What comes to your mind when we talk of sugar is the granulated table sugar. But sugar refers to the sweet, colourless, soluble substance found in the milk of mammals and sap of plants. Chemically, sugar refers to all the carbohydrates whose general chemical formula is Cn(H2O)n. Sucrose is the most common type of sugar- what we mostly refer to as table sugar. You can tell by now that there’s so much you don’t know about sugar. Being careful with what we consume has never been more important given the rise in lifestyle diseases. Today I will be taking you through the formation of sugar and other important things you should know about this popular food ingredient.
Is sugar a compound? Yes, it is. A compound is a substance made of two or more elements that combine through a chemical reaction. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate compound and as the name suggests, carbohydrate refers to substances consisting of the three elements: Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen.
Sugar can be categorized into simple sugars (monosaccharide), double sugars (disaccharides), and complex sugars (polysaccharides). Fructose and glucose are examples of simple sugars, sucrose is a double sugar consisting of the two, and glycogen is a complex sugar made up of chains of glucose molecules. Honestly, we tend to ignore so much information on sugar and concentrate on its benefits/harm to our health. This article expounds on sugar being a compound and answers other questions related to sugar. Read on to find out more!
What Makes Sugar A Compound?
There are many types of sugars besides sucrose. They include fructose, glucose, maltose, and lactose. These sugars share most of their chemical and physical properties. So as not to go deep into their chemistry, I will mostly mention sucrose to represent the rest of the sugars. In fact, sugar mainly refers to sucrose whereas the term sugars often refer to all the above types. I mentioned before that sugar is a compound and here is to why:
It consists of three elements
Since sugar is a carbohydrate, it consists of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. These are elements that react to form sugar. For a substance to pass as an element, it has to have only one kind of atom so sugar cannot be called an element.
Constituents are in a fixed mass ratio
The chemical formula of sucrose is C12H22O11. What this means is it has 12 atoms of Carbon, 22 atoms of Hydrogen, and 11 atoms of Oxygen. This means that sucrose can only be formed when Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen react at a fixed mass ratio of 12:22:11 and no other way. This is a property found in all compounds in chemistry, which makes sugar a compound as well.
Components can’t be separated by physical means
One of the main characteristics of compounds is that their components can only be separated through a chemical reaction. It is only mixtures that can be separated through physical means such as distillation, filtration, sieving, and decantation. There is no way you can extract the Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen atoms in sugar through these methods.
Sugar is formed through a chemical reaction
Let me use glucose as an example here. How do you think it is formed? Well, through a chemical reaction known as photosynthesis. Green plants and some algae combine Carbon dioxide and water in the presence of sunlight energy to produce glucose, oxygen, and water. For sugar to be formed, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Carbon have to react chemically under specific conditions. How do we tell it is a chemical reaction and not physical? First, there is the formation of a new substance which is glucose. Secondly, bubbles will be visible due to the production of Oxygen gas. Thirdly, the numbers of one kind of atoms on the reacting side are equal to the number of such atoms on the results side. This is another rule for all chemical reactions, in that, one side of the equation must balance the other side.
Properties of sugar are different from that of its elements
Unlike in mixtures, the components of a compound do not retain their chemical or physical properties. For instance, Carbon is black but is sugar black? Of course not. Although one is a constituent of the other, they both have different colours. Hydrogen and Oxygen are in gas form but sugar is not. This clearly shows that sugar is a compound, unlike a mixture of maize and beans where the properties of each item remain dominant.
These are the characteristics of compounds and as I have explained, they all apply to sugar. I hope that answers your question.
Is Sugar Important In The Body?
Despite being such a popular ingredient in the food industry and in most of our kitchens, sugar continues to receive backlash from health experts. But is it necessarily bad? We all know that consuming too much sugar is bad for your health, but it might be helpful to the body when consumed in small quantities. So let’s focus on the role that sugar plays in living organisms. Sugar and other carbohydrates are the primary sources of energy in human beings. Glucose, in particular, is very essential in the functioning of the central nervous system. Once we ingest sucrose in any form, be it crystalline or naturally from fruits, it is broken down into glucose and fructose. Glucose is absorbed into the body cells and metabolized into immediate energy.
Excess glucose is stored in form of glycogen to conserve fuel for the body. Through a process known as glycogenesis, the liver creates chains of glycogen consisting of hundreds of thousands of molecules of glucose joined through chemical bonds. When primary sources of energy are not available, your body breaks down the glycogen into glucose, providing energy. Typically, this happens at night during sleep, during workouts, and in between meals. It is a very important process as it prevents a sudden drop in your blood sugar. It goes without saying that sugar is important to our bodies. We just need to avoid too many quantities of it.
So, How Much Sugar Is Healthy?
Since sugar plays an important role in the body, how much should you consume? Most health experts recommend a daily added sugar intake of not more than 9 teaspoons (150 calories) for men and 6 teaspoons (100 calories for women). This might sound like a lot but keep in mind that it goes beyond the granulated table sugar you add to your tea. Most processed foods contain lots of added sugar, not to mention, fruits also contain sugar (though the healthy kind). All these must be taken into account when calculating your daily sugar intake
Let me put it into perspective, a regular-sized bar of chocolate contains about 120 calories of sugar while a regular coke has over 140 calories of sugar. Anytime you consume any of these products, you exceed the required daily sugar intake. Once your glucose intake exceeds the body storage capacity for glycogen, the surplus is converted into fat. As we all know, fat is the beginning of many serious health complications. Heart disease, obesity, heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes, and dental complications are some of the nightmares brought by excess sugar intake.
On the other hand, if you take small amounts of sugar, it is all metabolized and even if there is excess, it is still in small amounts. The body cannot process what it does not need, so eat in moderation! I know that measuring your daily sugar intake is not easy, which is why many choose to avoid added sugar altogether to be on the safe side.
Is There A Good Type Of Sugar?
Yes, there is a good type of sugar and that is natural sugars. Although they are treated the same by our bodies, added sugars and natural sugar are quite different. Natural sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruits and milk. They are nutritious as they contain several vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, minerals, and fibre, all of which are very useful to the body. The reason I call natural sugars good sugar is they don’t have negative effects on our teeth, heart, blood sugar level, or fat intake.
Added sugars, on the other hand, are chemically produced and found in processed foods like sodas, candies, chocolates, cakes, biscuits, and so on. They are far more unhealthy compared to the natural kind and should, therefore, be consumed in moderation.
I would recommend you make it a habit to replace complex sugars with simple sugar from plants. Unlike complex sugars, which are metabolized quickly creating a spike or sudden drop in blood sugar, simple sugars take longer to be metabolized.
About the author: Marta Kovachek is the author of this article. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in Economics. Marta enjoys writing about the current economic situation and loves helping our readers to find their next "destination". From places to live to complex social and economic topics, we always enjoy Marta's work. Please contact us in case of any questions.