Every time I sit down and try to write a definitive post on sugar I end up reading another 5 or 10 studies, get totally off track and bogged down in biochemistry and then I post a quick recipe instead. But today is the day! I’m going to post something on sugar or I’m not going to bed! Actually this is going to be the first of several posts on the subject because it’s more involved than you might think.
In terms of making better food choices for yourself and your family, sugar is a huge issue…maybe the biggest one out there. Part of the reason it’s such a large issue is because it’s such a large business. A lot of people spend a lot of time and money trying to convince us that sugar is OK in moderation. Even the ADA states that
“consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners when consumed in a diet that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Dietary References Intakes, as well as individual health goals. Dietetics professionals should provide consumers with science-based information about sweeteners and support research on the use of sweeteners to promote eating enjoyment, optimal nutrition and health.”
In my opinion (which is very much based on “science-based information”) that is simply not true. But even if it is true, what is moderation? The FDA has no recommendation on daily sugar intake, and the USDA has a pretty vague recommendation (source). I find this interesting considering that they are usually so eager to tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat. Meanwhile, the average American consumes around 22 teaspoons of sugar/day (and for some it’s as high as 46 teaspoons daily!). This comes out to over 150 lbs of sugar per person, per year according to the US Department of Agriculture. I don’t know about you, but nothing about that seems moderate to me!
To put this into context, 22 teaspoons is equivalent to about 80 grams of sugar. In the early 1900s we consumed about 15 grams of sugar daily. This number has steadily increased over the last 100 years with the biggest jump occurring in the 1980s when high-fructose corn syrup entered the picture. At this time most Americans consume 72 – 90 grams per day. This means we are getting about 12% – 15% of our calories from a completely non-nutritive food source. Yikes! No wonder we’re always hungry…we are starving for nutrients.
What are we really talking about?
So far I’ve only used the word sugar in this post. Which of course brings to mind table sugar or sucrose, but I’m really talking about any concentrated sweetener because the fact is they all have about the same effect on your health and it’s not pretty! According to research by well respected, independent sources (see below), any form of sugar, in excess, weakens the immune system, causes inflammation in the body, and increases the risk for serious health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Sugar has also been linked to depression and other mental health and neurological issues (source).
Before I continue, let’s define sugar. There are many ways that we categorize sweeteners: refined vs. unrefined, processed vs. unprocessed, natural vs. unnatural, nutritive vs. non-nutritive, real vs. fake. For the purposes of this post I’m excluding the artificial sweeteners. They have their own set of problems, but that’s for another post. As for the “real” sweeteners, they go by many, many names, and most processed/packaged foods contain at least one of them. Some of the more common names are sugar, cane sugar, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate and high-fructose corn syrup.
Now over the past few years, the media has put a lot of effort into finding a culprit for the failing health of Americans. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has perhaps taken the biggest hit. There is good reason to blame it. It’s nasty stuff. But let’s keep things simple, fructose is really the problem here and most concentrated sweeteners contain some fructose. For example,
- table sugar (sucrose): 50% fructose
- high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS): 55% – 65% fructose
- honey: 52% fructose
- agave nectar: as much as 92% fructose!!!
You get the idea. Although HFCS does contain more fructose than table sugar or honey (hence the name), agave nectar which is often categorized as a “natural” sweetener contains even more. It doesn’t get much attention because it’s not currently being used to sweeten thousands of packaged foods, but that could change. Back in the 70’s sugar (sucrose) was villainized for being an anti-nutrient and for causing health problems. HFCS swooped in and saved the day. Now studies are showing that it’s worse than the sugar it replaced. However, we shouldn’t let this cloud the fact that fructose is present in almost all concentrated sweeteners and as a society we are consuming far too much of it in one form or another and the consequences are becoming devastatingly apparent.
According to Robert Lustig, MD, fructose is poison! Dr. Lustig is the Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, in the Division of Endocrinology and the Director of the Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health Program as UCSF. He is a nationally-recognized authority in the field of neuroendocrinology, with a specific emphasis on the regulation of energy balance by the central nervous system. Believe me when I tell you that he is not using this word lightly, nor is he trying to be dramatic. He means poison in the true sense of the word. Fructose is a toxic substance that is metabolized by the liver alone. Unlike glucose (the sugar that fuels the body) which is metabolized by all organs of the body, fructose is sent directly to the liver, just like alcohol and other substances that we universally recognize as poisons!
Back to the idea of moderation. Can the liver deal with small amounts of fructose like that found in fruit or a glass of wine? Of course! That’s it’s job. The problem is, the quantities and the rate of fructose hitting the liver is often too much for it to handle. In the case of HFCS, the entire burden falls on the liver so the pancreas continues to secrete insulin which eventually leads to insulin resistance, uncontrollable blood glucose, weight gain (usually around the middle), high blood pressure & cholesterol, and a whole host of other serious health risks known as metabolic syndrome.
How Did We Get Here?
Over the last 100 years we have moved further and further away from a whole food diet. Food processing companies are billion dollar industries and somewhere along the way they figured out that sugar sells more food and HFCS is the cheapest of the sweeteners! HFCS also increases shelf life. Win-Win! For them anyway. Meanwhile our children are getting addicted to sugar as young as 6 months old because fructose, like other drugs, affects brain chemistry. It tricks the hormones that give hunger and satiation cues and causes you to crave more sugar. As with other addictive drugs, the body habituates and over time you need more and more to get the same sugar high. Food processing companies know this and they know exactly what they are doing when they add HFCS and MSG to bread and salad dressing and ketchup. Sadly, there is no one to stop them. Once again food politics comes into play. The FDA and the ADA stand back and watch as our children suffer from conditions that were once reserved for those over 60. In fact they perpetuate nutritional lies…
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) [annual conference] is partnered with and sponsored by junk-food industry giants, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mars and Kellogg.
During one of the presentation “titled “A Fresh Look At Processed Foods,”…
the speakers actually gave the message that processed foods are an important part of the American diet to be consumed along with fresh produce! (source)
So it’s up to us as sons and daughters, as mothers and fathers, as friends and partners to put a stop to this madness. I’m going to continue to post about sugar all week and I hope to provide a bit of guidance and a bit of inspiration for those who want to make a change in their own diet. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s never too late!
Eat Well, Be Well,
For very interesting accounts of the history, politics and health risks of sugar try these books.
Fructose: Metabolic, Hedonic, and Societal Parallels with Ethanol.