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Whether it’s sugar in your coffee or tea, in sweet dishes, soft drinks and candy, or over strawberries and pancakes, we consume sugar in one way or another almost every day. Even though we actually know that sugar is not good for our health at all. But why is that the case? In this knowledge centre you will find more information about the production, functioning and effects of sugar and we will introduce you to a number of alternative sweeteners.

Sugar, or sucrose, is obtained from sugar beets. In a factory, the sugar beets are cleaned and cut into pieces. The small pieces of sugar beet are then boiled, which dissolves the sugar, proteins, acids, salts and colouring dyes from the beet. We call the remainder raw juice. This raw juice is heated and mixed with limestone. While the proteins and nitrogen compounds convert to acids and ammonia, the insoluble acids precipitate. The excess limestone is removed by means of carbon dioxide. After this process, a thin juice remains. To lighten the colour of the thin juice, it is treated with sulphur dioxide gas. The juice is then evaporated and centrifuged. The white sugar is separated from the syrup and then dried and ground into granulated sugar.

What does sugar do in the body? 
Sugar belongs to the group of carbohydrates and serves as fuel for the body. Carbohydrates are divided into three groups.

  • Monosaccharide - one sugar molecule
  • Disaccharide - two sugar molecules
  • Polysaccharide - chain of multiple sugar molecules

During the digestion of food, the di- and polysaccharides are broken down into glucose. Glucose is a monosaccharide and the only form of sugar that can provide the body with energy. After the digestion and breakdown of the various saccharides, the remaining glucose enters the bloodstream. The glucose is absorbed by the body and provides enough energy to, for example, make the heart beat, to breathe, to think and to move. To ensure that the amount of glucose in the bloodstream remains within the 'normal values', insulin is produced by the pancreas. Insulin is the hormone that ensures all glucose can be absorbed from the bloodstream and converted into the tissues.

Table sugar and sugar in soft drinks, sweets, pastries and other 'unhealthy' products are also referred to as 'fast sugars', as they have a high glycemic index.* The higher the glycemic index, the faster the blood sugar level rises after consumption of the corresponding product. But when we have too much glucose in our body, the pancreas has to work extra hard to produce enough insulin. The production of insulin does not work sufficiently or not at all in diabetic patients. That means they have to be extra careful when consuming sugar. The high amount of glucose in the blood can damage the blood vessels. In the longer term, this can even lead to cardiovascular diseases. Moreover, sugar increases the risk of tooth decay. As bacteria in the mouth convert sugar into acids, these acids cause damage to the tooth enamel and thereby increase the risk of cavities and other dental problems.

* The glycemic index indicates the rate at which blood sugar rises after eating carbohydrates.

Sweet without sugar? 
Most people love sweets and that is not surprising. Research has shown that since birth we have a preference for sweetness, which remains throughout our lives. So we want sweetness, but at the same time we are increasingly aware of the bad properties of sugar. In order to meet this “sweet need” in a responsible way, a range of great alternatives meanwhile exists. These sugar substitutes can be divided into two categories, being natural and synthetic sweeteners.

Sanne van Erp, dietitian at Green Sweet