Sugar: the new tobacco?
Entering 2014, a number of news sources ran stories with headlines of this kind. They quoted numerous experts who came out fighting for immediate reductions in the sugar content of foods, and increased public awareness on the dangers of sugar. But is sugar really quite as bad as the headlines suggest? And if it is, what’s to be done?
All sugars are not created equal: The first thing to understand is that the question of sugar’s effect on health really involves different types of sugar. You have to understand the main types to get a grip on the subject because the body processes each one differently. The sugars under the spotlight are…
Simply put, glucose is the good stuff. Every cell in your body needs energy, and glucose provides it. We get glucose into our systems when the body breaks carbohydrates down after eating pretty much anything. Foods like bananas, berries, baked potatoes and low-fat yoghurts are especially high in carbohydrates.
This is what one tends to think of when someone says “sugar”… The stuff we buy in bags, add to tea, stir into cake mixtures and know is inside so many manufactured treats! It consists of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. For that reason, some people reasonably describe it as one part good sugar, one part bad.
So this must be the bad one, right? Well, yes – and no! And this is, arguably, where people get the most confused. You might hear fructose described as a poison by some and as a natural fruit sugar by others! That’s because fructose can be consumed in one of two ways: with fibre or without.
Fructose with fibre: If people describe fructose as a poison, then they really do have a responsibility to explain that it’s quite naturally found wrapped inside it’s own ‘antidote’ – fibre! Fructose is a natural sugar that plants create as a by-product of photosynthesis – when you eat that plant, though, you consume fructose WITH fibre.
So fructose is good with fibre? In moderation, yes. Not least of all because when you eat fruit and vegetables, they take up room in your stomach – you start to feel full and therefore eat what you need. This is not true with a chocolate bar… The fibre in the fruit not only helps ensure that the body’s absorption of fructose is limited to a degree, but it also ensures the conversion of fructose to energy is slower…
In other words your body doesn’t send all of the fructose to your liver directly and immediately. Rather, that which it does take is released into your body more evenly, meaning you don’t get such extreme sugar rushes and crashes. As a result, you stress your body less and reduce sugar cravings.
Fructose without fibre is a different case, though! Whilst it’s true that all fructose makes its way to the liver, fructose that’s consumed without fibre goes there directly. It can overwhelm the liver and create havoc with your metabolism! So, to recap: in the right amount, fructose is good with fibre but much worse without.
Orange Juice doesn’t grow on trees! One rule of thumb that helps people get a better grip on all of this is to remember how nature “packages” things! The more processed a food is, the less likely you are to be getting a healthy sugar… So if, for instance, you eat an orange, you’ll get a mix of fibre and fructose. If you blend some oranges and drink the juice, you’re putting them through a process… And changing the way the oranges’ enzymes are presented to the body. The fructose in orange juice that you drink releases far more quickly than the fructose in an orange that you eat. Simply put, eating an orange is better for you.
Oranges are not the only fruit: The above is also true of other fruits and vegetables. Their nutritional value can change when you put them through a process – be it blending, cooking, drying – whatever. So those fruit smoothies that have been blended, pasteurised, bottled, refrigerated and sold to you… Nowhere near as healthy as just eating the ingredients!
Complicated stuff… It is, isn’t it?! That’s why a shrieking headline that compares sugar to tobacco is misleading and alarmist. There is absolutely no type of tobacco that needs to be in every cell of your body in order for you to live. There is no harmful side effect from sitting opposite someone who’s eating a citrus fruit! Well – not unless some juice inadvertently squeezes out and jets into your eye! The tobacco comparison is pretty wild, even if it raises a couple of valuable points.
Sugar, sugar, everywhere: One thing that is worth further clarification, though, is that there are sugars in a lot of foods that one doesn’t think of as sweet or sugary. Take a look at the ingredient labels on foods and see how many times you come across words like these: sugar, sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, corn syrup, honey… They’re all sugars of one kind or another!
You’ve probably seen photos of fizzy drinks with the amount of sugar they contain in a pile next to them. What you may not have seen though, is a photo of – say – a can of beans with its sugar content on show! While it’s pretty obvious that cola contains a great deal of sugar, it’s not so obvious that quite a lot of other foods do too. Ketchups, energy drinks, many cereals and granolas, smoothies, breads and a whole bunch of things labelled ‘Fat Free’.
Fat Free is not Sugar Free: In fact, very often the opposite. Once food manufacturers took fat out of some of their product lines, they were left with really bland tasting food. So they stuck a load of sugar in there instead! So now we have a lot of high-sugar content food, that causes cravings for other high-sugar content food, that accurately claims to be fat free.
Vitamin Water: As an example, we’ve found a bottle of water that is marketed on the promise that it provides half of your daily vitamin needs. It also has a 0% fat listing, as you’d expect from water. It sounds healthy; it sounds like it’s a step in the right direction. But it actually contains 13 grams of sugar! 13 grams equates to about three lumps! There’s no doubt that some people are swigging that stuff down and imagining it’s doing them the power of good. They might even think that they feel great for drinking it because of the sugar rush.
Short and sweet: We’ve still got a lot to say about sugar… Now that we’ve had a quick and, we hope, easy-to-understand overview of the different types of sugar and the way they’re processed, we can move on… Next month we’ll tell you how to start cutting down on sugar without marching on Downing Street to change the way our food is made.