If you were to look up various common sugars, you’d get a litany of vaguely familiar words that all end in –ose. Lactose, glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, even galactose. If you were to dig a tad deeper, you’d find they each have a different sweetness, and all but fructose are less sweet than table sugar. They also have a range of glycemic indexes from the seemingly OK to very high. And you probably already know that lactose is the natural sugar in milk, and maltose has something to do with brewing. So what?
There isn’t much to add here without going head-first into chemistry. Galactose, glucose and fructose are called monosaccharides because they each consist of a single ring. Galactose and glucose have 6 members (hexagons) and fructose has 5 (pentagon). These guys can be attached together in different permutations of two rings, which are then called disaccharides. Sucrose, as you already know, is glucose bound to fructose. And when galactose is bound to glucose, that’s lactose. When two glucose rings are linked to each other in a certain way, that’s maltose. When they are linked in a slightly different way, the molecule is called trehalose. And so on. Some of that will become important when we talk about sugar alternatives below.
Our body can pop the bond between the two sugar rings pretty easily. When there are more than two, it becomes increasingly difficult and when the chain gets too long, we cannot process it and excrete it as insoluble fiber. That’s simplifying things a bit, but that’s close enough.
Don’t believe me? Go bite a two by four, swallow and see what happens. Or chew on some paper. That’s cellulose. It’s fiber or a very long molecule made up of thousands rings of glucose linked together into what is called a polysaccharide. The smaller ones are called oligosaccharides. And the mono- and di- we already talked about above.
It turns out, our bodies process these oligosaccharides quite a bit differently than the simple sugars (di- and mono- saccharides). The body’s ability to break them down depends on the length and linkage types between the individual rings. That is because the chemical arrangement of the individual rings into chains affects their solubility in our bodies and in other solvents as well. For example, under common conditions of our organism, cellulose is insoluble. But if you were to tweak the way those rings are attached to each other, you could get pullulan, a perfectly soluble, though tasteless, material approved for food and drug use by FDA and similar agencies across the globe.
The truly interesting stuff happens with the lower oligomers or smaller oligosaccharides. They still retain some of their parent ring sweetness while dropping their negative health effects. These oligosaccharides are commonly derived from chicory root (or the agave cactus – but NOT to be confused with the agave syrup, which is poison). As soluble fiber, they help with clensing out you digestive tract. They have good prebiotic properties to boot, helping the promotion of the good bacteria in your gut.
So, it is not surprising then, that lately, these oligosaccharides have been inching their way into the marketplace in the USA as sugar substitutes. They are called inulin (or oligofructose in smaller print.)
Chemical Structure of Inulin
They are perhaps the healthiest alternative to sugar.
So, what’s the problem then?
Two problems, actually, but neither insurmountable. Because they are not isolated as individual chains – think of what it’s like to sell worms of exactly the same length for bait. Some worms are shorter, some are longer. Some disaccharides and monosaccharides sneak in. The more of that monomer and dimer, the sweeter the taste. Without any of those smaller sugars, oligofructose will only taste 1/5 as sweet as sugar. Slightly sweet.
Now, let’s not overreact here. 5% of glucose in inulin ain’t gonna kill you. Heck, if you eat bell peppers, there’s 3%-5% sugar in pepper. So, if you eat a pepper weighing a third of a pound, you are not going to die of fructose poisoning. Why? Fiber. You are eating a negligible amount of sugar with a ton of fiber, remember? Same with inulin.
You just have to (1) continue reading the label to see how much mono and disaccharides have snuck their way into your inulin and we aware and (2) realize that inulin alone ain’t gonna give you the sweetness of sugar to which you’ve grown addicted in the past.
There is actually another slight problem with inulins, but that only affects the cooks. If you bake with inulin alone as sweetener, the food will come out dry. That is because the fibers cannot hold as much moisture as sugar. There, fructose is tough to replace. (Until we came along with our – shameless plug – Sweet LUV).