We’re all familiar with sugar, that tasty white matter we bake into our cookies and stir into our drinks, but what you may know as “sugar” is actually only one of many chemical compounds. On a chemical level, sugars—or saccharides—are simple carbohydrates consisting of one or two subunits that result in a sweet taste sensation when consumed.

Single-unit sugars—called monosaccharides—consist of independent sugar molecules. Notable examples include fructose and glucose, which are, on a physiological and chemical level, the usable form of all carbohydrates.

Many naturally occurring and readily-available sugars, however, consist of two sugar subunits connected via a chemical bond. For example, sucrose, known to us as “table sugar,” consists of a fructose molecule chemically bonded to a glucose molecule. These two-unit chemical sugars are known as disaccharides (mono = one, di = two).

In this listicle, we’ll explore some of the most common sugars you might encounter in the kitchen, how they differ from one another, and how you can best implement them into your own delicious baked goods.


Remi Tateishi

Starting off the listicle is the classic sugar we all know and love: sucrose. This disaccharide made of one part glucose and one part fructose is what makes up most of the sugars we use in our kitchen on a regular basis: granulated, brown, turbinado, jaggery, confectioners/powdered. Sucrose, as it appears in these products, is derived from sugar cane (or sometimes sugar beets). The darkness of the sugar is a product of how many times the sugar is processed during purification, where the dark impurities in the raw sugar are removed (these impurities are what become molasses, another baking staple).

The sweetness of sucrose is one we’re all familiar with, so it provides a solid baseline for which to compare the sweetnesses of the other sugars of this list. Because it's so readily available, it's very easy to incorporate into your own baking—if you use regular sugar, you’re doing it already!


Remi Tateishi

The second most likely chemical sugar you’ll find in your kitchen is fructose, or fruit sugar. This monosaccharide is what gives fruit its unique natural sweetness, a sweetness that is actually 1.2–1.8 times sweeter than sucrose by weight. Odds are you’ve also heard fructose come up in the context of "high fructose corn syrup," which, just like the name suggests, is a corn syrup modified to have a high proportion of fructose—this effectively balances the more subtle sweetness of the corn syrup (which is mostly glucose, but more on that later) to something more akin to traditional sucrose. Because of its low manufacturing price compared to sucrose, high fructose corn syrup is a very popular commercial sweetener in the United States, so you’ll see it listed in the ingredients of most of your favorite sweet products.

Fructose itself has a pleasant and plummy sweetness and can add a unique fruitiness to your baking. Some of the best ways to add fructose include honey (which consists of approximately 40% fructose) and agave (which is about 80% fructose). But my favorite way to implement this sugar is by blending freeze-dried fruit into a fine powder with a food processor, and then using the resulting fruit powder as a 1:1 substitute for sucrose.

#SpoonTip: If you’re using liquid honey or agave as a substitue for sucrose, be sure to adjust your dry ingredients accordingly to make up for the additional moisture. If you’re using the freeze-dried fruit technique, be sure to check the nutrition label to make sure there are no added sugars (which would likely be in the form of sucrose).


Remi Tateishi

Lactose, a disaccharide made of glucose and galactose, is the chemical sugar found in milk and dairy, and unless you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, you’ve probably already been using lactose in your cooking and baking without even knowing it! Lactose is found in practically all dairy products, so why is it that a slice of cheese or a glass of milk isn’t super sweet like a bowl full of sucrose sugar? Well, lactose is actually only around 16-20% as sweet as sucrose, so in order to taste a significant sweetness from it, you'd need a pretty dense source of dairy.

Enter: Milk Powder. This powderized version of the familiar beverage is essentially the lactose equivalent of powdered sugar. This stuff is rather odd if you try to actually make milk out of it, but in baking, adding just a few tablespoons of this substance alongside your dry ingredients is an absolute game changer—once you experience the subtle silky richness that milk powder brings to a recipe, you’ll never look back. Renowned pastry chef and Milkbar CEO Christina Tosi explains milk powder as the “MSG of baking”—while it doesn’t taste like much on its own, it brings a foundational flavor-enhancing richness that’s quite unmatched. I suggest implementing lactose into your baking by capitalizing on this idea: use milk powder as a source of flavor enhancement rather than an outright substitute for other sugars. Just give it a try, you’ll thank me later!


Max Moran

Perhaps my favorite sugar on this list, maltose is a bit of a weird one. This disaccharide is made of two bonded glucose molecules. However, with a dry and subtly salty sweetness that’s around 30-50% of that of sucrose, its taste is decidedly distinct. Maltose, or malt sugar, is produced by seeds and other plants as they break down stored energy (in the form of long-chain carbohydrates like starch) in order to sprout, and is common in grains like wheat and barley, as well as in sweet potatoes, cornmeal, and certain fruits—there is also some maltose present in corn syrups as the result of manufacturing processes that mirror this process.

One increasingly popular way to use maltose in baking is through ube—a purple variety of sweet potato originating from the Philippines—which, like all sweet potatoes, has a dry floral sweetness thanks to its high maltose content.

My weapon of choice for adding maltose to my baked goods however is malt powder, which is basically malt in its purest form, ground into a fine and effectively usable powder. But seeing as this specialty baking product is a little difficult to come by, malted milk powder, effectively a combination of malt powder and milk powder, is a much more readily available source of maltose, as long as you don’t mind a little additional lactose alongside it.


Max Moran

Glucose, a monosaccharide, is the fundamental monarch of the chemical sugars. On a chemical level, glucose is the fuel of choice for almost every living thing. It’s the primary source of energy for every cell in the human body, and so the majority of the food that we eat is converted into glucose at some stage in order to be metabolized. From a baker’s perspective, glucose is quintessential. Not only is it in sucrose, but glucose subunits are also the fundamental basis of flours, starches, as well as all of the other disaccharides discussed in this listicle. But one of the best ways to approach glucose in baking is as a sugar in its own right: finding ways to implement pure (or as close as possible to pure) glucose into your sweets.

Glucose is around 75-80% as sweet as sucrose, but it provides a mellow, smooth decadence and palpable velvety texture that is really unlike any other sugar on this list. The most effective way to achieve this in your baking is by using pure glucose syrup, which, seeing as it's used primarily as a specialty ingredient in professional baking, is nearly impossible to find outside of amazon.comBut of anything on this list, this is the one worth splurging for—trust me, you won’t regret it.

If you can’t bring yourself to order the good stuff, or maybe you’re just doing some last-minute baking and want to try this out, you can also use light corn syrup. Corn syrup is almost pure glucose: it's produced by chopping up long carbohydrate chains (from corn) until they’re reduced to their single glucose sub-components. The catch is that it's effectively impossible to completely break down all those polysaccharides, so in the final product there’s always a little leftover maltose, giving corn syrup a sweeter flavor than glucose, as well as a few remaining polysaccharide fragments, which are responsible for corn syrup’s unmistakable high viscosity.

Explore and Experiment! Find Out Which Sugar You Like Best!

Remi Tateishi

Hopefully you leave this listicle with not only a new understanding of chemical sugars and how they differ from one another, but also a sense of curiosity and adventure! Maybe next time a recipe calls for sugar, you’ll be inspired to reach for the freeze-dried fruit instead, or you’ll add a healthy dash of milk powder for some lactose-infused flavor enhancement in your cookies. Try it out! See what happens! Who knows, you might just find your newest secret ingredient.