What is Sugar, Exactly and What is it Doing to Our Bodies?

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We're told to avoid sugar like the plague, but what is sugar, really?

The reason sugar has the bad rap that is does is because of the way in which it is refined, which is extensively so. Sugar cane itself contains only trace amounts of vitamins and minerals and when it is processed, the resulting sugar contains next to nothing that will boost your health.

What is sugar?

Regular white sugar is what most of us are accustomed to. It is what we call “table sugar”. Sugar cane is cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical regions for the sucrose in its stems. Sugar cane is milled in order to extract the juice. It is clarified and heated, resulting in thin syrup. It is evaporated in machines to concentrate the solution further. At this stage, the sugar crystals are separated from the fluid. Molasses is a result of this process. The crystals are sticky and have a brown coating and are referred to as raw sugar. They can be used as-is or processed further.

In the next step, sugar is refined to become dark brown, light brown or white sugar – white sugar being the most processed of the three. To attain white sugar, the sticky crystals are placed in a concentrated syrup to remove its brown coating. The crystals are dissolved in this liquid and the resulting syrup is treated by either carbonatation or phosphatation, as well as activated carbon or an ion-exchange resin to remove color. (As a side note, evaporated cane juice is what results when not all of the color is removed and remnants of some molasses remain.) Next, the liquor is boiled, cooled and spun. The result is white crystals that are dried in hot air and then ready for packaging. This is the white sugar almost all of us have on standby in our pantries.

Powdered sugar is a very fine white sugar that is mixed with a small amount of anti-caking agent, making it about 3 percent corn starch.

Sugar can also be made from the sugar beet plant. The process is slightly less lengthy. Crops are washed and sliced before being treated by diffusion, which extracts sugar. The juice is clarified and carbonated. The resulting syrup is boiled under a vacuum, cooled and seeded with sugar crystals. The white sugar that crystallized is separated in a centrifuge and dried. More than 95 percent of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.

White sugar is extensively processed and completely stripped of its impurities. By the time it is finished, it no longer carries any nutritional perks inherent in sugar cane and is more or less empty calories.

Why "raw" is (relatively) better

Raw sugar is a cane sugar that has been minimally processed. Raw sugar is what results during the first stage of the refining process. It has a higher moisture and molasses content and a crunchier texture than table sugar does. Some forms of raw sugar include turbinado and demerara. Only the surface molasses has been washed off from turbinado sugar. Demerara sugar has large golden crystals, which are slightly sticky from molasses.

Because raw sugar is less refined, it is often used as a smarter, healthier choice relative to regular white sugar. It has a better balance of sucrose, glucose and fructose, whereas refined sugars are almost always exclusively sucrose.

“Fruit” sugar is no good

In nature, fructose is produced by plants. When we consume fruits, the sugars give us energy and a sweet flavor. Fructose occurs naturally in fruits and, especially when paired with fiber, is not nearly enough to boost our blood sugar to dangerous levels. But what is sugar that labels itself as "fructose" on grocery store shelves? Not quite the fruity origins you'd imagine.

Commercially speaking, fructose is derived synthetically, from sugar cane, sugar beets and corn. Corn is milled into cornstarch and then treated with enzymes to break the sugars down and convert glucose to fructose. It is then processed through liquid chromatography to enrich the fructose content. The result is syrup with a fructose content of 90 percent. The syrup can be mixed with less-concentrated syrups to adjust the fructose levels further. High fructose corn syrup, for example, is about 55 percent fructose.

When all is said and done…

Avoid all types of refined sugar, even the "raw" kind if you can. Of course, everything in moderation is a good way to go about your diet, but sugar sneaks into so many things, and in all its variations, that it’s best to avoid it altogether to stay on the safe side. Instead, opt for natural sweeteners that offer the sweet without the not-so-great side story. When it comes to your health and all the various alternatives out there, what is sugar good for, really?

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Photo Credit: Umberto Salvagnin

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