Carbohydrates are a diverse type of macronutrient found in a wide variety of foods, ranging from baked goods to veggies. In short, carbohydrates are made of compounds called saccharides, many of which you can easily digest and some of which pass right through you. Sucrose is a kind of carbohydrate called a disaccharide, which is a sugar that’s quickly broken down and absorbed by your body. Sucrose is found naturally in fruits and veggies, but it’s typically refined into granulated white table sugar.
A disaccharide is a carbohydrate made from two simple sugars called monosaccharides. For example, a molecule of sucrose is comprised of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose. Glucose is a simple sugar and the one most used by your body. It’s quickly absorbed into your bloodstream and transported around to all cells, where it’s burned for energy. In contrast, fructose spends some time in the liver before it’s either stored or used for other purposes. In order to split sucrose in half, an enzyme called sucrase is needed. Sucrase is released into the small intestine and attaches to sucrose as it comes out of the stomach.
Sucrose is made by plants during the process of photosynthesis, which transforms sunlight into usable forms of energy. Starch is the most common and efficient storage form of glucose sugar in plants, but sucrose is also used for carbohydrate storage. As such, sucrose is found in virtually all plant foods, at least in small quantities, although the richest sources of the sugar include sugarcane, sugar beets, root vegetables, dates and some other sweet fruits. However, don’t confuse sucrose with fructose, which is the sweet sugar predominantly found in fruit. Sweet fruits have much more fructose than sucrose in them.
The most common form of refined sucrose is found on your table or in your cupboards. That’s right, granulated white table sugar is made almost entirely from sucrose that’s been extracted from either sugarcane or sugar beets. Sucrose is also refined from date palms and maple sugar, but they are relatively minor sources of the sugar compared to sugarcane and sugar beets. Approximately 170 million tons of table sugar are produced each year in the world. A significant proportion of sucrose is used for making baked goods, candy and desserts, as well as to sweeten coffee, tea and other drinks.
Sucrose contributes to giving carbohydrates a bit of a bad reputation because it’s easily digested and quickly affects blood sugar levels and insulin secretion, more so than fructose, lactose or starch. Consequently, people with diabetes need to be cautious of their sucrose intake. Furthermore, consuming lots of refined sugar such as sucrose increases your risk of dental cavities, obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Carbohydrates are certainly needed by your body, but the best strategy is to consume them in the least processed form you can.
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition; Benjamin Caballero et al.
- Human Metabolism: Functional Diversity and Integration; J. Ramsey Bronk
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.