SUGAR is a hot topic right now. The most current research is pointing the finger squarely at it, and FAT is now taking a back seat. Sugar is being blamed not only for our obesity epidemic but almost all forms of chronic inflammation and disease. We need to understand where we find it, what the effects are, how much is safe to consume, and how to moderate or avoid it when necessary.
Sugar comes in many forms. There is naturally occurring sugar, added sugar, and there are sugar substitutes or sweeteners, including natural sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, novel sweeteners, and sugar alcohols.
NATURALLY OCCURRING SUGAR
We need to make the distinction between added sugars and sugars that occur naturally in foods, like fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are healthy foods that contain plenty of micronutrients, water, and fiber. Naturally occurring sugars and the foods we find them in are essential and not the core of this article.
Added sugars are those added to foods during processing. They are used to add flavor, texture, and color, giving them a universal appeal. They are also used as a preservative (in jams and jellies), as a fermenting agent (enabling bread to rise), as a bulking agent (baked goods and ice cream), and to balance acidity (as in tomato-based products.)
They are inexpensive to mass produce, and manufacturers take advantage of enhancing profitability by adding them to just about every processed food and drink.
However, added sugars provide unwanted calories and contribute to tooth decay, weight gain and chronic disease. Excessive sugar intake is linked to diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and fatty liver disease. A HUGE problem!
Thus, with great intentions, many have turned to sugar substitutes. A sugar substitute is considered any sweetener used in place of table sugar.
Artificial sweeteners (Saccharin, Acesulfame, Aspartame, Neotame, and Sucralose) are such substitutes. Artificial sweeteners are attractive alternatives to sugar because they add virtually zero calories to our diets. Also, we need only a fraction compared to the amount of sugar we would typically use for sweetness. BUT- artificial sweeteners are just as controversial as added sugars. We associate it with metabolic disorders, cardiovascular complications, cancers, and even weight GAIN. What do they say is paved with good intentions?
Enter sugar alcohols (Erythritol, Maltitol, Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates, Isomalt, Lactitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol.) Sugar alcohols occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, but can also be manufactured. Unlike artificial and low-calorie sweeteners, sugar alcohols do contain calories, just fewer than sugar. Despite their name, sugar alcohols are non-alcoholic. They do not contain ethanol, which is found in alcoholic beverages.
Erythritol is an example of a sugar alcohol- it doesn’t spike blood sugar or insulin levels and does not affect blood lipids like cholesterol or triglycerides. It’s absorbed into the body from the intestine but is eventually excreted from the kidneys unchanged. Studies show that erythritol is very safe- it has even been shown to promote dental hygiene. The downside- sugar alcohols can cause digestive issues if you consume too much at a time. If that’s the only downside, I’m a fan.
Novel sweeteners (Stevia, Tagatose, Trehalose) are combinations of various types of sweeteners. Stevia, for example, is a natural zero-calorie sweetener that has been shown to lower both blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Stevia is also wonderfully sweet and has a licorice flavor. The problem- Stevia products may have very little stevia in them compared to other additives. Some brands even contain “natural flavors.” And remember the FDA doesn’t object to the term “natural flavors” if the ingredients have no added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetics. But these “natural flavors” may still be highly processed. Ahhh the FDA. What we know so far seems favorable, but there are still unanswered questions.
Natural sweeteners (Agave, Coconut Sugar, Date Sugar, Fruit Juice Concentrate, Honey, Maple Syrup, Molasses.) These are popular sugary sweeteners that health-conscious people often eat instead of sugar. Honey (my fave) is a sweet, thick liquid made by honeybees. The bees swarm their environment and collect the sugar-rich nectar of flowers. Then inside the beehive, they repeatedly consume, digest and regurgitate the nectar. The end product is honey, a liquid that is supposed to serve as stored food for the bees. The smell, color, and taste depend on the types of flowers the bees visit. And although our livers may not be able to tell the difference between sugar and honey, it does contain trace amounts of several vitamins and minerals. But where honey really shines is in its content of bioactive plant compounds and antioxidants. Darker versions tend to be better sources than lighter.
TAKE THE BITTER WITH THE SWEET
So how much of any of this is ok? My motto used to be “moderation in everything.” But this is a clear exception. The safest answer is that it truly depends upon the individual. Take a look.
The American Heart Association recommends that we limit added sugars to no more than six teaspoons daily (24 grams) for women and nine teaspoons (36 grams) daily for men. The American Heart Association is also largely funded by the food industry. Great.
Wait, there’s more. 145 million tons of sugar are produced per year in about 120 countries and growing. The cultivation and processing of sugar have far-reaching environmental impacts through the loss of natural habitats, intensive use of water, heavy use of agrochemicals, discharge and runoff of polluted liquid waste and air pollution. This leads to the degradation of wildlife, soil, air, and water where sugar is produced and of downstream ecosystems. Just not a feel-good situation all around.
The most significant problem- sugar is ADDICTIVE. Some people can handle moderate amounts of sugar in their diet, while for others it causes cravings, binge eating, rapid weight gain, and disease. Sugar addiction is not an emotional eating disorder either; it is a biological disorder driven by hormones and neurotransmitters that fuel cravings. Those who fall into this category should avoid added sugar altogether. Go cold turkey. If you are addicted to narcotics or alcohol, you can’t simply cut down. In the same way, you need to eliminate sugar. Soft drinks, baked goods, refined carbs, and processed foods all get the boot. Stick to real, single ingredient foods.
As for artificial sweeteners– the downside far outweighs the upside. Avoid them, all of them.
Sugar alcohols are a good option. Maybe better than good. Erythritol and Xylitol top the charts.
About sugar and natural sweeteners– yes, healthy people can eat moderate amounts. If you are a conscientious eater without health concerns, you may enjoy sugar or natural sugar substitutes. Just be careful… Smokey sings it so well, ”A taste of honey is worse than none at all!”