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A Guide to the Different Types of Sugar

Written by
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Heather Davis
MS, RDN, LDN
Bowls of various sizes which different types of sugar in them

There are many different kinds of sugar that come in all different textures and have unique tastes. We talk a lot about the way sugar affects our body, but how much do we actually know about sugar itself?

Is all sugar bad for you? And how many types of sugar really are there?Read on to learn more about the different kinds of sugar, how they’re used, and how they may affect your health.

What is Sugar?

The type of sugar that you generally think of as “table sugar” and might bake with and stir into your morning coffee is called sucrose. Sucrose is a carbohydrate known as a disaccharide, and it’s made up of one molecule of glucose bound to one molecule of fructose.

Sugar is produced naturally in plants, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts. It's made during photosynthesis as plants transform the sun’s energy into food. Sugar cane and sugar beets are the two plants that hold the most sugar, so most commercial sugar is extracted from these two plants.

The extraction process for making most sugars involves pressing the plant to release juice. The juice is concentrated and crystalized, then it is spun to separate the liquid, or molasses, from the crystals. The amount of molasses left on the sugar crystals depends on the type of sugar.

Granulated sugar has no molasses left on it after the refining process, but raw sugars like demerara or turbinado have some molasses leftover. Some varieties, like brown sugar, have the molasses added back in after the refining process.

What are the Different Types of Sugar?

white and brown sugar granules

Sugars can be broken down into various groups. Monosaccharides and disaccharides, which are made up of one sugar unit and two sugar units respectively, are both forms of simple carbohydrates.

Oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are each forms of complex carbohydrates, and they are made up of three to 10 units of sugar, and 10 units of sugar respectively. Let’s review the two types of simple carbohydrates and which types of sugar fall into each one.

Monosaccharides

Monosaccharides, or simple sugars, are the basic compounds that make up all carbohydrates. Glucose, fructose, and galactose are the three main monosaccharides that make up the carbs we eat. Glucose and fructose are found naturally in plants, while galactose comes from milk.

Disaccharides

Disaccharides are sugars that contain two monosaccharides linked together, such as sucrose or maltose. Sucrose is a disaccharide because it contains one molecule of fructose bonded to one molecule of glucose.

Lactose, a sugar found in milk, is a disaccharide that contains one molecule of galactose and one molecule of glucose bonded together.

Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

a peach tart on a table with cutlery and fresh peaches

Sugar that is naturally found in food is called natural sugar. These sugars come from milk, fruits, and vegetables, which also provide all kinds of nutrients that your body needs to function correctly.

Sugar from natural sources is an essential part of the healthy diet that is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines of America. Natural sources of sugar can also include things like fiber, phytochemicals, and essential vitamins and minerals.

Added sugar, as we recently discussed here, is sugar that has been added to a food or beverage after it has been produced or prepared. A diet high in added sugars can increase your chance of developing both prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, chronic inflammation, high blood pressure, and obesity.

Studies have shown that a diet high in added sugar can make you three times as likely to die from heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends limiting your added sugar consumption to fewer than six percent of your total daily calories.

Types of Added Sugar

Added sugar comes in many forms. Such examples include various types of sugars and syrups usually used for cooking and baking, like granulated sugar, brown sugar, simple syrup, and powdered sugar.

Here are some other examples of added sugars:

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

a bowl of high fructose corn syrup on a table

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener made from corn starch. Starch contains glucose, and when it is broken down into individual glucose molecules, it turns into corn syrup that is 100 percent glucose.When certain enzymes are added to corn syrup, some of the glucose is converted into fructose. The end product of this process is high-fructose corn syrup.HFCS is found in many products such as soda, juice, breakfast cereal, pancake syrup, jams, and candy. It has been associated with a higher risk for type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance, obesity, and an increased risk of developing gout and kidney stones in men.

Honey 

Honey is a sweet syrup made by bees from the nectar of plants and flowers. It contains fructose, glucose, maltose, and sucrose, and can even contain other types of sugar depending on what plant the bees have collected it from.

Though honey is a source of added sugar, it also contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that may benefit your health.

Agave Nectar

a spoonful of agave nectar

Agave syrup, also called agave nectar, is a concentrated form of the fluid found inside the agave plant, a cactus that is native to Mexico. It is made up of mostly fructose, with some glucose.

Studies have shown that a diet high in fructose may increase your chance of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

8 Common Forms of Sucrose

Sucrose is a common source of added sugar, but it comes in many forms. Because all of these sugars are made of sucrose, which is made up of equal parts glucose and fructose, they are all metabolized by your body in the same way.

Here are eight of the most common types of sucrose and how they’re used.

a graphic of 8 different types of sucrose

1) Granulated Sugar

Granulated sugar is also known as white sugar, table sugar, or regular sugar and is the most common sugar used in baking. It is also commonly used to sweeten hot beverages like coffee and tea.

This type of sugar is made from sugar cane juice. After being extracted from the cane, the juice is filtered to remove dirt and then boiled into a syrup and spun to separate the crystals.

It is then liquefied again and processed to remove any remaining color. The crystals are separated again and ground into fine, white crystals.

2) Powdered Sugar

Powdered sugar is also known as confectioner’s sugar or icing sugar. It dissolves easily, so it’s often used in frosting and icing.

This sugar is granulated sugar that is ground into a powder. Commercial powdered sugar is often mixed with cornstarch to prevent caking.

3) Superfine Sugar

Superfine sugar is made by grinding granulated sugar into finer crystals. This type of sugar is commonly used in baked goods, desserts like mousse or pudding, and as a sweetener for beverages. It is also ideal for making meringues.

4) Brown Sugar

Both light and dark varieties of brown sugar are made by mixing white sugar with molasses, which is the syrup that remains after sugar is crystallized. This type of sugar is used in baked goods, oatmeal, baked beans, and sauces such as barbecue sauce.

5) Demerara Sugar

Demerara sugar is a minimally processed sugar made by dehydrating cane syrup after it’s extracted from sugar cane. It generally has bigger crystals than white sugar or brown sugar, with a light brown or gold tint.

This sugar can be used in baked goods, to sweeten beverages, or sprinkled on top of desserts like crème brûlée to add crunch.

6) Turbinado Sugar

Turbinado sugar is also known as raw sugar. Similar to demerara, turbinado sugar is a partially processed sugar that has only had the top layer of molasses washed off. It has large crystals that are light brown in color.

This sugar can be used in baked goods, as a sweetener for hot beverages, and as a crunchy topping for desserts.

7) Muscovado Sugar

Muscovado sugar is also known as Barbados sugar. Unlike brown sugar, which is refined white sugar with molasses mixed back in, muscovado sugar is an unrefined sugar in which the molasses has never been removed.

This sugar is dark brown in color and has coarse, almost sandy crystals. It can be used in desserts and savory dishes similarly to brown sugar, but it has a deeper flavor.

8) Liquid Sugar

This type of sugar is also known as simple syrup. Liquid sugar is made from one part granulated sugar dissolved in one part water. Because the sugar has already been dissolved, it is perfect for sweetening cold beverages like iced coffee, iced tea, and cocktails.

5 Tips from Nutrisense Dietitians 

The dietitian and nutrition team here at Nutrisense recommends the following general tips for anyone who wants to optimize their overall health and reduce their sugar intake.

1) Minimize your consumption of added sugars.

2) Choose whole fruit over processed fruits and juices and avoid fruits with added sugar.

3) Pair your sugar or carbs with protein and even consider eating protein first to help keep blood sugar more balanced.

4) Time your carb or sugar consumption around times of higher physical activity during your day.

5) Test out different amounts and types of sugar to see what works best for your unique body.

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