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What is the difference between Carbohydrates and Sugar?

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is a macronutrient present in a vast range of foods. There are many different carbohydrates; the major types are outlined below.

Sugars are considered simple carbohydrates; they include fructose found naturally in fruit and lactose in milk. There are also refined sugars such a table sugar and glucose syrup which are added to prepared food either at home or during commercial production. Sugar tastes sweet to the palate and triggers the brain’s reward system making it highly desired. Most sugars are rapidly absorbed by the body and quickly boost energy levels and mood.

Starches are complex carbohydrates; they are found in root vegetables such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, grains like wheat and rice and, in legumes. It follows that wheat products like conventional bread and pasta are high in carbohydrate. Unlike sugar, starches do not taste sweet when eaten but when digested they are broken down into sugar and absorbed so their effect is to raise blood sugar just as sugars do. Depending on how starches are prepared and eaten, starches can also quite rapidly increase blood sugar. However, when consumed with dietary fat e.g. with cheese or avocado, this fat can slow the absorption of sugars arising from the digestion of starch.  

Fibre is also a type of carbohydrate but humans are not able to digest it so it does not result in the release of sugar into the blood. Fibre such as Psyllium Husk can be quite useful in lower carb baking as a wheat alternative. There are potential wider health benefits associated with consumption of fibre such as helping you feel fuller for longer.

Sugar alcohols are yet another type of carbohydrate which is only partially absorbed by the human gut. The absorbed amount does contribute some energy but at a lesser value than sugar and starch. The unabsorbed sugar alcohol passes into the large intestine where gut bacteria utilise it. Sugar alcohols such as Xylitol and ‎Erythritol are sweet to the human palate so they are commonly used at low levels as a sugar alternative.

If you choose to eat a carbohydrate diet, limiting sugar consumption is a very good starting point but it is possible to still consume a large amount of non-sugar carbohydrate if you eat wheat bread, cakes, crackers, pasta, rice, couscous and potatoes.

There are lower carb alternatives for most of these items such as serving pasta sauce with “zoodles” (noodles made from zucchinis) or lightly steamed strips of cabbage. Using a food processor, cauliflower florets can be made into “cauliflower rice” to serve with curries and even “fried rice style”. Lupin flakes are a much lower carb alternative to couscous . Seed crackers are easy to make and can be used for dipping or, topped with avocado. Lower carb baking mixes are increasingly available and very convenient too. Choosing to eat low carb does not mean giving up all your favourite recipes; most can be adapted to your way of eating.


Author – Kim the Food Scientist.


You can find the first of the Sugar Series here