Sweets have been an important part of nearly every culture. The importance to dentistry has been the danger of decay from too many sweets; although it is important to note that current information recognizes cavities can also be caused by other sticky foods and complex carbohydrates like potato chips and crackers.

Sugar typically has referred to table sugar or sucrose, but there are many sugars and sweeteners in common use today.

  • Simple sugars or simple carbohydrates typically include monosaccharides, and disaccharides (two monosaccharides).
  • Complex carbohydrates, also known as polysaccharides (composed of many monosaccharides), include starch, cellulose and glycogen.
    • Starch, the chief form of carbohydrate stored by plants, is broken down into maltose, then glucose.
    • Cellulose makes up plant cell walls. Cellulose is indigestible by humans; however, many animals have digestive bacteria that help them utilize cellulose.
    • Glycogen, also known as animal starch, is the chief form of carbohydrate stored in animals. In humans, after carbohydrates have been broken down into simple sugars, the liver will convert fructose and galactose into glucose, which is carried to all the body cells. The liver also converts unused glucose into glycogen, which can be broken down to glucose again when needed.
  • Alcohol sugars or polyols include sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol. Polyols do not cause decay, although xylitol is the most effective.
  • Other sweeteners include aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame K, sucralose, and stevia.

Invert sugar is a mixture of glucose and fructose that are levorotatory (turn plane of polarized light to left). Raw sugar and molasses are produced from sugarcane in the process of extracting sucrose. Caramel is obtained from sucrose heated above 356ยบ F.

See the table below for comparisons and information.

Sweetener Type Other Names Notes
glucose monosaccharide blood sugar aldehyde
galactose monosaccharide aldehyde, occurs in food only as part of lactose
fructose monosaccharide fruit sugar, levulose ketone
maltose disaccharide malt sugar glucose + glucose
lactose disaccharide milk sugar glucose + galactose
sucrose disaccharide table sugar, saccharose, cane sugar glucose + fructose, product of photosynthesis, used as a preservative in jellies and jams
sorbitol monosaccharide polyol 60% as sweet as sucrose. Does not break down when heated. Safe in pregnancy. Excessive consumption (more than 50-80 g/day) may have a laxative effect.
mannitol monosaccharide polyol 70% as sweet as sucrose. Safe in pregnancy. Excessive consumption (more than 20 g/day) may have a laxative effect.
xylitol monosaccharide polyol see more, click here
aspartame amino acids NutraSweet, Equal 200 times sweeter than sucrose. Made from two amino acids naturally found in foods, phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Cleared for use in pregnancy, except by women with phenylketonuria, or PKU. Aspartame loses sweetness when heated.
saccharin sulfimide Sweet ‘n Low 300 times sweeter than sucrose. Not recommended during pregnancy.
acesulfame K oxathiazinone dioxide Sunett, Sweet One 200 times sweeter than sucrose. Made from vinegar, is not broken down by body. Structurally related to saccharin. Safe in pregnancy.
sucralose modified sucrose Splenda 600 times sweeter than sucrose. Actually made from sugar, but not broken down by body (sucrose molecule in which three of the -OH groups have been replaced by chlorine atoms). Safe for use in pregnancy. Does not break down when heated.
Stevia diterpene glycosides 300 times sweeter than sucrose. A natural sweetener extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. Technically a dietary supplement because it has not been evaluated or approved by the FDA; however, generally regarded as safe.

For more information on low calorie sweeteners see the Calorie Control Council web site, click here.