What you need to know about the different types of sugar

Confused about sugar? Can't get your head around all the different types of the sweet stuff? And want to know if some are actually better for you than others? 

Well, it's no surprise. There are at least 60 names for sugar, from your basic white sugar through to syrups and sugar alcohols, and trying to read food labels can be challenging.

So let's go back to basics. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, and can be a monosaccharide (made up of a single simple sugar molecule), or a disaccharide (two simple sugar molecules joined together). Our body breaks down just about everything we eat into these sugars.   

Natural sugars are present in many fruit, vegetables and dairy foods - even those that are not obviously sweet. Or they can be added to food, and it's that added or 'free' sugar that we need to limit to less than 10 per cent of total energy intake, according to the World Health Organisation.

"All packaged foods have an ingredients list, and they also all have a nutrition information panel, which lists total sugars," dietitian Dr Alan Barclay tells SBS.

"But therein lies one of the greatest points of confusion, because of course it is total sugars, which includes both naturally-occurring and added sugars or free sugars."

All sugars are not equal, says Dr Barclay. Different forms of sugar vary in how sweet they taste, based on their chemical composition. Glucose is a monosaccharide and is less sweet, compared to fructose, which is the sweetest known monosaccharide. Sucrose, or common sugar, is a disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose.

In Australia, sucrose comes mainly from the giant tropical grass sugarcane, while in the US, most of it is produced from sugar beets. Fructose, maltose and dextrose come from fruits and starchy plants. Lactose is a naturally occuring sugar found in dairy products.

We know most Australians eat too much sugar, and excessive consumption of the sweet stuff has been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic disease, fatty liver and other chronic health conditions. 

"Sugar has absolutely no nutritional benefit and that's why it is regularly termed as 'empty' calories, as it is literally just pure energy," says dietitian Hala El-Shafie, who runs Nutrition Rocks and is the resident nutritionist on season 2 of Sugar Free Farm (Thursdays at 8.35pm on SBS - find out more here).

On the show she helps a group of English celebrities eliminate sugar from their diets, and educate them about where sugar hides in their food. While most of us aren't likely to tackle the extreme diet the celebrities face, El-Shafie says hidden sugars can be a surprise for all of us. 

"Being aware of hidden sugars is half the battle – the obvious sugar is one thing but if you don't understand food labels that makes it very difficult. You may not know all of the nicknames for added sugar and have a hard time spotting it in the ingredient list."

And for those who aren't cutting back on sugar, it still helps to understand the differences, given the increasing availability of different types of sugars and alternative sweeteners. (Here are some great practical tips for those who are cutting back on refined sugar but still want to be a great baker). 

So let's take a look at a few of them.  

 

White sugars
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White table sugar

Made from sugarcane or sugar beets, it is mild in flavour, melts and blends easily, and is perfect for baking. Juice is pressed out of sugarcane pulp, before going through a process of clarifying, concentrating and crystallising. 

"All sugars alternatives and sweeteners have their strengths and weaknesses," says Barclay. "I think there's a good argument for just using sugar, but having less of it."

Also referred to as granulated sugar. 

Caster sugar

Caster sugar is a superfine white sugar, in which the granules are so tiny that it they dissolve almost instantly, making it good to use in drinks, desserts and baking. Golden castor sugar is also available - while the flavour may be slightly different, adding a faint buttery, caramel note, it behaves the same way in baking and can be used interchangeably. 

Icing sugar

Granulated sugar is pulverised to make this very fine sugar. It may be sold as pure icing sugar, or mixed together with a small amount of cornflour to create icing mixture. It dissolves quickly and is used in icing, some meringues and simple buttercreams, or to be sprinkled or dusted over desserts. Also referred to as powdered sugar or confectioner's sugar. 

Brown sugars
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Light and dark brown sugar

After sugar is refined, some of the molasses left over is added back into the sugar, which gives it the darker colour, makes it softer and moister, and leaves a small amount of trace nutrients - but not enough to be of benefit.

Muscovado

A specialty brown sugar, muscovado is very dark brown and has a strong molasses taste. With a fine crystal similar to caster sugar, it is quite moist.

Demerara

A light brown raw sugar, the large golden crystals are slightly sticky from the adhering molasses. Demerara has a natural caramel-like flavour.

Palm sugar/coconut sugar

Made from the sap of coconut trees, coconut sugar is less processed as the sap is extracted and then left in the heat to dry. It is slightly less refined and can contain small amounts of minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and inulin. But it is high in calories.

Palm sugar comes from the sugar palm or date palm. The sap is collected from the flowers or from a tap in the trunk of the tree, and then boiled down to form a syrup known as palm honey, or crystalised to form a grainy sugar. It is mostly used in Indian, Indonesian, Thai and some African cuisines. 

"A lot of 'health' products that are raw or vegan can sometimes have a lot of added sugar, but done with things like coconut sugar," dietitian Gabrielle Maston tells SBS.

"We've got to remember that just because it's coming from a fancy fruit or different substance that we don't normally have, it doesn't mean that it is any healthier."  

 
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Liquid sugars
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Honey

Made up of fructose and glucose, honey has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties - particularly Manuka and other high-grade honeys. But it is high in calories and carbs.

"Most people think that honey is healthier than table sugar because it comes from bees, but it's really just liquefied sugar," says Maston.

Nutrition Australia Queensland Division's senior nutritionist Aloysa Hourigan also offers this tip: "If you see honey and glucose and syrups in the ingredients list, you know there's probably a fair bit of added sugar in there."

