Almost everything we eat contains sugar, whether it comes naturally or processed. But what exactly is sugar? In this blog, we’ll look into what sugar is and where it originates from. We’ll also briefly look into the health impacts of sugar consumption.
What is sugar?
Sugar, or sucrose (sugar’s chemical name), is a carbohydrate which the body breaks down into simple sugars like glucose. It provides a source of energy for our body to use.
With sugars, they can come from different sources including naturally or processed. The ones which are processed are added to foods.
How is sugar made?
Green plants make sugar through a process called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is simply a process where plants transform the sun’s energy into food. There are 4 steps involved1:
- Plants use their roots to pull minerals and water from the ground.
- Leaves take in the carbon dioxide from the air.
- The chlorophyll in the leaf cells absorb energy from sunlight.
- Sunlight energy, in conjunction with carbon dioxide and water, make sugar.
Sugar comes from either sugar beets or from sugar cane plants. Sugar beets are root vegetables that come grow in cooler climates whereas the sugar cane plants are tropical grasses. Out of all plants, these two contain the highest percentage of sucrose1.
With these plants, they go through a refining process where all impurities are removed. This refining process simply involves2:
- Washing the plants
- Cutting the plants
- Extracting juice from the plants
- Crystallising the juice
- Spinning crystals in centrifuge to remove liquid, resulting in raw sugar
- Further purifying the sugar
- Melting and filtering the sugar to remove any leftover impurities such as molasses
- Crystallising the sugar and then drying the crystals
What are the health impacts of sugar?
Most people assume that too much sugar consumption can lead to diabetes. However, this is not true. Too much sugar consumption can lead to weight gain and obesity. This in turn can then lead to diabetes as being overweight puts a person at risk for type 2 diabetes3.
Too much sugar can also lead to tooth decay. Dental plaque consists of bacteria, food particles and mucous. The bacteria relies on sugar to produce acids which can start tooth decay by breaking down the enamel4.
Why do we consume sugar?
After this brief look into the health impacts of sugar, you may be wondering why people still consume sugar and why it’s used in the processed food industry.
A moderate portion of refined sugar can be considered as part of a healthy diet. As we all know, sugar adds taste to our food. It’s also used for colour, bulk and adding thickness to food. They act as a preservative and stop mould from forming. Finally, sugar can provide energy for our body4.
Sugar is a part of almost everything we eat. There are however alternatives to sugar that you can look out for. This will be explored further in future blogs.
- The Sugar Association 2020, What is Sugar, Washington, DC, <https://www.sugar.org/sugar/what-is-sugar/>
- The Sugar Association 2018, Sugar’s Journey from Field to Table: Sugar Cane, Washington, DC, <https://www.sugar.org/blog/refining-and-processing-sugar-cane/>
- Eatforhealth.gov.au 2015, Sugars, Canberra ACT, National Health and Medical Research Council, <https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/food-essentials/fat-salt-sugars-and-alcohol/sugars>
- Better Health Channel 1999/2020, Sugar, Melbourne, VIC, State of Victoria, <https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/sugar>