How Sweet is the Sweet? Part 1: Defining Sugar

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

With the rise of fad diets and health movements, “new” sweeteners gain popularity while various opinions of “old” sweeteners circulate. The result is a great deal of confusion. What sweeteners are acceptable for weight loss, blood sugar handling, reducing inflammation, or simply optimal stewardship of our health? The answer to this question will be the focus of the next few weeks.

First, I want to lay some groundwork by defining a few terms. Most of these may be familiar, however, understanding them a little clearer will equip us to sort through the many sweeteners we will discuss.

Glucose vs Fructose vs. Sucrose

A simple carbohydrate is classified as either a monosaccharide (one unit of sugar) or a disaccharide (2 units of sugar). Glucose, fructose, and sucrose are simple carbohydrates which provide the same amount of energy per gram (calories) but digest differently in the body. (Note: any word which ends with the suffix “ose” indicates a sugar.)

Glucose: a monosaccharide; the sugar made when your body breaks down starches; the brain and muscles preferred source of fuel; causes the release of insulin which stimulates the production of leptin, a key hormone for regulating energy intake and expenditure

Fructose: monosaccharide, the sugar found naturally in fruits and commonly added to beverages; more fat producing than glucose as it does not cause leptin to be stimulated.

Sucrose: disaccharide (comprised of 1 glucose unit and 1 fructose unit); table sugar made from sugar cane or sugar beets; naturally in fruits and vegetables, requires the enzyme beta-fructosidase to separate into individual units of glucose and fructose to be metabolized as such mechanisms. [1]

Glycemic Index vs. Glycemic Load

When deciding if a sugar is healthy for our blood sugar levels, the term “glycemic index” is often used. While this can be helpful, the “glycemic load” is a more accurate measurement.

Glycemic index: a numerical indicator that measures the blood glucose response after consuming 50 grams (a little less than 10 tsp.) of carbohydrates in food.

Glycemic load: indicates how much of a particular carbohydrate is in a serving. The Glycemic load represents the blood glucose effect of a standard serving of food rather than a fixed amount of carbohydrate. [2]

Glycemic load is a more practical gauge of blood glucose effect because grams per serving may vary in volume depending on the specific food. Click here for an example of carrots versus lentils.

If you only consider the glycemic index of carrots (which is 50gms or 1/1/2 lbs.) and lentils (50gms or 1 ¼ cup), this will greatly alter your understanding of a single serving size. Obviously, with this measurement, it appears that carrots are the wrong choice of food for your blood sugar level. However, considering the same ½ cup serving of each food, there is a low glycemic load of 10 for carrots and 8 for lentils. (Note: glycemic index/glycemic load values do not differentiate between whole foods and processed foods.)

With these definitions as a foundation, we are prepared to evaluate the following sweeteners:


Maple Syrup


Coconut Sugar

Monk Fruit Extract

Sugar Alcohols (Ex. Xylitol.)

Artificial Flavors

Join me as we discover just how sweet (or beneficial) these sweeteners are for our health!


[2] Nutritional Therapy Association, Inc. “Module 5: Blood Sugar Regulation: Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load.” NTP Modules, 2016.


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