Agave Syrup

Produced from the blue agave succulent plant in Mexico, the sweet sap is extracted from the core of the plant, then filtered and heated or treated with enzymes and concentrated until it becomes a thick syrupy liquid. This process breaks down the carbohydrates into sugars. Made of up to 90 per cent fructose, it has a syrupy flavour. It is still a refined sugar, but being so high in fructose gives it a much lower Glycemic Index.

"It's mostly fructose, it's a syrup so it's a free sugar, and should be consumed in moderation," says Barclay.

Rice malt syrup

Rice malt syrup comes from brown rice, and is made by culturing rice with enzymes to breakdown the starches. Then it is cooked until it becomes a syrup. The end product contains soluble complex carbohydrates, maltose and glucose. It contains no fructose. But it's not the healthy alternative it is sometimes made out to be, says Barclay.

"The WHO's current guidelines limits 10 per cent of energy from free sugars which includes all added sugars plus syrups and honeys - and that includes rice malt syrup, which is what many of the people who say they quit sugar actually recommend," he says. "If you look at their recipes they're actually full of free sugars from a WHO definition, so they're not sugar-free at all."

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is harvested from the sap of the maple tree, and boiled down to create a strongly flavoured syrup. The season for harvesting the sap is just six weeks long, and it takes about 40 parts of sap to make one part of syrup. The syrup is graded by colour, flavour and sugar content, with A grade being the highest.

Molasses/treacle

Molasses is the by-product of the refining process sugarcane goes through. When it is mashed and boiled, cane syrup is created. A second boiling process produces molasses, and then a third creates blackstrap molasses. The darker the molasses, the more bitter it is. It contains vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium, but don't get too carried away with supposed health benefits, warns Barclay.

"I don't think it's a vitamin pill. It's still a free sugar," he says. "And the amounts of minerals are not enough to get particularly excited about, so I don't consider it a health food."

Corn syrup

High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn starch. It was developed in the 1970s, and was used widely by food manufacturers as a sugar replacement because it was of comparable sweetness, but was easier to use and more cost-effective. Health concerns have been raised regarding whether the body handles high-fructose corn syrup differently than table sugar. It adds a lot of fructose to your diet, and converts easily to fat.

Sugar alcohols
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Sugar alcohols are found naturally in plant products such as fruit and vegetables. They are like hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules. They taste like sugar but have fewer calories, so they are widely used as sweeteners. 

"When we look at that range of sweetening agents that are around, there's some that are straight artificial sweeteners, and there are some that are more sugar substitutes - things like sorbitol and manitol and that kind of thing," Nutrition Australia Queensland Division's senior nutritionist, Aloysa Hourigan tell SBS.

"So they still do have some kilojoules but they're used a little bit differently by the body. And in large amounts they could still cause you things like diarrhea and that kind of thing, and a lot of wind and bloating." 

"They all tend to have one unfortunate side-effect, and there's a warning on the labels of most of them, and that is they can cause gastro-intestinal upsets. Because they're not particularly well-absorbed, which is why they don't have many calories, but they can cause wind, bloating and diarrhea if you have too much of them in one sitting.

Xylitol

This is the most common sugar alcohol. It is often used in sugar-free chewing gum and mints, as well as toothpaste, as it has a mint flavour. It has about 40 per cent fewer calories than regular sugar.

Erythritol

With 70 per cent of the sweetness of sugar, but only 5 per cent of the calories, erythritol is another popular sweetener. It is processed by fermenting the glucose in corn starch.

Sorbitol

Sorbitol is 60 per cent as sweet as sugar, and has about 60 per cent of the calories. It is commonly used in sugar-free food and drinks, but can cause digestive upsets.

Maltitol

Very similar in taste to regular sugar, maltitol is processed from the sugar maltose. It is 90 per cent as sweet as sugar, with just half the calories. 

Other sugar alcohols that are found in some food products include mannitol, isomalt, and lactitol.

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Sugar-free sweeteners
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Stevia

Made from the leaves of the stevia plant, stevia is a natural, sugar-free alternative. It doesn't raise blood sugar, and it has some anti-inflammatory compounds. It is non-caloric, so good for those who are trying to cut their calories. 

"Stevia is not a sugar, it's an intense sweetener, and it's been around for quite a long time in the southern Americas in particular," Barclay says. "But what we're having in our food supply is a highly refined extract of it. Usually it's mixed with other sweeteners, because it has a bit of a liquorice aftertaste for a lot of people.

"And because it's an intense sweetener it needs to be bulked out, so the typical thing you'll find it on in a tabletop [Stevia-based] sweetener is erythritol. It's in fact often 99 per cent erythritol, and just 1 per cent stevia, despite the marketing. And erythritol is a sugar alchohol, so it does provide some calories.

"My concern with stevia is people think it's ground up stevia leaves, and it's far from it. It is a highly refined extract. I think the health halo around stevia is probably not warranted."

Lo Han Guo/Monkfruit

Lo Han Guo has been used as a natural sweetener and healing remedy for many years in China, where it is known as "longevity fruit" or "Buddha fruit".

It is much sweeter than sugar, with high concentrations of fructose and glucose, but the sweetness comes from glycosides in the flesh of the fruit, which is said to be antioxident-rich.

It is now becoming more mainstream in the west. Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa recently told SBS he plans to use it widely in his Nobu restaurants around the world.

"There is a fruit grown in Asia called the monkfruit, which is a natural sweetener that has no calories," he says.

"We are using this monkfruit to replace sugar in our sushi rice, desserts, and cocktails. It is a healthy upgrade." 

But Barclay urges some caution: "It's a highly refined extract that is intensely sweetened.

He also highlights that monk fruit is still being assessed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, with a decision due to be announced in late April.

"All the other intense sweeteners have undergone regulatory assessment and approval in Australia. Monk fruit hasn't, it's fairly new and still in the process of being reviewed," Barclay says.

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