Why the Definition of Sugar Is Not So Simple

sugar
@darby at Twenty20

When you hear the word “sugar,” you might think of white cubes or spoonfuls of raw crystals dissolving in your morning coffee. The reality isn’t that simple. Sugar can refer to all of the carbohydrate sources that human beings most readily use for energy. Below, I break down the different types of carbs and tell you where to find them, what they do to your system.

First, it is important to recognize that not all sweets are created equal. There are a number of different sources of sugar and carbohydrates, and these each break down in the body differently. There are two categories of sugar/carbs: simple and complex. While neither is inherently “good” or “bad,” it is important to understand the different effects that each type can have on the human body.

Simple carbohydrates, such as fructose, sucrose (table sugar), and lactose, are smaller and less, well, complex than their complex counterparts. They require less effort to be broken down and used by the body for energy because they are only made up of one or two sugar molecules. The rapid breakdown of these sugars leads to a quicker release of insulin, the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar. The spike in insulin is followed by a drop, the infamous sugar crash, as blood sugar levels return to normal. Simple carbohydrates are most commonly found in:

  • Soda/sugar sweetened beverages
  • Baked goods made with white flour
  • Juice (yes, even 100% fruit juice)
  • Fruit*
    *Note that even though whole fruits are included in the category of simple carbohydrates, it doesn’t make them evil. The fiber in whole fruits (not fruit juice) helps offset the simplicity of the sugar.

Complex carbohydrates, or starch, are made up of many sugar molecules, requiring more time and energy to turn into usable fuel for the body. This means that the insulin spike and crash that is experienced with simple carbs is less severe, as the body is taking a while to break down these large carb chains. This category of carbs also includes fiber, which has the benefit of increasing fullness without adding calories, regulating blood sugar, and reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol. Complex carbohydrates can be found in whole plant foods such as:

  • Whole grains (oats, quinoa, 100% whole wheat)
  • Vegetables (including “starchy” veggies like white and sweet potatoes)
  • Beans
  • Brown rice (white rice has the fiber polished out of it)

In recognition of decreased desirability of traditional white sugar, many food manufacturers have gotten creative about hiding carbs by renaming them. Most current nutrition labels do not distinguish between different types of carbohydrates and sugar. If you’re trying to be smart about your sugar intake, don’t just glance at the nutrition facts, scan the ingredients label! Look for “hidden” simple carbs masquerading as:

  • Beet sugar
  • Maple sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Sucralose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Rice syrup
  • Xylitol

(Find a more exhaustive list of alternative names for sugar here.)

The body needs sugar/carbs to function; It’s literally food for your brain. Being smart about your carbohydrate sources is the key. Nutrition labels will soon be changed to reflect the differences between naturally occurring sugars, which are more often coupled with protein and fiber, and added sugars. In the meantime, scour your ingredients labels for sneaky sweeteners or, better yet, choose whole foods rather than processed ones.

What types of sugar do you consume?