The list of different types of sugars that can be added to food products is extensive. All of them are sweet, but they differ a lot in their composition. Sometimes they will be hidden in the ingredients list under “E number”, which is listed here as well.
The below list presents sugars by the name used on nutritional labels. For example, standard table sugar (the white crystals we usually use for coffee, tea, or baking) is stated on the label as sucrose.
All sugars below can be divided into certain groups:
NATURAL SUGARS – All of them are carbohydrates, and all of them contain 4 calories per gram. They occur naturally in many products such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk. They all have a high glycemic index.
Sucrose (table sugar, white sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar) is produced from sugarcane or sugar beet. Chemically speaking, it is disaccharide. This means that the molecule is built of two smaller monosaccharides: glucose and fructose. The glycemic index of table sugar is around 60 (per 50g portion) and the glycemic load around 7 for a 10g serving. Sucrose has no “E number”. It is safe in moderate quantities; however, nowadays, it is usually added to almost all processed foods, so the safe daily intake limit can be easily exceeded.
Brown sugar is table sugar (white crystals) with molasses added (between 7 and 14%) in order to alter color and taste. You can read more on brown sugar here.
Raw sugar is similar to brown sugar – it’s simply table sugar with some molasses left, as the refining process was shorter than the one applied to white table sugar. It is calorically identical to white sugar, and to make matters worse, the amount of minerals is not significant for our health. You can read more on raw sugar here.
Evaporated cane juice is simply cane sugar that is not completely refined, which is why it contains much more minerals than common table sugar produced from sugar cane. However, the amount of minerals is very small. Its glycemic response is identical with that of sugar, which makes it simply sugar.
Glucose (dextrose, grape sugar) is a monosaccharide. It is usually produced from maize, rice, wheat, cassava, corn husk, or sago. The glycemic index of glucose is 100 (per 50g portion—the of the highest of all sugars). Its glycemic load fluctuates around 10 for a 10g serving. Glucose has no “E number”.
It is the most important sugar for the human body, as it is our main energy source. Glucose is present in bread, potatoes, rice, and grains such as starch (which is made up of long chains of glucose molecules). During digestion, the molecules of starch are broken down, which takes time and therefore allows for a steady rise in blood sugar level. This is why the glycemic index of foods rich in carbohydrates is lower than the glycemic index of pure glucose. Additionally, the fiber present in food will slow down the increase of blood sugar levels and therefore decrease the glycemic index of the food. You can read more about glucose here.
Fructose (fruit sugar) is the sweetest of all naturally occurring carbohydrates. It is a monosaccharide found in many plants. It is bound to glucose to form sucrose. It is absorbed directly into the blood stream during digestion. Found in honey, tree and vine fruits, berries, and most root vegetables, it is mostly produced from modified corn starch. The glycemic index of fructose is 12 (per 50g portion) and the glycemic load around 1 for a 10g serving. Fructose has no “E number”. You can read more about fructose here.
Lactose is a disaccharide formed from one molecule of glucose and one molecule of galactose. It can be found in milk and is essential for the young to provide energy. Many adults do not tolerate this sugar and therefore suffer from diarrhea, bloating, flatulence, and other gastrointestinal symptoms when they consume it. It’s good to know that neither butter nor hard cheese nor yogurt contain it, and therefore the glycemic index of these products is lower than the glycemic index of milk. The glycemic index of lactose is 45 (per 50g portion) and the glycemic load around 5 per 10g serving. Lactose has no “E number”.
Maltose is a disaccharide formed from two molecules of glucose. It is a component of malt and can be found in beverages, beer, cereal, pasta, potatoes, and many processed foods that are sweetened. Even though it is only 30% as sweet as sucrose, its glycemic index is very high—105 (50g per portion) and glycemic load around 11 per 10g serving. Maltose has no “E number”. It is used mostly in bread production, as it is not sweet but feeds the yeast, which by fermenting and producing gas, raises the bread.
Galactose is a simple sugar similar to glucose and fructose. These three monosaccharides are the only ones found in nature. Galactose can be found in milk and in peas. Similarly to maltose, it is only 30% as sweet as sucrose but, contrary to maltose, it has a low glycemic index. The glycemic index of galactose is 23 (per 50g portion) and a glycemic load around 2.5 per 10g serving. Galactose has no “E number”.
NATURAL SWEETENERS – apart from sugar, they have other nutrients. Their glycemic indexes are still high—however, a bit lower than that of natural sugars.
