Learn: What Are Simple Sugars? A Guide to Understanding Their Purpose in the Human Diet

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What Are Simple Sugars Made Of?

Simple sugars are the basic units of carbohydrates. They are the simplest kind of carbohydrates made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that share the generic chemical formula CH2O. Technically, simple sugars consist of monosaccharides and disaccharides.

Monosaccharides can be defined as carbohydrates that ‘cannot be decomposed by hydrolysis to obtain smaller molecules of saccharide’. Examples of monosaccharides are glucose, dextrose, fructose, which are found in fruits, galactose, which is found in milk products, and xylose and ribose.

Disaccharides are simple sugars that are made up of two monosaccharides. For example, the lactose found in milk contains glucose and galactose. Similarly, honey, which is another simple sugar, consists of glucose and fructose; and maltose is composed of two molecules of glucose.

Simple sugars are colorless crystalline substances that are soluble in water. Most of them are sweet tasting but not all. For example, glucose, fructose and maltose are sweet simple sugars, whereas formaldehyde and ribose are not sweet.

Fructose, found in the range of one to seven percent in fruits, like watermelon, is the sweetest of all simple sugars. The simple sugars are found in foods such as cakes, biscuits, muesli bars, puddings, processed cereals, puddings, jams, juices, soft drinks, fruit drinks and of course honey. Candy, syrups, including high fructose corn syrup, regular carbonated beverages such as soda, and table sugar are all processed and refined simple sugars.

Eat Fruit Instead of Table Sugar

Refined or simple sugars are considered to be bad carbohydrates, since they have a very high glycemic index. High glycemic index foods tend to raise blood sugar levels very rapidly. These sugars provide calories, but they are mostly ‘empty’ calories since they lack the vitamins, minerals and fiber that are so essential for proper body functioning. Moreover, empty calories lead to weight gain as they tend to promote storage of fat in the body. Studies have shown that high intake of simple sugars in the form of added sugars contributes to high triglyceride levels and cardiovascular disease.

Further, simple and refined sugars are typically combined with saturated fats, as in candy and bonbons and so forth, which ultimately adversely affect dental health. So much so that the National Institutes of Health recommends that ‘It is healthiest to get carbohydrates, vitamins, and other nutrients in as natural a form as possible - for example, from fruit instead of table sugar’.

How Are Simple Sugars Useful?

Simple sugars are not always bad.

  • Simple sugars are the main energy providers for the body and the brain, since they are broken down into glucose very quickly, which is then converted directly to energy. Problems arise when you take in more sugar than is required by your body for optimum functioning.
  • Intake of simple sugars in the form of sports drinks or sugary drinks may help initiate the muscle recovery process after a workout or strenuous physical activity.
  • Lactose, found in milk and milk products, is a healthy, naturally occurring simple sugar. However, if you have a deficiency of lactase enzyme that breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose, you are in for trouble.
  • Occasional sugary snacks (containing simple sugars) help relieve the milder symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

In short, it is okay to have some sugar off and on, but don’t take sugar on an empty stomach, or it could trigger a binge. It’s better to have a dessert or sweets in the middle of your meal rather than at the end of it to satisfy the craving. To learn more about sugar, read “Health Effects of Soft Drinks,” or “Sugar and Your Body.