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The Compound Sugar: Explanation and Molecular Breakdown

written by: Dawn Marcotte • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 2/5/2013

Is sugar a compound? Sugar is not only a compound, it is a basic requirement for all life both plant and animal. The characteristics and uses of different types of sugar are outlined with examples of the three major categories.

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    An Organic Compound

    Students may ask, "Is sugar a compound?" The answer is yes, not only is it a compound, sugar is an extremely important organic compound. It comes in various forms but is used by every living organism as a source of energy.

    Sugars can be divided into three categories: Single sugars, double sugars and complex sugars. Each has its own molecular breakdown, physical characteristics, and uses by living organisms. All sugars are a combination of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in such a way that there are two hydrogen atoms for each carbon atom. There is one oxygen atom for each carbon atom as well. This simple structure allows single sugars to combine into double or complex sugars for plant and animals to use.

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    Single Sugars – Monosaccharides

    Glucose The two most common single sugars are glucose and fructose. Glucose is also called dextrose. These simple sugars are often listed as ingredients on food and beverage labels. Glucose is used by humans for energy and is found in the bloodstream. Individuals with diabetes have a blood sugar level that is too high and their bodies can’t process the compound. This inability to metabolize sugar can cause serious physical symptoms. There are man-made alternatives to sugar available for those individuals. Glucose has 6 carbon and oxygen atoms and 12 hydrogen atoms. When the atoms are metabolized in the human body, they produce carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen compounds while they produce energy for the cells in the body to use. Plants produce glucose through photosynthesis.

    Fructose is another common monosaccharide often found in fruit juices and honey. Bees actually gather sucrose from flowers in the form of pollen and then break it down into its component sugars. Fructose and glucose are the component parts of sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar. Monosaccharides are soluble in water and are the smallest of the sugars. Disaccharides, such as sucrose, are created when two monosaccharides are combined into a new compound.

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    Double Sugars – Disaccharides

    (untitled) Disaccharides such as sucrose are also soluble in water. They are only slightly more complex than monosaccharide sugars. Other examples are maltose and lactose. These sugars are joined by a covalent bond between the carbon molecules of each single sugar. Many foods contain these disaccharide compounds. Individuals who have trouble processing glucose also have trouble with these more complex sugars.

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    Complex Sugars – Polysaccharides

    These sugars come in three main types: Starch, cellulose and glycogen. Starch is a long chain of glucose molecules with each molecule facing the same direction. This is one of the primary sources of calories (energy) for humans. Cellulose is also a long chain of glucose but every other molecule is facing in the opposite direction. This type of sugar is actually used as part of cell wall structures rather than as an energy source. The third type is glycogen. This chain of glucose has branches or forks in it. Glycogen is stored in muscles and the liver for long-term energy needs.startch 

    The answer to the question, "Is sugar a compound?" is yes. Not only is it an organic compound, sugar is one of the basic energy sources for all living organisms, and we could not survive without it. The specific combination of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon create this organic compound that provides energy for all living things. Each type of sugar has its own uses and characteristics that enable plants and animals to use it as needed.

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    Resources and Photo Credits

    Photo credits - glucose by Rob Hooft - Sucrose by Boumphreyfr - startch by glycoform