Making Sense of Sugar

The three main types of carbohydrate in food are starches (also known as complex carbohydrates), sugars, and fiber. As one of the three types of carbohydrates, sugars are in many of the foods and beverages we consume every day. But over the past decade sugars have become a hot-button issue. It seems like every time you look at news headlines or magazines, someone is touting the benefits of a low carbohydrate diet and suggesting sugar should be avoided. But how much of that is actually true?

When you think of sugar, you probably picture the white powder in the sugar bowl. This substance, often called table sugar, is sucrose and is just one of the sugars.

In fact, there are several types of sugar. The term “sugar” is an overarching term for the six different forms: glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose, lactose and maltose. Sugars are divided into two categories: monosaccharides (glucose, fructose and galactose) and disaccharides (sucrose, lactose and maltose). Monosaccharides are the simplest version of sugars and are the building blocks of disaccharides.

The monosaccharide glucose is the body’s primary energy source. In fact, the brain requires around 130g of glucose each day to cover basic energy needs. Consuming carbohydrates, including sugar, provides your body with essential energy. Glucose is most often found in the diet as part of a disaccharide like sucrose (glucose + fructose) or lactose (glucose + galactose). It is also found in its monosaccharide form in combination with other monosaccharides. For example, honey is composed of one part fructose and one part glucose. Fruits and vegetables are also made of a combination of fructose and glucose. For example, 1 cup of baked sweet potato contains approximately 13 grams of sugar that is roughly 3 teaspoons of table sugar or over 1 tablespoon of powdered fructose sweetener.

Many headlines suggest that sugar and carbohydrates from certain foods are acceptable and others are not. While the body can recognize the difference among different sugars, it does not distinguish the original source of the sugar after it is absorbed.

What do organizations have to say?

According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, between 45 and 65 percent of daily calories for all age groups should come from carbohydrates, which includes fibers, starches, and sugars. However, it appears that many Americans are not consuming enough fiber and may be consuming excess sugar. To help Americans make dietary changes, a variety of organizations have issued guidance on added sugars. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting sugar intake to 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men per day. That’s equivalent to 100 calories for women and 150 calories for men a day. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises both adults and children to reduce the intake of sugars to less than 10 percent of total daily caloric intake. For the average adult, that equals about 200 calories or less a day from added sugars. If you are looking to reduce your intake of added sugars, low-calorie sweeteners can provide sweetness without the sugar or calories.

The Bottom Line

Balancing your carbohydrate, fats and proteins is the only way to ensure you are consuming a healthful diet. An easy way to assess your sugar intake is to track your intake using the use the MyPlate app.