What is sugar? An Industry Insider Explains

What is sugar?  An Industry Insider Explains

What is sugar? Do you know?

What is sugar? Sugars are sweet carbohydrates naturally found in plants like fruits and vegetables. They are both in plants and added to foods.

sugars are sweet carbohydrates.  This picture shows four types of table sugar: White refined, Unrefined, Brown, Unprocessed cane. Table sugar is know as a compound sugar, or disaccharide.
Table Sugars clockwise from top left: White refined, Unrefined, Brown, Unprocessed cane.
Table sugar is know as a compound sugar, or disaccharide.

Sugar defined

A few years ago, I decided to learn more about this delicious substance. I love sugar, but I try to minimize the amount of added sugar I consume.

When I started on this journey, I asked myself the question you are likely asking yourself now, what is sugar?

What is sugar? Sugars are sweet carbohydrates naturally found in plants like fruits and vegetables. They are both in plants and added to foods.

Are all sugars called “sugar”?

No. There is a lot of confusion around sweeteners If you google, “no sugar + recipe name” you’ll get recipes that have ingredients like honey and maple syrup. I have even seen or most coconut sugar trending recently. These are all considered sugar.

sugars are sweet carbohydrates that can be found both in plants and added to food.

Sugars are sweet carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables and added to food.

In addition, the amount of sugar we eat has been been drastically increasing over the last two hundred years.

Sugar consumption peaked in 1999, at about 425 calories per day in the United States. Wow, that’s a lot of sugar! In contrast, we started eating a little less sugar around 1999. The trend towards less sugar is growing.

Carbohydrates explained

Now let’s get down business, what are sugars? Simply put, “sugar” is the name for all types of soluble sweet carbohydrates. I think it’s important for you to know that sugar are naturally present in plants including fruits and vegetables. For example, sucrose, glucose, and fructose are the source for all food energy in plants[2]. Also, sugars are added to food for many reasons. 

Smiling Flask with Orange Liquid

Sugars are the simplest form of carbohydrates and are defined by the presence of hydroxyl and carbonyl groups.

Next, let’s start with the most simple sugar, pun intended. Simple sugar is the most simple form of sugar. Examples include glucose, fructose, and galactose.  Simple sugar is another name for monosaccharides. The reason they are known as simple sugars is because they cannot be broken down into smaller molecules without changing the substance’s basic nature. Normally, sugars found in nature are not monosaccharides.

Next we have compound sugars. Two connected simple sugars are classified as compound sugars or disaccharides. The most common example is table sugar. Glucose and fructose bound together make sucrose or table sugar. Lactose is the combination of glucose and fructose.  Another interesting example is lactose. Lactose is the only sugar that occurs in nature, but cannot be extracted from plantsCompound sugars break down into simple sugars when consumed. Hydrolysis is the name of that process.

Sugars are sweet carbohydrates, including the disaccharide sucrose which is fructose and glucose bound together.
Table sugar structure. Table sugar, or sucrose, is two single sugars bound together.

An the other hand, these are not the only substances that taste sweet. Other materials are sweet and are not classified as sugar. Examples of these include glycerol and sugar alcohols [3]

Sugar in food products

On top of that, in the United States, sucrose is the only substance which can be labeled as “sugar” on the ingredient statement[4].  Adding more to potential confusion, “Total Sugar” on the Nutrition Facts includes sugars that are both naturally present in the food plus sugars that have been added[5].

Sugars are sweet carbohydrates that are labeled on Nutrition Facts Panel.
Nutrition Facts Panel from 2020. Notice both “Total Sugars” and “Added Sugars are labeled.

In addition, the FDA now requires food labeling laws to include “added sugar” on the Nutrition Facts panel 2020. I think this change was confusing at first, but it will really help us understand what’s in our food.

To conclude, sugars are sweet carbohydrates. Plants, including fruits and vegetables, contain sugars naturally. Many food products also include sugars for a variety of reasons.

Please note: we will dive deep into many of these topics in additional posts. These topics include: labeling, Nutrition Facts panel, sweeteners, and classifications.


[1] Source: USDA Economic Research Service.  Retrieved 6 June 2020.

[2] Sources of Sugar. Canadian Sugar Institute. https://sugar.ca/Sugar-Basics/Sources-of-Sugar.aspx#:~:text=’Sugar’%20is%20sucrose%2C%20naturally,in%20cooking%20and%20food%20production. Retrieved 9 June 2020.

[3] http://foodsafety.merieuxnutrisciences.com/2016/11/30/new-nutrition-label-added-sugars/#:~:text=Sugar%20alcohols%2C%20such%20as%20xylitol,should%20come%20from%20added%20sugars. Retrieved 9 June 2020.

[4] FDA CFR: “Chapter 1–Food and Drug Administration. Department Of Health And Human Services”. Code of Federal Regulations: Title 21. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office. 16 April 2020. p. 21CFR184.1854. Retrieved 9 June 2020.

[5] FDA Information. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label.  Retrieved 6 June 2020.


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