The Building Blocks of Sweetness

Whether you’re gobbling up leftover Halloween candy or planning holiday meals, you’re likely to encounter a whole lot of sugar in the next few months. But in terms of chemistry, sugar isn’t just one substance. In fact, sugar takes various forms. It turns out the form affects how different sources of sugar get processed in our bodies. Here are four ways your body interacts with sugar. 

1. The Building Blocks of Sweetness

Sugars are considered “simple” or “complex” according to the way their molecules are arranged. Simple sugars are made up of a single sugar molecule that’s built from various structures of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms bonded together. These simple sugars, also known as monosaccharides, are the most basic unit of carbohydrates.  

The two simple sugars found in nature are glucose and fructose. When your body digests and metabolizes carbohydrates from food, it produces glucose. Glucose is an essential energy source for muscles, and is, under normal circumstances, the only sugar form used to fuel the brain. Fructose is a simple sugar found in foods like fruit, root vegetables and honey. Interestingly, your body converts most of the fructose it gets through food by metabolizing it to glucose.

2. Sugar as Fuel 

Even though glucose and fructose are made up of the same elements, the different arrangement of those elements in either sugar means that they’re processed differently in the body. For example, glucose is absorbed quickly in the bloodstream, where hormones like insulin help distribute it throughout the body., By regulating glucose levels in the bloodstream, insulin makes sure that the body and brain have a steady supply of energy.,

Fructose, on the other hand, is metabolized through a slightly different pathway in the body. When you ingest food that contains fructose, the majority of the fructose goes to your liver, where it’s metabolized.,  Unlike with glucose, your body doesn’t need insulin to help turn fructose into energy.

3. Double the Sugar Doesn’t Mean Double the Sweetness

When most people think of sugar, they typically think of the sugar used for baking—sucrose. Sucrose is categorized as a double sugar, or disaccharide, which occurs when two simple sugars chemically bond together. At the atomic level, a carbon from one simple sugar bonds with the hydrogen and oxygen bond, known as a hydroxyl group, of another simple sugar. Sucrose is an equal combination of glucose and fructose. 

Though sucrose is a chemical combination of glucose and fructose, our taste buds don’t perceive it as the sweetest sugar, because sweetness depends on the ratio of simple sugars . Of glucose, fructose and sucrose, we perceive fructose as the sweetest, then sucrose and finally glucose.. For example, your taste buds register agave nectar as sweeter than the common additive high fructose corn syrup because agave nectar is 100 percent fructose, while high fructose corn syrup is actually 55 percent glucose and only 45 percent fructose. 

Artificial sweeteners taste the sweetest of all, though they are not made of sugar.  The common artificial sweetener sucralose, for example, has chlorine atoms instead of the typical hydroxyl group in double sugar molecules. 

4. From Building Blocks to Skyscrapers

If simple sugars are the building blocks, then long-chain sugars are skyscrapers. Called polysaccharides, long-chain sugars form when more than two simple sugars bond together. Many polysaccharides take the form of starch in food, though there are also non-starch polysaccharides (e.g. cellulose). Common starches found in foods like rice, potatoes and bananas can contain anywhere from thousands to 100,000 glucose units.

For the body to metabolize these complex polysaccharides, it must break down the long chain of chemical bonds into its simple sugars. Starches, for example, break down into their many glucose components as your body digests the food. The body stores this glucose in cells as glycogen, which acts as energy storage that the body can tap into when energy is low.,  Though scientists are still debating the healthy level of sugar intake, the rate at which your body break downs and absorbs starches is thought to impact body weight and the risk of metabolic disorders like diabetes. 

As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but it turns out that sweetness goes by many names.




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