When one imagines a bustling factory, the usual scene conjured in the mind is a spot-lit imposing building, with torrents of workers moving to and fro underneath clouds of particulates spewing into the skies. While this is certainly true of many man-made factories, the most prolific factories on Earth are far more subtle.
In fact, no matter where you live, you are literally surrounded by manufacturing centers hell-bent on constructing some of the most important, versatile, and addictive compounds known to science. By utilizing the solar energy found in sunlight, green plants bind atoms together into molecules known as carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are incredibly important. Some types are used by plants and animals to build structures like cell walls and DNA, while others provide the energy needed to power cellular processes. Table sugar (sucrose) is one of these carbohydrates, and is actually a combination of the two simpler sugars glucose and fructose fused together through chemical processes.
Attracting a wide variety of creatures due to their sweet taste, these three sugars provide energy to both the plants that make them and the animals that consume them.
It is believed that humans started growing sugarcane to use for sugar extraction over 8,000 years ago in and around New Guinea, however our palates became attuned to sweet flavors far before that. Scientists believe the sugar stores in natural occurrences such as honey and fruits gave our ancestors valuable high-density energy input whenever they were found.
Because of the relative rarity of these finds, the sweet-sensing portion of our tastes were bumped up to 11 in order to help drive home their importance.
A good deal of other animals are also finely-tuned at finding and tasting sugars for the same reason, such as bees which actually have specific neurons purely devoted towards the appreciation of sweet flavors. Much of this sweetness comes from fructose, and in general the more fructose something has, the sweeter it is. Glucose, the other common simple plant sugar, is less sweet but is primarily used as an energy source.
When table sugar is ingested by animals, it is broken down into these two parts, which are distributed throughout the body as needed. Recent research has especially illuminated this important process, and it appears that glucose and fructose have very different and impactful journeys through our bodies.
It is no secret that sugar in excess is bad. Overconsumption of table sugar is suggested to lead towards diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and other serious ailments. Some scientists believe there may be a component of table sugar that plays a larger role in some of these illnesses than others – and unfortunately, it’s the part that we’re drawn towards the most.
Fructose, the simple sugar with the sweetest taste, has many researchers alarmed at the way it reacts with the body. Once we digest table sugar into fructose and glucose, the glucose is quickly sent to our cells to use as energy.
The fructose, on the other hand, seems to be sent directly to the liver, which turns what it can into glucose. In short, the liver is taxed to turn fructose into a usable form. The greater percentage of fructose in a diet, the harder the liver has to work. Eventually, this could cause a liver to decline in effectiveness, and develop fatty deposits which lead to a bevy of negative health effects.
This could be a reason that high-fructose corn syrup, which contains a greater percentage of fructose to glucose when compared to table sugar, has been found to be so unhealthy. Sugar, although fascinating in its many forms, is definitely something we should view as a special treat, instead of a regular occurrence.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.