar. 'Nuff said.

Agave: Very popular now in the health food stores! You'll find agave syrups and lots of products touting that they are made with agave. Agave comes from a plant that grows mainly in Mexico that has a sticky, sweet juice that is 90% fructose. Until recently, real blue agave was only used to make tequila. But now it is further refined to provide a nice healthy-sounding and looking sweetener that is no better for you than high-fructose corn syrup.

Ah well. So you see the very bad reputation of sugar is not the only problem. It is all the other sweeteners, natural or semi-natural as they may be, that have been touted as the "good guys" that we must also be aware of. Are we supposed to live a life of no sweetness, no dessert, no treats and just resign ourselves to restriction and suffering--never to enjoy cooking or eating again? NO!

There is a whole bunch of people, chefs, nutritionists, cookbook writers and food lovers who have found another way to enjoy a varied menu complete with desserts without sacrificing our health to deadly, simple and refined sugars. And, as I have said in the past, my approach is to have you get out there and find out what is out there that is good to eat and start adding those things into your diet. That way you are not left with an empty dessert plate because you eliminated all the sugar you were eating before.

More on this to come . . .


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