What's so bad about sugar?

We blame sugar for adding extra calories to almost anything we purchase in the grocery store, and call sugary snacks "junk food." But is sugar really junk? Let's take a look at some common myths about sugar, and find out why there are good reasons for you to keep natural sugars as a part of your diet.

Myth: All sugars are the same.

Fact: Different sugars have different properties and degrees of sweetness.

Sugar comes in many forms. Common table sugar is sucrose, a disaccharide of glucose and fructose, each of which have different properties. Fructose is often called a "fruit sugar" as it is found in honey, berries, and vegetables. Glucose and galactose also accompany fructose as a naturally occurring sugar, however, these naturally occurring sugars are often forsaken for artificial sweeteners, which lack the caloric and other bodily advantages of naturally occurring sugars.

Fructose is considerably sweeter than other naturally-occurring sugars, with fructose being over 1.5 times as sweet as sucrose, over twice as sweet as glucose, and six times sweeter than galactose. Fructose also has a reasonably low manufacturing cost, leading it to be one of the main natural sweeteners used in manufacturing processes.

What's so bad about sugar?

Myth: Sugar is bad and not a useful part of your diet.

Fact: You need glucose.

Glucose is used as an energy source by almost every organism. Glucose is used by your body's cells as a very efficient energy source. For example, via the the Krebs Cycle, a single molecule of glucose yields a net gain of two molecules of ATP through anaerobic respiration, and 34 molecules of ATP through aerobic respiration.

Glucose is also a valuable precursor for several types of biological molecules; including lipids, amino acids, and cellulose, providing a valuable building block that can be readily used by almost any molecule. The synthesis of glucose was not able to be reproduced in vitro until the late 1800s, with Emil Fischer winning the 1902 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions to the synthesis of glucose and other naturally occurring sugars.

What's so bad about sugar?

Myth: Sugar has little impact on humans other than acting as a sweetener.

Fact: Your brain runs on sugar.

You brain's main supply of energy is the monosaccharide glucose. While your brain only weighs between 3 to 5 pounds, it makes use of approximately 15-20% of your body's daily caloric needs. It has been long thought that the glucose was consumed as a function of cognitive experience, and research on rats shows that when a more cognitively challenging task is placed before them, more glucose is depleted. This phenomenon also appears to extend to humans.

In the journal article Glucose, memory, and aging, published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers observed that elderly patients who were given lemonade sweetened with glucose experienced a nearly two fold increase in short term memory when asked to recall a prose passage compared to those who drank lemonade sweetened with the artificial sweetener saccharin (also known by the brand name of "Sweet'N Low"). Additionally, saccharin has no calories.

Glucose has also been shown to have a large impact on self-control and behavior, with limited supplies causing a quick falloff in behavioral stability at times. I like to call this phenomenon "hanger", hungry-anger, when observed in friends and loved ones.

In Sum, Sugar is your Friend

So, sugar isn't all that bad, and honestly, if you want to perform a series of cognitively difficult tasks, you'll be depleting your resources quickly. Individuals with pre-existing conditions like diabetes need to watch their sugar intake, but for the individuals without such ailments, sugar is your friend, not your enemy.

Top photo by Liv friis-larsen via Shutterstock.