Sucrose may sound like something grown in a lab, but it’s just everyday table sugar. Sucrose comes in many forms — granulated, powdered, brown and others — but chemically, all types of sucrose are two linked monosaccharides: fructose and glucose. When digested, the link is dissolved and the two monosaccharides are separately absorbed in the small intestine. Most commercially-produced sucrose is derived from sugar beets and sugar cane. One tablespoon of sucrose has 57 calories.
Glucose and Fructose
Glucose and fructose, when linked, are the simple sugars that make sucrose. But you’ll often see them listed separately in the ingredients of products, like sugary sports drinks. Fructose, which also occurs naturally in fruits, is sweeter than glucose. There’s also evidence that the two are metabolized differently in the body. As for dextrose? It’s just two linked glucose molecules.
The sticky stuff produced by honey bees is a mixture of fructose, sucrose, glucose and water, and it’s been used as a sweetener for thousands of years. It’s metabolized in roughly the same way as sugar and is similarly sweet.
Molasses is a byproduct of sugar refining, most often starting with ingredients like sugarcane and sugar beets. (The molasses made from sugarcane is distinct from that made from sugar beets, but the latter is mainly consumed by animals.) Molasses is mainly composed of sucrose, fructose and glucose. One tablespoon of molasses has about 58 calories.
Made from the agave plant, agave nectar is about 1 1/2 times sweeter than sugar, which theoretically means you can use less of it. Although it’s often compared to honey, it has a thinner consistency and a more neutral taste.
Sucrose is the main sugar in maple syrup, which is made from the sap of maple trees. It has about 52 calories per tablespoon.
A ubiquitous sweetener in processed foods, it’s composed of glucose and other sugars. Often used as a thickener and sweetener, its popularity in commercial food production has since been surpassed by high fructose corn syrup (which we explain in the next slide). Corn syrup packs roughly 60 calories per tablespoon.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Take a stroll down the aisles of your grocery store, and you’ll likely find high fructose corn syrup listed as an ingredient for any number of products. It’s produced when some of the glucose in corn syrup is converted into fructose, which amps up its sweetness. It’s commonly used in foods soft drinks, cereals, condiments and other processed foods. One tablespoon of high fructose corn syrup has roughly 53 calories.
The artificial sweetener aspartame has been around since 1965, when a chemist accidentally discovered its sweet flavor. Since then, it’s become a popular sweetener for diet drinks, like Diet Coke. It’s also been sold in packets under the names Equal, NutraSweet and Canderel. Although the FDA has cleared aspartame as a safe food additive, some controversial studies claim the substance is a carcinogen. It has no calories, and is 160 to 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Although sucralose was discovered in 1976, it wasn’t approved for products in the U.S. until 1998. It’s made by replacing some parts of a sugar molecule with chlorine atoms. The resulting product is 600 times sweeter than sugar, but can’t be digested by humans, hence its value as a no-calorie sweetener. Sucralose is popularly sold under the brand name Splenda.
The first modern artificial sweetener, saccharine, was originally synthesized in 1879 and became especially popular in the 1960s and 1970s. For decades, it’s been sold under the brand Sweet’n Low. Both the substance and the product, however, were delivered a blow in the 1970s when studies suggested that the ingestion of saccharine led to the development of bladder cancer in rats. Saccharine products were required to bear labels warning the public. Later it was learned that the rodents’ cancer was caused by a mechanism not present in humans. The warning label requirement was lifted in late 2000. It’s 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar.
Stevia, a natural sweetener derived from a species of plants native to South America, Central America and Mexico, is 250 times sweeter than sugar but has no calories. Like other no-calorie sweeteners, the essential parts of the stevia compound can not be digested. Stevia-derived sweeteners are sold under the brand names Truvia and PureVia. Both Pepsi and Coca-Cola have developed Stevia-sweetened sodas.