From an Ayurvedic perspective, the sweet taste is one of the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent), which is found in all foods, beverages, herbs, and spices. Its overall qualities are cold, heavy, wet, oily, soft, grounding and nourishing, which balances the Vata and Pitta doshas but aggravates Kapha.
The wetness of the sweet taste benefits the mucous membranes, including the lining of the mouth, Gi tract, urinary tract, and reproduction system, enhances the immune system, improves longevity, and increases Ojas (life sap). But when overused, its effects can hamper the digestive fire increasing ama (toxins), and with its added heaviness can create mucus, which promotes congestions, coughs, colds, and possibly swollen lymph glands, and increases obesity and possible diabetes.
The sweet taste has the biomedical actions in the body of being a laxative, diuretic, demulcent, emollient, antispasmodic, expectorant, anti-inflammatory, and lubricant.
Throughout history, honey was the natural sweetener used by most cultures. The first known archeological evidence suggests that sugarcane was first domesticated in New Guinea around 8000 BC, and then was next mentioned in China around 800 BC. Around 350 BC, India was the first to document the process of creating sugar syrup, which was cooked, cooled, and processed into granulated sugar (Khanda), which is the source word known for candy. Around 300 BC, Alexander the Great discovered sugar (known as the mysterious honey powder) when returning from India, and introduced it to Europe.
Sugar plantations and production flourished across many tropical countries at this time, but the prices were very high until 1813 when Edward Charles Howard introduced boiling sugar mass in closed kettles enabling higher yields, and in 1820 Norbert Rillieux invented an evaporation system what revolutionized the processes again. In 1852 David Weston developed a separation process removing sugar from molasses, but the most significant change came in 1901 when the German scientists and chemist Andreas Marggraf identified sucrose in beetroot, and Franz Achard built the first sugar beet processing factory in Poland. Finally, in 1957, Richard O. Marshall and Earl P. Kooi developed high-fructose corn syrup, which is used extensively in many manufactured and processed foods, for instance, Coke and Pepsi.
The body obtains energy (calories) from one of the three macronutrients found in nature: carbohydrates, proteins, or fats, and sugar is a generic name for soluble carbohydrates (carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) found in and used in foods. The word carbohydrate is a synonym from the Greek word sakkharon which comes from sugars, starches, and cellulose, and is broken down into four chemical groups: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides.
Simple sugars/carbohydrates are called monosaccharides and come from either glucose, galactose, or fructose. Glucose is the essential sugar because the body gets the majority of its daily energy from it and can store enough glycogen (for energy) in the liver, muscles, and brain for every 24 hours, and excesses are reverted to and stored as fat. Galactose has the same chemical structure and formula as glucose and is predominately found in Lactose, and the main difference is that glucose is sweeter as galactose but not as sweet as table sugar. Fructose is naturally found in fruits and is sweeter than glucose and sucrose.
Complex carbohydrates (combined sugars) are called disaccharides or double sugars, and are composed of two monosaccharides; for example, Sucrose (glucose + fructose), Lactose (glucose + galactose), and Maltose (two molecules of glucose). Sucrose is the most common form of sugar and is obtained mainly from sugar beets, where Lactose comes from milk sugar, and Maltose comes from malted grains.
The longer chains (oligosaccharides or polysaccharides) of sugars/carbohydrates can come from starches, legumes, cellulose, and pectin (from plant walls) and can include corn syrup which is used extensively in food production and is made from corn starch.
The body processes simple and complex carbohydrates by converting them into simple sugars that are absorbed in the bloodstream, and as sugar levels rise, the pancreas releases insulin (hormone), which is needed to move sugar from the blood into the cells where it is utilized as energy.
There are a couple of other chemical substances, such as glycerol and sugar alcohol, and the herb stevia that has the sweet taste but is not classified as carbohydrates/sugars and does not revert to energy.
Carbohydrates get a bad rap because they are associated with weight gain, but carbs consumed from whole grains, starches, fruits, and vegetables are healthy for many reasons. Firstly, they provide energy and are the body's primary source of fuel and, when digested, are broken down into glucose, which is easily stored as glycogen for use throughout the day.
Excess intake of carbohydrates, especially refine grains (flours) and sugars, thicken blood plasma, which can clog circulation, causes water retention in the kidneys, and can contribute to high blood pressure. Poor circulation can also cause swelling in the hands and feet, and the respiratory system can have a buildup of mucus and water. Excess sweet can also affect thyroid function bringing immune imbalance, constipation, and sluggishness. But, when whole grains and dietary fiber are consumed, they help to protect against cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and benefits the overall digestive system.
Understanding the glycemic index of foods is also helpful when choosing your carbohydrate choices, the glycemic index classifies foods according to how they potentially raise your blood sugar levels. Foods that are higher on the glycemic index are simple sugars, potatoes, bread, and many snack food and desserts, whereas lower glycemic index foods would include whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products.
