What Makes the Foods We Eat Sweet?
Breaking Down Sugar
Food labels and product claims can be confusing when it comes to the amount of sugar and the type of sugar or sugar substitutes in a food item. The fresh and prepared foods we eat often contain natural sugars and/or artificial sweeteners. And on packaged foods, there are many different claims, such as “sugar-free”, “no sugar added” and “reduced sugar”. What do these claims really mean?
Statements like these can be confusing to the consumer, so it’s important to read and understand nutrition labels, ingredient lists and other package labels. If you understand this information, you will be in a better position to make healthy food choices next time you’re at the grocery store.
For people with diabetes, high blood pressure, or kidney disease, food labels are an especially important tool that can help you decide if a product is a good fit based on your dietary needs. Whether you are generally aiming to live a healthy lifestyle, trying to limit your intake of carbohydrates for better blood sugar control or trying to reduce the total number of calories you are consuming in order to lose weight, it is important that you understand what is on a food label. Knowing more information about the foods you eat will help you to make the best choices for a balanced and nutritious diet.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common ingredients and terms used to describe the sugar and sweeteners used in the foods that we eat. Learn more about what these sweet terms mean before you sink your teeth in. You’ll then be better equipped to determine which food choices may be best for you.
What is sugar?
Sugar refers to a category of carbohydrates that vary in their chemical makeup. Sugar can be an energy source for the body and there are many different types of sugars, including “fructose”, “glucose” and “sucrose”.
While there are quite a few different types of sugars, something that is universal between them is that each has a distinct sweet flavor. In moderation, natural sugars can be good for you, but consuming too much table sugar, or too many processed sugars can lead to health problems such as weight gain, diabetes, and obesity.
Sucrose - more commonly known as “table sugar”, sucrose is a white, crystal-shaped molecule comprised of both fructose and glucose. It is derived from the plant sources of sugar cane and sugar beets. Based upon the level of refinement, grinding and different possible additives such as molasses or cornstarch, you can achieve different textures and types of sugars from the same sucrose crystal. Some examples of these different modifications include: raw sugar such as turbinado, brown sugar, and powdered sugar. The over-consumption of sucrose in the form of baked desserts, such as cookies, biscuits and other processed foods, has been linked with increased rates of obesity in the US.
Glucose – is a simple sugar that is used by the body for fuel and energy, as well as in metabolic processes. The body breaks down all carbohydrates into glucose via digestion and other metabolic processes. Additionally, some blood tests check the level of glucose in the blood. For example, a high blood glucose level may indicate prediabetes or diabetes. To learn more about diabetes and chronic kidney disease, click here.
Fructose – is also sometimes referred to as “fruit sugar” and is naturally found in many plants and fruits, as well as in honey. Like glucose, it is also a simple sugar, but it is not as widely used by the body as glucose.
Corn syrup – is a form of food syrup that is often used as a thickener and sweetener in processed foods. Corn syrup is less expensive than sucrose/table sugar and it is also widely used to extend products’ shelf life due to its ability to preserve moisture and maintain freshness for longer periods of time.
High fructose corn syrup – is formed when corn syrup undergoes additional processing to make it even sweeter by increasing the amount of fructose. This is done by chemically altering some of the glucose content to change it into fructose. Changing the ratio of glucose to fructose leads to an increased or “high”, amount of fructose in the modified corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is the version of corn syrup that results after this modification and it is very commonly found in processed foods.
Product Claims and Descriptions
“Sugar-free” – does not mean carbohydrate free! The claim of “sugar-free” typically means that there is no sucrose in a particular food item, but it’s important to check the nutrition label if you have diabetes or are counting carbohydrates to see how many carbohydrates may be in a particular product. Sugar free foods, candies, and beverages are often sweetened with artificial sweeteners. There are different types of sugar substitutes and sugar alcohols that are used in products to give them a “sweet” taste. For more information on the different types of sugar substitutes most commonly used in the US click here. While often lower calorie, these are typically still meant to be consumed in moderation and some of these chemical substitutes can have a laxative effect in the body. Read the labels and enjoy “sugar-free” treats sparingly to avoid a stomachache or other digestive issues.
“No sugar added” – means that the item may naturally contain some sugar, such as in fruit juice, but that no additional sugar has been added during processing to make the product even sweeter.
“Reduced sugar” – is a description that implies that the amount of sugar has been reduced from a higher level. In order to qualify as “reduced”, a “reduced sugar” item must contain 25% less sugar than the other product used in this claim. For example, if a cake mix product is claiming to be "reduced sugar", the reduced sugar cake mix must have at least 25% less sugar than the original cake mix product. If the original cake mix had 20 grams of sugar, then the reduced sugar cake mix must have 15 grams of sugar or less. Another example is “reduced sugar” fruit juice. While many people think that the sugar is being removed from the juice, the juice is just diluted with water (water is the first ingredient listed on the nutrition label). You can actually save money by buying juice and diluting it yourself.