Understanding sugar

Published 3:25 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2023

 I think it’s quite safe to say that if today’s comfort food isn’t number one on many folk’s lists, it certainly ranks near the top. 

Sugar is the generic name given to certain soluble biomolecules, called carbohydrates. Biomolecules refer to any number of substances that are produced by living organisms. The four major biomolecular groups include proteins, lipids (fats), nucleic acids (biopolymers that carry genetic information to cells), and carbohydrates. 

Carbohydrates (sugars) are macronutrients along with water, proteins, and fats. Macronutrients are substances or nutrients the body needs in larger amounts, in order to function properly.  

Sugars have been used in many varieties of food and drink around the world since ancient times. In fact, there are indications of sugar consumption in South-East Asia as far back as 8000 BCE, with the first records of sugar being crystallized for transportation dating to around 500 BC, in India and China. The derivation of the word sugar originated from the Arabic “sukkar,” to the Medieval Latin, and Italian “zucchero,” to the Old French “sukere,” then the Middle English “sugar.” 

There are many different terms and designations given to sugar. In fact, there are 61 different names for sugar, and some of them you might never have heard of, like castor sugar, dextran, galactose, and mannose. 

There are basically three groups or categories of sugars. The first is a monosaccharide. By definition, a monosaccharide can not be further broken down into a simpler sugar; it is the most basic sugar unit. Its name can be broken down into separate parts to help define monosaccharides. Mono, meaning one, and saccharide, meaning sugar. Carbohydrates are made up of saccharide molecules and monosaccharides are the building blocks. Examples of monosaccharides include glucose, fructose and galactose. Monosaccharides having a simple chemical structure are easily utilized for energy, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar once digested. 

Disaccharide means “two sugars.” Table sugar (sucrose) is considered a disaccharide, as it is made up of glucose and fructose. Other examples of disaccharides include lactose ( the primary sugar found in milk) and maltose, a sugar created in seeds and other parts of plants. 

The third type of sugar is called a polysaccharide. Polysaccharide means “many sugars,” and are carbohydrates whose large molecules consist of a number of smaller monosaccharides bonded together. These are the most abundant carbohydrates found in food. These can be divided into two categories.

Storage polysaccharides, such as starch, glycogen, and galactogen, are used to produce cellular energy, and the second type of polysaccharides are structural polysaccharides, such as cellulose and chitin. Cellulose adds rigidity to plant cell walls, whereas certain animals produce chitin, which serves as a structural component, for example, of an exoskeleton. Even though storage polysaccharides provide an energy source, they differ from monosaccharides and disaccharides, in that they do not have a sweet taste. Polysaccharide sources include rice, bread, pasta, grains, and potatoes. 

Next week, we’ll learn more facts about sugar.  

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David Crocker is a nutritionist and master personal trainer. Questions? Email David at [email protected] or text to 864-494-6215.

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