Honey is a natural sugar produced by bees, and it is the oldest sweetener known to humankind. It consists of fructose (approx. 40%), glucose (approx. 35%), and other sugars such as galactose and maltose. It has a distinctive flavor and smell. Raw honey is not heat-treated and is therefore richer in nutrients. Honey has medicinal and antibacterial qualities. The glycemic index of honey is 61 (per 50g portion) and a glycemic load of around 11 per 25g serving. Honey has no “E number”.
Maple syrup syrup is a natural sweetener produced from the sap of maple trees. Depending on maple tree species, it can differ in color and taste. It is basically sucrose (standard table sugar) with water, but it has some additional minerals and vitamins. The glycemic index of maple syrup is 54 (per 50g portion) and a glycemic load of around 10 per 25g serving. Maple syrup has no “E number”.
Coconut palm sugar palm sugar is produced from the nectar of palm tree flowers. Its taste and color differ a lot from table sugar. Similarly to honey and maple syrup, it has more minerals and vitamins than ordinary sugar. It is claimed that coconut palm sugar has a much lower glycemic index than sugar, though it is basically sucrose with water and small amounts of glucose and fructose. Its glycemic index is between 35 and 50g per serving (depending on the study). Coconut palm sugar has no “E number”.
Agave is produced from the agave plant and contains up to 92% fructose. Consequently, it is not considered a very good alternative to table sugar. As the major component is fructose, agave syrup has a low glycemic index.
Barley malt syrup is an unrefined natural sweetener produced from malted barley. It contains 65% maltose, 30% complex carbohydrates, and 3% protein. It is dark, thick, and half as sweet as table sugar. It has a strong flavor and a distinctive smell. It does contain some minerals and vitamins. Its glycemic index is around 40.
MODIFIED SUGARS are produced from starch by using enzymes. Alternatively, they are modified from table sugar. They have a high glycemic index and are widely used by the food industry.
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS, glucose-fructose, isoglucose, glucose-fructose syrup, fructose-glucose syrup) is a corn syrup that went through the enzymatic process to change some of its glucose into fructose in order to increase sweetness. It is cheaper than sucrose and therefore more commonly used in processed foods. Depending on the ratio of fructose to glucose, there are three types of HFCS: HFCS 55 with 55% fructose, 41% glucose, and 4% other sugars; HFCS 42 with 42% fructose, 53% glucose, and 5% other sugars; and finally, HFCS 90 with 90% fructose, 5% glucose, and 5% other sugars.
HFCS is a liquid so it is easier to blend in the food production process. The most commonly used form is HFCS 55 is comparable to table sugar (sucrose has 50% fructose and 50% glucose). The glycemic index of HFCS is around 60-70, depending on the fructose content. HFCS has no “E number”. HFCS is widely used in US, while in the EU, it is hardly used at all. It is much cheaper than sucrose, as it is subsidized in US. Additionally, it helps keep foods moist and prolongs shelf life.
Invert sugar (invert sugar syrup, inverted sugar) is a mixture of fructose and glucose and is produced from sucrose by splitting the molecule of disaccharide into two monosaccharides. It is similar to high-fructose corn syrup, but the percentage of fructose and glucose is even. It has a glycemic index and glycemic load the same as sucrose.
Golden syrup is a mixture of invert syrup and sucrose, so it contains fructose and glucose. It has a specific, pleasant taste and a glycemic index of 60 and a glycemic load of 13 per 25g serving.
Molasses (black treacle) is a byproduct of the process of refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. It is a very thick, dark syrup with a strong flavor. Its major component is sucrose (30%). Additionally, it contains fructose (13%), glucose (12%), and other carbohydrates (20%), plus water (22%). It is rich in minerals and vitamins. Its glycemic index is 60.
Starch (amylum) is a polysaccharide consisting of glucose molecules. It is produced by most green plants as an energy store. It is the most common carbohydrate in the human diet, rich in such staple foods as potatoes, wheat, corn, rice, and tapioca. Extracted starch can be used in the food industry as a thickening, stiffening, or gluing agent. The glycemic index and load will mostly depend on the type of starch and the preparation. You will find more on changing the glycemic index and load of certain foods here.
Starch can be modified and used in many foods. Depending on the process, it may be present under different names: roasted starch (stabilizer E1400), modified starch (stabilizer E1401), alkaline modified starch (stabilizer E1402), bleached starch (stabilizer E1403), oxidized starch (emulsifier E1404), or enzyme treated starch (thickener E1405).
Maltodextrin is produced in the process of hydrolysis; the long chain of starch is broken into shorter chains consisting of glucose molecules. It is not used as a sweetener but rather as a thickener in food. Its E number is E1400. It has a high glycemic index, between 85 and 105. Maltodextrin should not be confused with dextrose, which is basically glucose. Maltodextrin is an artificial product, while dextrose is a naturally occurring sugar.