The Truth about Sugar

Sugar is not always sweet and nice.

We’ve all heard the refrain “sugar and spice and everything nice,” but it turns out sugar may not be that nice after all. It may taste sweet and delicious, but it can leave a trail of health problems in its wake.

The first taste we experience as babies—breast milk—is sweet and comforting and we associate that with pleasure. We’re programmed, in effect, to crave sweet foods. However, as with many things, we’ve taken our sugar cravings to the extreme. We are consuming much more sugar today than at any time in history.

We may love sugar, but it’s not loving us back. Obesity rates have soared since the 1980s, which coincides with the period when overall consumption of sugar and corn syrup solids (high-fructose corn syrup included) soared. Many people are suffering from metabolic syndrome, prediabetes, and diabetes. Children are suffering from attention deficit disorder. Cavities are on the rise.

While sugar may not be the only culprit in the downward spiral of our health, it is one contributing factor—and it’s one we can control.

Sugar Facts

Sugar is a broad term to describe chemicals that usually end in –ose (such as glucose and fructose). You may notice that food labels list sugar and added sugars separately. The commercial source of sugar is usually from sugar beet but may also be from sugar cane.

Refined sugar is extracted from the raw material by heat clarification to remove impurities and then concentrated by evaporation under vacuum, leaving a white crystalline product that is 99.9 percent pure sugar. This product is called cane sugar (even if it originated from sugar beet). Turbindo, or raw sugar, is from the first pressing of the sugar cane, which leaves coarse sugar crystals that are washed of debris. Sometimes, as with Demerara sugar, which comes from Guyana, this natural raw sugar is named from its place of origin. In the United States, natural raw sugar is from Hawaii. True brown sugar has not been decolorized and has been coated with a molasses syrup that provides flavor, color, and some trace elements, including iron. Unfortunately, most brown sugar sold today is actually white sugar that has been colored with caramel (heated white sugar that turns brown). Added sugars, like xylitol, which is often added to chewing gum, include sugar alcohols.

How Much Sugar?

Sugar doesn’t add anything but flavor to our foods. In other words, it has no nutritional value; we don’t need it as a component of a healthy diet. As a result, there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question of how much sugar we should (or should not) be consuming. In 2003 the World Health Organization reviewed the scientific evidence on sugar and recommended that to reduce the risk of tooth cavities and obesity, calories from sugar should not exceed 10 percent of a person’s total calories. More recently, the American Heart Association suggested that most women limit their sugar intake to 100 calories, or about six teaspoons per day.

Sugar, Sugar Everywhere

Once you start to pay attention to your sugar consumption, you’ll learn something you may not have known before—it’s in everything.

Most processed foods are loaded with sugar because it serves as a preservative and a flavor enhancer. If you’re eating a diet that is high in shelf-stable, processed foods, it’s likely that you’re consuming a high-sugar diet—and one that may be low in other nutrients.

Making the Switch

If you’re a sugar junkie, making the switch can be challenging—but so rewarding. Sugar leaves us feeling sluggish and cranky. Sugar addiction is a vicious cycle—the more we eat, the more we crave and the worse we feel.

If you’re ready to jump off the sugar merry-go-round, start by reducing your intake of processed foods and aim instead for fresh foods that provide you with sustained energy, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Whole-grain cereals and beans are low-glycemic-index foods, which means they deliver glucose into the bloodstream slowly. Whole-grain bread provides a lower glycemic index than white bread, so it is a healthier choice.

It’s not easy to break the sugar habit. Start with small changes. If you’re craving a sweet taste, consider choosing fruit rather than candy or baked goods. You can still enjoy the pleasure of sweet food. Choose moderation and natural sweet flavors (rather than artificial sweetness) in order to protect your health and maintain your energy.

Reducing your sugar consumption is bound to leave you feeling more energized and healthier. Once you’ve reduced your sugar intake, you’ll be amazed at how sweet an apple tastes!