Learn the science behind sucrose, how it works in the body and how it differs from other sugars.
Sugar has long been a hot topic in the world of diet, nutrition, and weight loss. Sucrose, also known as table sugar, is officially the proper term. It gets the more popular moniker of table sugar because sucrose is what makes up cane sugar and brown sugar, but it can also be found in maple syrup, sorghum, and sugar beets<sup>1</sup>.
When the term added sugar is floated about, sucrose is the ingredient being referenced<sup>2</sup>. Many popular diets suggest avoiding foods that contain sucrose, or added sugar. However, the reality is more complicated than the basic command of “just avoid it.” In fact, foods you would not expect like onions, coconut, and beans, contain sucrose.
When discussing what glucose is, we suggest that avoiding frequent and high glucose spikes is key to maintaining a healthy metabolism and weight. How you do this varies from person to person, so eliminating a type of food because it contains sucrose may not provide the exact health benefits you could easily assume it would.
That’s why we want to further explore the question of “what is sucrose?,” how it works in the body, and what makes this substance different from other sugars out there. Let’s first take a look at the science of sucrose<sup>1</sup>.
Sucrose is disaccharide sugar—a combination of two monosaccharides (glucose and fructose)—and is considered a simple sugar along with the other mono (one) and di (two) saccharides (sugars). The body processes the plant-based sugar sucrose through sucrase, an enzyme that separates the glucose and fructose molecules.
When the sucrase enzyme breaks down sucrose sugars, glucose and fructose are split, and fructose is absorbed through the intestinal wall. The basic elements of sugar are Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen, chemically bonded into a carbon ring.
Sugars can combine with one another in a variety of forms, but also require specific enzymes to break each sugar down into the all-important glucose molecule. The ease of combination among sugars makes it easier for the body to store, in addition to being what makes sucrose ideal as an additive in baking or a preservative in a wide variety of packaged foods.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s body is built differently, including the number of enzymes we naturally produce. Consuming specific types of sugar affects each person in unique ways. Different activities—primarily sleep and exercise—can also have an enormous effect on our bodies’ energy use and how our bodies produce and release enzyme serum.
Overall, this is why monitoring glucose via continuous glucose monitors (CGM) can provide valuable insights into healthier lifestyle choices. Sucrose is no exception, and a better understanding of its function will only help achieve that better lifestyle.
Read more: Learn about additional artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes you might also consume
Monosaccharides are single sugars that commonly include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Typically, monosaccharides are the easiest for the average human body to break down and use.
Read more: Discover key takeaways about avoiding processed foods in Sugar Substitutes and Artificial Sweeteners (Part 2)
Disaccharides include two monosaccharides. Sucrose is a disaccharide since it’s a sugar formed by joining together both glucose and fructose.
Read more: Not ready to give up sugar substitutes altogether? Here’s how to use artificial sweeteners responsibly
Polysaccharides (the prefix poly meaning many) make up more complex sugars, often combining 10 or more monosaccharides from starches and fiber in our diets. Our bodies form a polysaccharide called glycogen to store unused glucose in the liver and muscles for fast fuel when the body needs it<sup>7</sup>.
It’s admittedly easy to mix up on occasion which chemical term is which. The next time you’re struggling to recall the difference between glucose, sucrose, and fructose, first remember that all three are types of sugars. Sucrose is the table sugar composed of both glucose and fructose. If you only get this far, you’ll definitely be farther ahead than most people on trivia night.
Sucrose contains glucose, but glucose does not contain sucrose. In fact, glucose vs fructose would probably be a more applicable pairing to contrast than sucrose vs glucose. As a crucial energy source for your body, glucose is essentially blood sugar. Depending on people’s age, their glycemic responses to glucose and sucrose can vary<sup>8</sup>.
When comparing sucrose to fructose, remember that fructose is half of sucrose. However, fructose is not an insulin trigger like glucose, and an excessive amount of fructose could potentially lead to obesity or throw off your body’s chemical balance<sup>9</sup>.
You’ve probably heard a great deal of talk about food additives being used in processed foods. These food additives are more commonly known as preservatives and keep foods from spoiling. For example, factory bread has a much longer shelf-life than the freshly baked bread you might pick up at the bakery. Have you ever wondered why this is the case?
Many consumers don’t realize that sucrose is one of the most widely used preservatives. Due to the significant amount of osmotic pressure that sugar generates, sucrose is preferred by food companies to help preserve the products they distribute.
There are differences between sucrose in humans vs sucrose in plants, the specifics of each are well worth noting. To help clarify, here is some detailed information differentiating the two.
As the final result of photosynthesis, sucrose in plants acts as a carbon transport<sup>10</sup>. For plants with low light exposure, sucrose carries energy where it is needed most. Since plants are one of the primary sources of carbon for all living things on the planet, it’s safe to say sucrose plays an extremely important role in life on earth.
In the human body, sucrose is split into its monosaccharides: fructose and glucose. Unused glucose gets moved from the bloodstream to the liver and muscles, where it's stored as glycogen. Any additional unused glucose keeps getting stored in the liver and muscles until those stores are full. After that, any unused glucose will get stored in adipose tissue, and those stores are almost unlimited. This is why too much sucrose eventually creates fatty tissue cells in individuals<sup>11</sup>.
As noted earlier, fructose is absorbed in the small intestine, but if too much fructose is absorbed it will “spill” over and go directly to the liver. This can result in developing a fatty liver (hepatic steatosis)<sup>12</sup>.
When working on creating an effective nutrition and weight loss plan, it’s vital to determine how much sucrose consumption your body is able to put to use. According to experts at the CDC, anyone aged 2 and above following a standard 2,000-calorie-per-day diet should not consume more than 10% of their intake from added sugars. For most people, this averages out to roughly 12 teaspoons of sugar per day<sup>13</sup>.
Again, glucose tracking through a CGM device can play a crucial role in showing your body's response to foods–especially sugary foods. One essential purpose of integrating a CGM and app that helps you interpret and respond to your glucose data is to monitor your glucose levels before eating. If your glucose is high, this could be a signal that you don't need to eat just yet; try delaying your meal or snack. Use this time to pause and consider whether you are truly hungry, or just thirsty, stressed, bored, etc. . While you wait for your glucose to stabilize, you can even squeeze in a little exercise (a 10-minute walk, some squats or planks, etc.) until your glucose goes down.
Some men, women, and children might experience sucrose intolerance, which is the same as being unable to tolerate table sugar. Since sucrose is a common preservative in so many everyday foods—especially for children—those who are intolerant can experience side effects, such as irritation of the skin and/or frequent stomach pain. People who suffer from sucrose intolerance can’t produce the enzyme necessary to metabolize sucrose and starch.
The short answer is, yes, sucrose is a carbohydrate. Sugars are forms of carbohydrates. Most of us don’t often consider that “carbs” derive their name from carbon, along with hydrogen and its third and final component, oxygen. These are the same three components of sugar. The full chemical formula for what a carbohydrate consists of is C₁₂H₂₂O₁₁ <sup>14</sup>. It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?
At the end of the day, you’re entitled to continue putting delicious maple syrup on your waffles when you hit up your favorite brunch spot for the occasional treat. Just remember that one of your key metrics to living a long and healthy life includes closely moderating your intake of sucrose—aka table sugar. Moderating your sucrose intake will set you on the path toward establishing more healthful eating behaviors.