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Is Sugar a Compound or an Element?

At first, you might think that sugar is an element as it’s derived from nature directly. It can be found in fruit, vegetables, tree sap, and sugarcane. But the answer is more complex than that.

Sugar is a compound, as its molecular structure comprises three elements that are bonded. These elements are Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. Different types of sugars have different molecular structures, but they still remain compounds when looking at the chemistry aspect.

This article explains the difference between compounds and elements and exactly why sugar falls into its particular category. Furthermore, it will look at different types of sugars to determine their place on the scientific scale.

What Is an Element?

An element is a natural substance that can’t be broken down any more than it already is. It consists of only one type of atom with an equal number of protons within its nucleus.

Furthermore, elements are found on the periodic table and described as gases, liquids, or solids.

Some examples of elements that you might be familiar with are as follows:


In total, there are 118 elements, of which 94 occur naturally. The balance, 24, was formed by scientists, using nuclear reactions.

What Is a Compound?

A compound is a substance with two or more elements that have been combined to form a molecule. This can either happen organically in nature or conducted by a scientist in a laboratory. In the latter case, you’ll have artificial products, made to imitate what nature produces.

Most of what exists around us are compounds, with elements bonded together to form a completely new substance. This means that the elements no longer carry out their functions the way they would have on their own, but together they possess a new identity and a new function.

The below video will provide a quick but concise explanation and set the two apart:

Sugar on the Scientific Scale

If you are familiar with the periodic table or had a look at the periodic link earlier on, you now know that sugar doesn’t appear on there. This would mean that there are more than two elements bonded together for it to be produced.

More specifically, there are three elements in the molecular chain, namely, Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. The very basic chain for sugar is C6H12O6. However, as the number of elements changes, so does the type of sugar.

In this instance, Carbon no longer acts in its pure form, and the same goes for Hydrogen and Oxygen. Together they have formed a new product that tastes sweet on your tongue.

Carry on reading for a further breakdown of this.

Natural, Refined, and Artificial Sugars

There are many different ways to sweeten foods and drinks or get that daily intake of sugar. There are also numerous opinions on what is better for the human body and what negative effects certain sugars can have on your health.

For most people, if a candy bar and an orange have to be placed in front of them, they will most likely choose the candy. The craving for sweet treats is much easier to satisfy with the high concentration of sugar in the candy bar than fruit.

For example, an orange has an average between 3-6 grams of fructose while a Mars bar contains between 25-35g of sugar. This is equal to approximately 8 teaspoons and satisfies a sugar craving.

Is Sugar a Compound or an Element?

Natural Sugar

Different natural sugars are found in different food-types. The most commonly known ones are:

  • Fructose – It is predominantly found in fruits and raw honey (C6H12O6)
  • Glucose –  It can be found in certain vegetables, fruits, and plant leaves (C6H12O6)
  • Dextrose – It is derived from corn and is identical to glucose (C6H12O6)
  • Sucrose –  forms when fructose and glucose combine and then becomes a carbohydrate. Found in fruit, vegetables, sugarcane, and sugar beets (C12H22O11)

Products, such as maple syrup and filtered honey are also natural forms

of sweeteners, but first undergo processes to clarify and purify them, making them more

consumable for the end-user.

Refined Sugar

When sucrose is extracted from its natural food-source like sugarcane or sugar beets, the refining process turns the end product into the tiny granules you use in coffee, tea, and baking. Part of this process is to add certain chemicals to the syrup for it to become clarified.

Should the manufacturer want to make pure white sugar, bone char or activated carbon

and ion resins are used to filter through which the syrup passes. This decolorizes it before it’s concentrated and crystallized. Bone char makes sugar non-vegan, so look out for that.

Artificial Sugar

Sweeteners are a replacement for natural sugar, which allows you to still get that sweet taste. They are made in laboratories to trick your mind into believing that it gets sugar, but they carry no nutritional benefits.

Even though some of them are made using actual plant extracts, the chemical process is so in-depth that it can no longer be seen as natural.

Examples of widely-used sweeteners that have been approved by health federations include:

  • Xylitol
  • Aspartame
  • Stevia
  • Sucralose

Many people use these products knowingly in its direct form by adding a sachet to coffee or tea, but we all consume it to a certain degree. Companies that produce cold drinks, fruit juice, and cereal add artificial sweetener as a healthier substitute.

Are All Sugars Unhealthy?

There is a lot of debate about which sugars are healthier, but as with anything, consumption should happen in moderation. Whether it’s fructose from fruit, refined sugar in a cookie, or Stevia added to flavored water. It is important not to burden your system.

Is Sugar a Compound or an Element?

Natural food sources are much healthier, of course, as they retain the fiber, vitamins, and minerals our bodies need. It’s also easier to digest and break down the sugar. Once processing takes place, the chemical bonds of a product change, which means the way we digest something has to adapt. 

Read the below article from Harvard University about natural vs. artificial sugars in our bodies:


Even though sugar is a natural product, it consists of 3 different elements which are bonded together. Therefore it is considered to be a compound.

The molecular chain has a basic structure of C6H12O6, but it differs from one type of sugar to the next.

The natural sugar source can be found in various types of fruit, vegetables, sugarcane, and sugar beets. This is also the healthier option of consuming the sweet product as our bodies digest it much easier.

Refined sugars are made when sucrose is extracted from sugarcane and sugar beets, but due to the chemicals added during the process, it is no longer one hundred percent natural.

Artificial sweeteners are produced to imitate sugar but have no real benefit for your system, as it only makes you believe that you’re eating something sweet. Companies use this as a healthier alternative in their products, and everyone consumes it to some degree.


  • Jake Alexander

    Jake is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania who enjoys writing about science and sports. When he's not writing for Temperature Master, he can be found watching the NFL or playing basketball with his friends.

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