Making the Complex Simple, Breaking Down Carbohydrates and Sweeteners

By: Rosanne Rust, MS, RDN, LDN —

Sugar has become the perceived problem child of the nutrition world, but is sugar really to blame for every health ailment? A quick review of basic nutrition principles tells us that there are three sources of calories: Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat. Carbohydrates and protein both provide four calories per gram, while fat provides nine calories per gram. So, although sugar can contribute unwanted extra calories to the diet, fat is actually more calorie dense, and can also contribute excess calories.

Carbs: Simple vs Complex

As the buzz continues around sugar-reduction, let’s consider what sugar is in the first place. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Biochemically, carbohydrates are described as one of two types: simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates are monosaccharides and disaccharides, whereas complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides. These terms describe the chemical structures of the two categories of carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates include fiber and starches and are found in foods such as breads, grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables (such as corn, potatoes, and winter squash). Starch is an example of a complex carbohydrate, a polysaccharide, which is made up of several monosaccharide units.

Sugars: Monosaccharides vs Disaccharides

Simple carbohydrates include simple sugars such as sucrose, lactose, and maltose, all examples of disaccharides. A disaccharide is made up of two monosaccharides. Fructose, glucose, and galactose are monosaccharides. For example, sucrose (table sugar) is made up of fructose and glucose. Lactose, the sugar found in milk, is made up of galactose and glucose.

Simple sugars aren’t necessarily bad, even though they are sometimes placed under a negative light. Fruits and vegetables contain simple sugars, and are sources of many essential vitamins and minerals that we need daily! Sugars don’t provide vitamins or minerals to the diet, but they can support consumption of important nutrients. Of course foods such as desserts or candy aren’t eaten for their nutrients, but rather to provide pleasure in an occasional treat. On the other hand, sugar can enhance nutritious foods. For example, a bowl of oatmeal can be more enjoyable if slightly sweetened, or a dish of carrots may be more enjoyable with a maple glaze over them. In this way, sugars can sometimes help deliver nutrients.

Where does Allulose fit in?

Allulose is a low energy monosaccharide that is absorbed by the body, but not metabolized. Therefore, unlike other sugars, it provides virtually no calories. It’s naturally present in some sweet foods such as caramel sauce, brown sugar, and maple syrup, as well as some fruits. Used to replace caloric sweeteners, it offers a clean, sweet taste without the calories, and with no impact on blood glucose. In addition, both its flavor profile and stability in food processing make it an appealing ingredient when reformulating to reduce sugar, to reduce overall calories in products, and enhance flavors.

Is Allulose safe?

Then comes the question, is allulose safe? Allulose’s safety has been affirmed and it is considered Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and used in a variety of foods and beverages, from chewing gum to dairy desserts. Since allulose is a simple sugar but isn’t metabolized the way other monosaccharides are, the FDA is still considering how to treat Allulose on the new Nutrition Facts label (NFL), which now includes an “added sugar” line referring to caloric sugars (part of the total carbohydrate in the food) that may impact both body weight (calories) and blood sugar levels (glycemic effect).  “Added sugars” are sugars added during the food manufacturing process. These may be sugars and syrups added to beverages or foods like cereals, yogurt, candies, cookies or other baked goods. Added sugars contribute calories to the diet, but not nutrients. Given its “–ose” suffix, allulose may sound like an added sugar, but it doesn’t provide the calories that other sugars do.

Reducing calories in the diet

When considering daily calories, it’s important to keep overall sugar intake in perspective. Low- and no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS), such as allulose, can help people achieve their goal to reduce the overall sugar in the diet, while still offering options for sweet treats. A balanced diet provides proper nutrition but also adds some pleasure to life. For people with diabetes, LNCS can be useful as they allow for the consumption of sweet foods or beverages (such as a diet soda, light yogurt, or a sugar-free sweetener for coffee) with a lower glycemic effect. When LNCS are used to replace sugar, they also reduce overall carbohydrate in the diet.

There is no truth to claims that carbohydrates or sugars are the worst “type” of calories, since the body uses calories from all sources for energy, and stores excess calories as fat. The secret to healthy eating is balance and moderation. Sugars can be included in a healthy diet as long as they don’t displace other healthy foods or beverages. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends keeping sugar intake to less than 10 percent of total calories, or about 200 calories per day. The average American gets about 270 calories daily from sugar, and using LNCS is one way to reach the DGA goal. Others ways to reduce sugar in the diet include using less table sugar, eating smaller portions of baked goods, limiting candy, and drinking less regular soda or sugar-sweetened beverages. Just know that when you see allulose on an ingredient label, keep in mind that, like other LNCS, it does not impact calorie intake or blood sugar.

Rosanne Rust MS, RDN, LDN is a registered, licensed dietitian-nutritionist with over 25 years experience. Rosanne is a paid contributor to Allulose.org. As a Nutrition Communications Consultant  she delivers clear messages helping you understand the science of nutrition so you can enjoy eating for better health. Rosanne is the co-author of several books, including DASH Diet For Dummies® and the The Glycemic Index Cookbook For Dummies®. A wife, and mother of 3 boys, she practices what she preaches, enjoying regular exercise, good food and festive entertaining. Follow her on Twitter @RustNutrition.

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