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Article: Sweet Deception: Why Not All Sugars Are Alike

Sweet Deception: Why Not All Sugars Are Alike

Sweet Deception: Why Not All Sugars Are Alike

A gram of sugar is a gram of sugar, right? Turns out, not really. Proponents of IIFYM (if if fits your macros) would argue that the source of a calorie in your diet is irrelevant as long as you stick to the target, but in reality, this belief is flawed.

Why? Because the metabolic pathways are very different. You can never expect to build muscle by drinking a gallon of soda daily, so why it is different when it comes to the type of sugar you ingest?

It makes a world of difference, but sadly, most people don’t appreciate this fact. 

There are several types of sugar, each with distinct characteristics and sources. Here are some of the most common types:


Glucose is a simple sugar and a critical carbohydrate in biology. It is one of the primary sources of energy for the body's cells and plays a crucial role in various metabolic processes. As the most abundant monosaccharide, glucose is a key molecule in biochemistry and is often referred to as blood sugar because it circulates in the bloodstream.

glucose structure

In metabolism, glucose is pivotal. When consumed, most carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream. The hormone insulin, produced by the pancreas, facilitates the uptake of glucose into cells, where it can be used for energy. 

Inside the cells, glucose undergoes glycolysis, a process that splits the glucose molecule into two molecules of pyruvate, yielding ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the energy currency of the cell.

Following glycolysis, pyruvate can enter the mitochondria and be further processed in the Krebs cycle (or citric acid cycle) and the electron transport chain, leading to the production of a significant amount of ATP. This process is known as cellular respiration and is vital for maintaining the energy balance in cells.

Thus, glucose is essential for energy production. When energy is required, glucose is oxidized to produce ATP, which is then used to power various cellular activities. The brain, in particular, relies heavily on glucose for its energy needs, as it does not preferwentially or efficiently use other sources like fatty acids.

While glucose is necessary for normal bodily functions, its consumption should be moderated. Excessive glucose intake can lead to several health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other health agencies recommend that added sugars (which include glucose) should make up less than 10% of total daily energy intake. For an average adult, this equates to about 50 grams or roughly 12 teaspoons of sugar per day. Reducing this to less than 5% of total energy intake provides additional health benefits.

The average American, however, consumes 4-8 times this amount daily, causing the negative effects to rear their ugly head.


This aint your “regular” sugar. No, in fact, it acts very differently from glucose. If glucose could be classified as the lawful neutral sugar, fructose is the chaotic evil.

Fructose is a simple sugar, or monosaccharide, just like glucose. It is naturally found in many fruits, vegetables, and honey. It is also a major component of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is commonly used as a sweetener in processed foods and beverages. 

different sugar structures

While fructose is naturally occurring and can be part of a healthy diet, it is essential to understand that it has many potential negatives, especially when consumed in excess.

One of the primary concerns with fructose is its unique metabolic pathway. Unlike glucose, which is metabolized by nearly every cell in the body, fructose is primarily metabolized in the liver. 

When consumed in large quantities, the liver can become overwhelmed and tends to convert excess fructose into fat. This process can lead to the accumulation of fat in the liver, a condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Over time, NAFLD can progress to more serious liver conditions, including inflammation, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.

In addition to liver health concerns, excessive fructose consumption has been associated with several other negative health outcomes. High intake of fructose can lead to increased levels of triglycerides in the blood, which is a significant contributing risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Fructose also has a minimal impact on insulin secretion and does not significantly stimulate the release of leptin, a hormone that helps regulate appetite and energy balance. As a result, consuming high amounts of fructose can contribute to overeating and weight gain.

Fructose has also been linked to the development of insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance occurs when cells in the body become less responsive to the hormone insulin, leading to elevated blood glucose levels. Over time, this can result in the pancreas producing more insulin in an attempt to lower blood glucose, which can eventually lead to pancreatic beta-cell dysfunction and the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Excessive fructose consumption has even been associated with an increased risk of developing gout. Fructose metabolism produces uric acid as a byproduct and elevated levels of uric acid can lead to the formation of urate crystals in the joints, causing the painful condition known as gout.

The many adverse metabolic effects that result from seemingly innocuous fructose consumption from even natural sources tend to negate the benefits that might be obtained.


Sucrose, commonly known as table sugar, is a disaccharide composed of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose. It is naturally found in many plants, particularly in sugar cane and sugar beets, and is a staple sweetener in households worldwide. Sucrose is also widely used in the food industry to enhance the flavor and texture of a multitude of products, from baked goods to beverages.

sucrose turbinado demerara sugar

When ingested, sucrose is broken down by the enzyme sucrase in the small intestine, releasing glucose and fructose into the bloodstream. The glucose component is readily absorbed and utilized by nearly every cell in the body for energy, while fructose is primarily metabolized in the liver.

The health concerns associated with sucrose consumption mirror those of fructose due to its presence in its structure. Excessive intake of sucrose can lead to similar metabolic issues, such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), by overwhelming the liver's capacity to metabolize fructose, resulting in the conversion of excess fructose into fat. This accumulation of fat in the liver can progress to more severe liver conditions, such as inflammation, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.

High sucrose consumption can also elevate blood triglyceride levels, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The fructose component of sucrose has a minimal effect on insulin and leptin secretion, potentially leading to overeating and weight gain. This can further exacerbate the risk of developing insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, as well as pancreatic beta-cell dysfunction over time.

Sucrose consumption is also linked to an increased risk of gout due to fructose metabolism producing uric acid as a byproduct. Elevated uric acid levels can result in the formation of urate crystals in the joints, leading to the painful condition known as gout.

