How Sugar Works

Types of Sugar

As opposed to the more temperamental sugarcane crop, farmers can grow sugar beets, like these seen here, in a wide variety of locations.
Richard Drury/­Getty Images

­There are numerous types of sugar, although most people might first think of basic table sugar, the white crystals used in most homes and in much cooking. This sugar is called sucrose and comes from sugar beets or sugarcane. Sucrose appears in other plants, too, along with glucose and fructose. It's actually in every plant since sugar and oxygen are products of photosynthesis. But unlike sugar beets and sugarcane, other plants don't produce sucrose in sufficient quantities for harvesting.

Other types of sugar include:


  • Fructose: found in fruits and honey
  • Galactose: found in milk and dairy products
  • Glucose: found in honey, fruits and vegetables
  • Lactose: found in milk, made from glucose and galactose
  • Maltose: found in barley
  • Sucrose: made up of glucose and fructose and found in plants
  • Xylose: found in wood or straw

Besides beets and cane, sugar also can be derived from honey, many fruits (such as dates and coconuts) and tree saps. Molasses isn't technically a sugar; it's actually a potent black syrup that's a byproduct of when sugar is extracted from beets or sugarcane. White sugar contains almost no molasses, but brown or "raw" sugar contains some. Molasses can also make brown sugar stickier and, of course, a darker shade of brown.

Sugar crystals, particularly white sugar, may come in different granulations. Some common types are:

  • Icing: very small crystals that quickly dissolve in liquids or can be used for decorating desserts, like confectioners' sugar
  • Caster: larger crystals than icing
  • Granulated: basic table sugar, with larger crystals than caster or icing
  • Preserving: very coarse sugar used as a preserve in jams and similar confections

On th­e next page, we'll look at the most popular, and perhaps­ the most controversial, of sugar substitutes: high-fructose corn syrup.