When most people think of sugar, they probably imagine a fine white powder. In reality, sugar does not exist in this form in nature, and it takes an extensive process of refining to yield such a concentrated final product. Along the way, all the other nutritional benefits of the original sugar source are lost. The super concentrated refined sugars are absorbed quickly upon consumption and contribute to several types of diseases and health risks.
Almost all of the sugar consumed in the United States originates as sugar cane, which accounts for about 60 percent of the sugar. Sugar beets account for about 40 percent. Sugar cane is grown primarily in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world where temperatures and humidity are high. Sugar beets are grown in more temperate zones. Other sources of sugar include fruit (fructose), honey, sorghum and the sugar maple tree.
The juices of sugar cane and sugar beets contain natural sucrose. This natural sugar is concentrated through a refining process that involves numerous cycles of washing, boiling, centrifuging, filtering and drying. The initial result is "raw" sugar, which is not actually raw but has yet to undergo the final stages of refining. Sugar left at this stage is sometimes steamed for sanitization and sold as turbinado.
All white table sugar at one point was similar to turbinado; that is, brownish in tint and consisting of larger, rougher individual crystals. The final stages of the refining process involve the use of bleaching agents like lime or carbon dioxide to whiten the sugar and passage through a bone char filter to remove any other impurities. "Pure" sugar, as it is often labeled, refers to the chemical purity of the product and its lack of other nutrients, not a particularly natural or wholesome state.
Excessive consumption of refined sugar poses several potential health risks including type 2 diabetes, obesity and tooth decay. Refined sugar has a high glycemic index rating, meaning it has a fast and pronounced effect on blood sugar. It produces the well known "sugar high" that is inevitably followed by a crash, a fluctuation that can disturb the body's ability to regulate blood sugar over a lifetime. Refined sugar is also what are known as "empty calories," meaning they are calorically rich (and therefore fattening) while providing virtually no usable nutrition. Refined sugar also feeds bacteria and germs on teeth that permanently break down the enamel.
There are many ways to enjoy the sweeter things in life without including a lot of refined sugars in your diet. Many raw fruits and vegetables contain natural sugars in quantities and forms that don't produce unmanageable spikes in blood sugar or result in weight gain. Natural sweeteners like agave, honey and stevia can be used in places where you'd otherwise add refined sugar or a chemical substitute.