In 1906 the FDA (Food and drug administration) was established, and the recommended daily allotment of carbohydrates was set for approximately 135 grams per day (4-5oz.), and when thinking about carbohydrate consumption, the Institute of Medicine recommends that overall carbohydrates make up 45-65 percent of your total daily calories, so based on a 2000 calorie diet, you should get approximately 900-1300 calories from carbs. The nutritional value for 3 oz of sugar is: carbohydrates: 99.99, with no fat, protein, or fiber but has small amounts of riboflavin, calcium, iron, and potassium.
Ayurveda acknowledges the differences in the qualities of the sugars. For example, honey is sweet and heating, has the specific effect of 'scraping fat' from the body, and is recommended for Vata and Kapha but will increase Pitta. Whereas Jaggery (Indian palm sugar is sweet and cooling, has a heavy, strengthening effect on the body, and pacifies Vata while increasing Pitta and Kapha. White sugar, on the other hand, is sweet, heating, and has a stimulating effect on the body, aggravating all of the doshas.
The less processed sugars like jaggery, honey, and maple syrup are considered more Sattvic (pure), creating a peaceful effect on our minds. Highly processed sugars, like white sugar and synthetic sweeteners, are considered rajasic and tamasic, creating strong, outward-seeking desires combined with dullness, depression, and ignorance in the mind.
Best Sugars for Each Dosha:
Vata: Raw honey, jaggery, sucanat, maple syrup, molasses, and rice syrup.
Pitta: Maple syrup and sugar, rice syrup, raw cane sugar.
Kapha: Raw "aged" honey.
Below is some additional information:
Types of Sugars
White/Granulated Sugar is mainly extracted from sugarcane or sugar beets.
Bakers Sugar- Finer than table sugar & is used for sugaring doughnuts & crumb texture.
Caster Sugar- The finest of all the types of granulated sugar, ideal for textured cakes & meringues.
Confectioners' Sugar- Powdered sugar, which contains 3% cornstarch to prevent caking.
Coarse Sugar- Known as decorating sugar is made when molasses-rich, sugar syrup crystallizes.
Date Sugar- Ground from dehydrated dates, high in fiber, and does not dissolve in liquids.
Fruit Sugar- Finer than regular sugar, used in dry mixes such as gelatin and pudding desserts.
Cubed Sugar – Made from moist granulated sugar that is pressed into molds and then dried.
Raw / Turbinado Sugar- The byproduct after sugarcane has been processed to remove the molasses.
Sanding Sugar- Known as coarse sugar mainly used as decoration on baked items.
Brown (light and dark) Sugar- Retains varying degrees of color depending on the amount of molasses.
Sucanat Sugar- Unrefined, whole, cane sugar is sweet and dark in flavor and full of natural minerals.
Palm/Date Sugar "Jaggery"- Contains potassium, magnesium, and calcium does not melt very well.
Additional Types of Sweeteners
Evaporated Cane Juice- Made from fresh sugarcane juice that is evaporated and then crystallized.
Molasses- The byproduct when sugarcane is processed to make refined sugar and contains iron, calcium, manganese, copper, and potassium.
Coconut Sugar- Known as coconut palm sugar is made from the sap of the coconut palm, and is a partially refined sugar that contains some amount of molasses, and a similar taste.
Honey- Contains antioxidants and trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, and raw or unrefined honey has a low glycemic index. Processed honey is also stripped of the nutrients, and Ayurveda views honey as the best sweetener for all doshas. Just a note, according to Ayurveda, honey should never be cooked.
Maple Syrup- Extracted from the sap of a maple tree, and contains manganese, zinc, iron, calcium, and potassium, as well as antioxidants.
Agave Nectar- Surrounded by some controversy because it is highly processed and not any better than corn syrup. It does have a pretty low glycemic index.
Sorghum Syrup- Similar to molasses in flavor, and sorghum is a "whole food" product made from sorghum grain and comes in three different grades.
Brown Rice Syrup- Processed from brown rice.
Maple Syrup- Has a pretty low glycemic index count and is very balancing for the Pitta dosha, and contains over 20 antioxidants, and it contains minerals like calcium, zinc, potassium, and manganese.
Stevia- Called stevia rebaudiana and in its natural state is pure and organic, and has zero calories and doesn't affect glucose or insulin levels, be mindful of the amount that you use because one teaspoon is equivalent in sweetness to a whole cup of sugar.
Sugar Alcohols- include xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol and naturally, occur in foods and are sometimes used as sugar substitutes in many "sugar-free" products such as candies, gum, and many processed foods.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes and have been the subject of much controversy about a variety of health concerns, but the National Cancer Institute says there is no scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States cause cancer or other serious health problems.
The most common sweeteners approved by the Food and Drug Administration are: