Sugars come in many shapes and sizes from a molecular standpoint. In traditional diets, the main sources are from fruits and vegetables. In processed diets such as the SAD or Standard American Diet (pun intended), sugars are either added to foods to make them taste better, or are formed from the metabolism of the starches that make up refined carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, husked rice and snack foods. The two main sugars that are abundant are sucrose and fructose. Sucrose is essentially table sugar, which is derived from either sugar cane or sugar beet on a large scale, and fructose is found in fruit and HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). When sucrose is ingested, it is broken down into 50% glucose and 50% fructose. In small amounts, these sugars can be dealt with by our digestive system. However, in large amounts they are hazardous to us as they will cause too much secretion of insulin, fat storage and eventually diabetes as well as many other illnesses too numerous to mention. It was due to this that food processors began using saccharine, aspartame and sucralose. Saccharine is a coal tar derivative that was discovered in 1878 by Constantin Fahlberg. Although banned in Canada in 1977, it is still used in the USA despite being a probable human carcinogen. Aspartame is a phenylalanine derivative that was discovered in 1965 by J.M. Schlatter. Some of its metabolites include methanol, formaldehyde and phenylalanine. The first two of these chemicals are neuro-toxic, with formaldehyde also being carcinogenic. The safest of the three is sucralose which was discovered in 1976 by adding 3 chlorine atoms to a sucrose molecule. Sucralose has no nutritional value and passes through the digestive tract almost completely with only 11% being metabolized and no increase in insulin secretion. Of all the artificial sweeteners, it is so far the safest.
Natural alternatives to sugar include stevia root extract, d-ribose and xylitol. Discovered in 1899 in Paraguay and used extensively in Japan since the 70’s, stevia extract has 35-40 times the sweetness of sucrose and also carries the benefits of increasing glucose tolerance, alleviating heartburn and lowering blood pressure. D-Ribose is a 5 carbon sugar that makes up the backbone of DNA and was discovered in 1891. Medicinally it is used to help treat chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and fibromyalgia, as well as post exercise fatigue in athletes, although it isn’t recommended for diabetics as it will increase blood sugar slightly. Xylitol was first derived from birch trees in Finland in the 20th century and is also found in berries and corn husks. With a glycemic index of 13 (glucose is 100) and containing only half the calories of sugar, it is used as a sugar substitute for diabetics. Some other interesting properties of xylitol are that it reduces dental cavities by 70% (fluoride eat your heart out), lowers osteoporosis rates and prevents otitis media (an infection of the inner ear). So the next time someone calls you “sugar”, just remember that there are different kinds of sweet.