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The importance of sugar and polyols

Sugars, having the chemical formula H(HCHO)nHCO, are part of the main diet throughout the world. People receive them from the first day of their life as components of breast milk. They are a basic source of energy for the body and so their physiological significance is unquestionable. However, a chronic and excessive intake of large amounts of sugar is believed to be one of the main causes of chronic diseases. Diseases related to nutrition, such as diabetes, cause global health problems that affect over 1.9 billion adults, as well as children. In fact, 60% of the United States population is affected.

“Sugar” or “Sugars” is a term that in chemistry refers to mono-, di-, and oligosaccharides, compounds that give a sweet taste to foods. Sugars vary according to their type and structure, while they show a series of features ranging from the taste, color and texture to the structure and lifetime of food. It is really important that compared to 1800, people of the 21st century consume more sugar. The sugar industry is one of the oldest industries and has also a strong influence on the social-economic and political developments around the world.

Sucrose, i.e. the white refined sugar, is the most widely used substance in relation to other natural sweeteners in the food industry and households since late 1880s, when the price dropped. As a result, the availability of sucrose increased.

However, there is another group of compounds, called polyols or alcohols of sugars, with chemical formula H(HCHO)n + 1H, which are similar to sugar. The basic structural difference between polyol and sugar is that there is a hydroxyl instead of carbonyl. Polyols are either white, crystalline, slightly hygroscopic powders or syrups, which can be found in berries, mushrooms and other fruits and vegetables. They have similar functions, physical and chemical properties to sucrose. However, they are less sweet and provide fewer calories. The sweetness of sucrose can be enhanced by combining it with one of the major polyols, xylitol, thus exhibiting synergistic sweetness.

Both polyols and other compounds such as fructose, saccharin and aspartame have been widely marketed as sucrose substitutes and are increasingly centered on the interest of the consumer, not only because of their low caloric value, but also because of similar flavor to the common sugar. They can be mainly consumed by people who suffer from diabetes, obesity, cardiac disease and other metabolic diseases.