When you look at it, sucrose has many of the characteristics of fructose, even though it carries glucose with it.


Lactose is a disaccharide sugar composed of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of galactose. It is naturally found in dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. 

Lactose plays a vital role in the diet of infants, providing a significant source of energy. In the human body, lactose is broken down by the enzyme lactase in the small intestine into its constituent sugars, glucose and galactose, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream.


For most people, lactose is a beneficial component of their diet, contributing to calcium absorption and providing essential nutrients. However, some individuals have a reduced ability to produce lactase after weaning, leading to lactose intolerance. This condition results in the inability to properly digest lactose, causing gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea when dairy products are consumed.

Despite these issues, lactose itself is not inherently harmful. The glucose component of lactose follows the typical metabolic pathways, being used for immediate energy needs or stored for later use. Galactose, on the other hand, is converted to glucose in the liver before entering these metabolic pathways. This process ensures that the energy derived from lactose can be efficiently utilized by the body.

Consuming large amounts of lactose without adequate lactase can lead to significant digestive discomfort and malabsorption of other nutrients. Additionally, individuals with galactosemia, a rare genetic disorder, must avoid lactose entirely, as they cannot metabolize galactose properly, leading to toxic accumulation.

In terms of broader health implications, lactose consumption is generally considered safe and beneficial within the context of a balanced diet. Dairy products, which are primary sources of lactose, also provide essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and protein, contributing to overall health and well-being.


Maltose, also known as malt sugar, is a disaccharide composed of two glucose molecules linked by a(1-4) glycosidic bond. It is naturally present in germinating grains such as barley and is a product of the enzymatic breakdown of starch. Maltose is less sweet than sucrose and is used in brewing, baking, and as a sweetener in various foods.

When ingested, maltose is broken down by the enzyme maltase in the small intestine into two glucose molecules, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream. These glucose molecules follow the typical metabolic pathways of glucose, providing energy for cellular activities through glycolysis and subsequent processes like the Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain. This makes maltose an important energy source, especially in carbohydrate-rich diets.

Maltose and its glucose components are generally well-tolerated by most individuals and are efficiently metabolized to produce ATP, the energy currency of the cell. 

Unlike fructose, which has unique metabolic concerns primarily linked to liver metabolism, maltose-derived glucose can be used by nearly all cells in the body for energy, reducing the risk of metabolic complications.

However, excessive maltose consumption, like other sugars, can have negative health effects. High intake of maltose can lead to elevated blood glucose levels, triggering increased insulin secretion. Over time, this can contribute to insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Additionally, excessive sugar consumption, including maltose, can contribute to weight gain and associated health problems such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.

In brewing and baking, maltose plays a crucial role in fermentation processes. In beer production, for example, maltose is fermented by yeast to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. In baking, maltose contributes to the browning of bread through the Maillard reaction, enhancing flavor and texture.


Trehalose is a unique sugar that isn’t that well known by many people. It is a disaccharide composed of two glucose molecules linked by a(1-1) glycosidic bond. It is naturally found in various organisms, including fungi, plants, and invertebrates, and is known for its role in stress tolerance and preservation. Mushrooms and honey are also known to have this sugar.

Trehalose is used in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals for its stabilizing properties.

When ingested, trehalose is broken down by the enzyme trehalase in the small intestine into two glucose molecules, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream. These glucose molecules follow the standard metabolic pathways, participating in glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, and the electron transport chain to produce ATP, the primary energy currency of cells.

Trehalose is notable for its unique ability to protect cells from environmental stresses such as dehydration, heat, and cold. This protective role is particularly evident in organisms that undergo desiccation or freezing, where trehalose helps preserve cellular structure and function.

In humans, trehalose is generally well-tolerated, and its breakdown products—glucose molecules—are efficiently metabolized for energy. 

In the food industry, trehalose is valued for its mild sweetness, stability, and ability to enhance the shelf life and texture of products. It is often used in processed foods, confectionery, and frozen foods to maintain quality and extend shelf life. In cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, trehalose is utilized for its moisture-retaining properties, helping to protect biological structures and improve the stability of active ingredients.

Despite its benefits, the use of trehalose has come under scrutiny due to potential links to the proliferation of certain bacterial strains, such as Clostridium difficile, in the gut. This connection highlights the importance of moderation and further research into the broader implications of trehalose consumption.

Sugar Recommendations

While it’s simple to say that glucose could be considered the “best” sugar out there, it isn't as easy as that. Any type of sugar in excess is bad, but some types are a little worse than others.

Here are some general recommendations:

  • Limit Processed and Added Sugars: Minimize the consumption of processed foods and beverages high in added sugars, such as soft drinks, candies, pastries, and sweetened cereals. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and sucrose are commonly found in these products and can contribute to various metabolic disorders.
  • Read Labels: Be vigilant about reading food labels to identify hidden sugars in processed foods. Ingredients like sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, and corn syrup indicate the presence of added sugars.
  • Monitor Portions: Pay attention to portion sizes, especially when consuming foods high in sugars. Smaller portions can help manage overall sugar intake without feeling deprived.
  • Stay Hydrated: Drinking plenty of water can help regulate appetite and reduce cravings for sugary foods. Sometimes, thirst is mistaken for hunger, leading to unnecessary sugar consumption.

Final Words

Understanding the differences between various types of sugars and their metabolic pathways is essential for making informed dietary choices. While glucose is a vital energy source for the body, excessive consumption of it, along with fructose and other sugars can lead to significant health issues, including non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), insulin resistance, and cardiovascular diseases. 

The key is to moderate your intake. Deliberate decision-making before chugging down that soda or feasting on that sugary morsel will be the difference maker down the line.

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