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What Foods Contain Disaccharides?

By Shelby Miller
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Disaccharides are a simple-sugar form of carbohydrate made up of two linked monosaccharides, of which there are three: glucose, fructose, and galactose. Examples include table sugar or sucrose, which is glucose linked to fructose, and milk sugar or lactose, which is glucose linked to galactose. They may also be formed by two of the same monosaccharides bonding to each other, and maltose, for instance, is a pair of glucose molecules. Sources of these carbohydrates include sugar beets and sugar cane, which produce sucrose, a sugar found in everything from baked goods to pasta sauce. They can also be found in milk, yogurt, and other dairy products, which contain lactose, and grains and beer, which contain maltose.

Also known as a biose, a disaccharide is a quick-digesting form of carbohydrate that the body uses for immediate energy. This sugar is created when two monosaccharides unite and produce a reaction in which a molecule of water is expelled, and it possesses many similar properties to a monosaccharide. Both are classified as simple sugars, in contrast to the polysaccharides, which contain three or more sugars and are alternately referred to as starches or complex carbohydrates. Also, both forms of simple sugar are generally water-soluble, take a crystalline shape, and are noticeably sweet-tasting.

The three best known disaccharides are sucrose, lactose, and maltose. In wide use commercially, sucrose is obtained from the sugar cane or sugar beet plants and sold as table sugar, refined to produce brown sugar, powdered sugar, or molasses, or used to sweeten a large variety of foods from beverages to baked goods. Lactose is the sugar in milk-based products, found in yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. People who have difficulty digesting lactose are said to be lactose-intolerant. Maltose is less sweet than the previous two and is best known as the carbohydrate found in beer, though it is prevalent in breads and other grains.

Three other common but less well known types are lactulose, trehalose, and melibiose. Lactulose is the combination of fructose and galactose. It is not actually found in food, as it cannot be digested, but rather is a medication taken in syrup form to treat constipation. Trehalose is common in microorganisms, small animals, insects, some plants, and fungi; as such it is found in foods ranging from shrimp, to sunflower seeds, to shiitake mushrooms. Melibiose is formed by the bonding of a specific molecule of galactose to glucose and is the sugar prevalent in legumes like peanuts, lentils, and peas.

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Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Nov 07, 2012

I can't even taste the sugar of the disaccharide maltose. When I drink a beer, it tastes so overpoweringly bitter that any sweetness it might contain is lost.

Also, multi-grain bread just tastes savory to me. I agree with the article's statement that maltose isn't as sweet as the other disaccharides.

By cloudel — On Nov 06, 2012

@feasting – Lactose is a disaccharide that isn't entirely sweet tasting, but it tastes sweeter than something with no disaccharide content at all. Milk does have a barely detectable sweetness that most people don't even notice.

In fact, I have a friend who is lactose intolerant, and he says that lactose-free milk tastes way sweeter than regular milk. It's like the manufacturer went too far when trying to copy the taste of milk and added too much sweetener, because milk's sweetness is so subtle, delicate, and hard to replicate.

By feasting — On Nov 05, 2012

I'm glad I'm not lactose intolerant, because I don't think I could survive without my yogurt. I eat it every day, because it helps my digestion and prevents yeast infections.

I also eat cereal with milk at breakfast and ice cream after dinner for dessert. With milk, I don't notice a sweetness, and I think that the sweet taste of yogurt and ice cream is from the added sugar instead of the lactose. Does lactose taste noticeably sweet?

By wavy58 — On Nov 05, 2012

It's crazy that you can find sugar in just about any food, even food that isn't sweet. I wouldn't have thought that peas, mushrooms, and peanuts contained disaccharides.

By Mor — On Nov 05, 2012

@KoiwiGal - The problem with that is that you still need to have a good idea of what you're supposed to eat. You can argue that butter isn't really "mixed" because it's just milk-fat and salt, but it's not the best thing for you.

Generally, I just try to stay away from white sugar and white flour, because there's a reason white sugar has been called "white death".

Although any kind of refined sugar is bad for you, really. Corn syrup is supposed to be one of the reasons we have such a high rate of diabetes now.

By KoiwiGal — On Nov 04, 2012

@indigomoth - Of course that's true, but generally it is best if you find this sorts of things confusing and you don't have a serious condition, to go with natural vs. unnatural, or what I prefer, is mixed things vs non-mixed things.

Cookies, for example, are mixed things. If I buy a cookie from the supermarket I have no idea what is in it (although in this example, you can guarantee there's going to be a lot of sugar). If I buy an apple, which hasn't been mixed with anything, then I know what's in it.

There's a particular cracker I like to buy which lists on the ingredients just Rye and Water. That, I would not consider to be mixed. I can trust there are only natural sugars in that. It might be "unnatural" but it's still going to be relatively healthy.

By indigomoth — On Nov 04, 2012

@hyrax53 - It's a good way to look at things but you do have to be careful about exceptions, particularly people with conditions like diabetes where they have to monitor their blood sugar vigilantly. For example, even though the sugar found in fruit is generally fine to eat and fruits are often considered low GI (which means they digest slowly and blood sugar isn't raised too quickly) bananas are so easy to digest that they release their sugar quickly.

Does that mean you shouldn't eat bananas? Well, they have a lot of good points, so it's really a matter for each individual person to consider. But unfortunately it does point out that natural vs man-made isn't always the answer.

By hyrax53 — On Jul 28, 2011

I was talking to my doctor about trying not to get too much sugar. One thing he told me when he was trying to give me good disaccharides examples is that a lot of them occur naturally in food. It's kind of like adding salt versus naturally-occurring salt. The sugar in things like fruits won't probably cause you to have excessive blood sugar, but adding sugar to other non-sugary foods is riskier.

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