All You Need To Know About Sugar

When you think of all the foods you enjoy eating the most, there's a very good chance that they all contain some form of sugar. It could be the sugar found naturally in fresh mangoes or crunchy apples, or the sugar added to your favourite dessert or ice cream. But what exactly is this nutrient that gives food that wonderful, yummy, and, of course, sweet taste?

Sugar is a form of carbohydrate, which is an important source of energy for the body. Other carbohydrate-rich foods include fruits, root vegetables (including potatoes), rice, noodles and bread. Before the carbohydrates in these foods can be used for energy, however, they must be digested and broken down into sugars.

When we talk about sugar we usually refer to table sugar or sucrose, which comes primarily from sugar cane or sugar beet - a large, pale brown root crop. Some kinds of sugar occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and milk.

There are various kinds of sugar, which include the sugars made by plants during photosynthesis, milk sugars and honey. Our bodies use all sugars in basically the same way, whatever the source, to provide us energy for life. Although there may be a whole range of substances that make up sugars, they all contain the same nutritional value i.e. approximately 4 calories or 16 kilojoules per gramme.

Here are number of different sugars:

  • Glucose - found in fruits, vegetables and honey
  • Lactose - known as milk sugar
  • Maltose (malt sugar) - found in beer and malted drinks
  • Sucrose - comes from sugar cane or beet and is referred to as 'table' or 'added' sugar. It also occurs naturally in some kinds of fruits or vegetables
  • Fructose - found in fruits and honey

We use sugar in a variety of ways in our daily life. The most common form is granulated sugar, which is used to sweeten hot drinks and cereals. Sugar can also take on the form of cubes (made by pressing wet sugar into moulds before drying). The sugar we use for cakes and pastries - icing sugar - is made by grinding sugar crystals into a fine powder. Syrup is a liquid form of sugar.

Other kinds of sugar include:

  • Caster sugar - finer than granulated sugar and used for baking
  • Preserving sugar - coarser than granulated sugar and used for jams
  • Brown sugar - used for colour and flavour

Most people enjoy the sweet taste of sugar. However, enhancing the sweetness of your meals is only one of the important roles sugar plays. It can also be used in a variety of ways:

  • To improve the texture and colour of baked goods. Sugar helps produce the moistness of cakes and the golden-brown colour and crispy texture of biscuits.
  • To speed up the process of fermentation (by yeast) in baking. This makes the dough rise.
  • To balance the sour taste of tomatoes in sauce, vinegar in achar and tamarind in assam gravies.
  • At the right concentration, sugar helps to stop microorganisms growing and prevents food spoilage e.g. in jams and other preserves.
  • As a bulking agent, sugar provides the characteristic texture to some foods - including ice creams, cakes and jams.
  • Sugar raises the boiling point and lowers the freezing point in certain recipes e.g. when making ice cream.

Here are some facts you may not know about sugar:

  • Sugar is used by chemical manufacturers to grow penicillin
  • A spoonful of sugar in a vase will help flowers stay fresher longer
  • Sugar possesses antibiotic properties and is used to help in the healing of some types of wounds
  • Sugar can be added to concrete to help the setting process
  • In the movies, stuntmen use bottles and plate glass windows made of sugar
  • A pinch of sugar on the tongue is a traditional remedy for hiccups
  • Sugar is used when tanning leather, in printers' inks and dyes and in textile sizing and finishing