Sugar: The Not So Sweet Truth
Photo credit: Bigstock Images
Sugar is extremely prevalent in our food system. Different food categories have been under attack, but somehow sugar is so integrated into our lives, whether through celebrations, holidays and even comfort, that the consequences of increased consumption have been somewhat overlooked, or just plain ignored.
I am not saying to avoid sugar completely. Some people do, and they are all the better for it. Some people need to for health reasons (and that case can be easily made). However, I love my chocolate (and the occasional gummy bear), so it’s not realistic for me to give it up. Nor do I need to at this point. However, I am conscious of the products that I eat that are loaded with sugar. There is a trade off for low-fat, and that is often products are filled with other less desirable ingredients to make up for the taste or texture difference that comes from the fat.
The other concern is how many products that are marketed to kids that have an alarmingly high amount of sugar. Even so-called “healthy” products. We just aren’t giving kids, or even overall consumers, enough credit. The thought often seems that people will not buy things if they are healthy, so companies have to ensure the sweetness is over-saturated to ensure the consumer is hooked on the product.
Some Sugary Concerns
Refined sugar undergoes a process in which the sugar cane or sugar beets goes through a machine that crushes the plant, creating a liquid (cane juice). It is then heated, clarified, filtered and evaporated until it becomes a syrup. Soon after this process, raw sugar is the result, one product that is now available in the stores. To take it one step further, the raw sugar is then refined to make it even smaller, and often mixed with other chemicals (even bone char) before it reaches the consumer.
One of the most simple forms of sugar is glucose, and glucose is used in the body and brain as a source of energy and fuel. For example, we feel hungry when our blood sugar is low. Keeping blood sugar (blood glucose) levels steady is an incredibly important factor to health and well-being, from everything to mood, energy and weight.³
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure that correlates to how quickly any sugars in the foods we eat move from the digestive tract into the blood stream. High glycemic foods are absorbed quickly into the blood stream, whereas low glycemic foods are alternately absorbed slower.¹ A lower index number is more desirable to keep blood glucose levels stable. Eating a high glycemic food (white bread) with a fat or protein (peanut butter) helps to lower the overall glycemic load.
Just like everything, there is good and bad. Sometimes the good list is longer, and in this case the negatives are on the heavy side. To be fair, sugar can provide a quick source of energy in the short-run. However, usually once used, the body experiences a crash when the glucose (simple sugar) sources are depleted. Here are some other things that come along with excess sugar intake:
Increase in obesity rates. (Source)
Mood swings, anxiety and depression.¹
Deficiency in nutrients such as iron, protein and other minerals.¹
Yeast overgrowth (which also leads to a whole host of other problems).¹
Decreased immune strength. ¹
Sugar releases the stress hormone cortisol, and studies are finding that consuming sugar has similar effects on the body as undergoing extreme stress or trauma. (Source)
Increased risk of diabetes, cancer and other diseases. ¹
Tooth decay. ¹
Hyperactivity, learning problems and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. ¹
Over-stimulation of the hormonal glands, the pancreas and adrenals (what manages stress hormones). ²
As a result of cane sugar being identified as the bad guy, the market has been flooded with “natural” sweeteners. While the overall idea of reducing refined sugar consumption is beneficial, we still need to be aware of the trade-offs. Remember, there is good and bad to everything. Too much kale can have detrimental effects on the thyroid, just as too much sugar (even in bananas) can cause problems for the body.
I am not in the “no sugar ever” camp. I did that for a while. I also tried eliminating for my kids. For me, it is incredibly hard and took away some of the joy in life. I don’t believe we need to feed our kids (or ourselves) gobs of sugar laden foods to celebrate a holiday or our birthdays. However, sometimes we end up consuming more of the foods with the “healthier” sugars than if we would have just had a modest amount of the real stuff.
These alternatives below may still impact your body in similar ways as cane sugar, however, along with their sweetness, there are some extra minerals, vitamins and often less of the “sugar rush” (ie: there is a slower release of glucose into the blood stream, causing less of extreme rush and later, crash).
Pure (not the high-fructose corn syrup, maple flavored sweet liquid) maple syrup is taken from the maple tree. It is probably one of my favorites, as it also contains some minerals as well as antioxidants.
Less refined and raw honey (especially from local sources), can add extra sweetness with less of an impact on the body. It may contain traces of minerals as well as some B vitamins, as well as vitamin C and E.² However, refined honey often is reduced to a most fast-releasing sugar like glucose, making it really no different than refined sugar.³
Stevia, or “sweetleaf”, is an herb that is naturally sweet, and has very little effect on the blood sugar level in the body. It is a no calorie food.² However, it is still relatively new as a marketed product and some people have reported some side effects when using. Equally, some people are fine.
Agave is something of which I have never been a fan. Although agave is a plant, it seems to have a darker side and some potent effects on the body and just some misconceptions in its purity. The sourced article is from Dr. Joseph Mercola, for whom I worked, so I may be a little biased. You can read for yourself and decide.
Other alternatives are out there. Try new ones. Always remember, if something seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. Nothing comes without some sort of balance. Plus, the more the food is in its “whole” form, the better (less refined and less processed).
So I did a little visual with my kids. We took products that might be considered more on the healthy side of things – organic, natural, non-GMO, no artificial colors or flavors. No soda, candy, (obviously) sugary or cereal. We took the suggested serving and put the actual amount (in teaspoons) of sugar per that serving of food. Just to note, there is one teaspoon for every four grams of sugar. Here is what we found.
Here is our whole project at a glance. Hard to see the piles from the overhead shot. This could be consumed all before lunch for some children! So much sugar in one sitting - and not even any cookies!
A yogurt squisher - 2 teaspoons in only 2 small ounces.
A fruit snack in rope form - 3.75 (almost 4!) teaspoons for a tiny little stick.
This one blew my mind. We don't usually have juice, especially in boxes. But occasionally at birthday parties (including my own children), we'll have these juice boxes. But no more! This is an astonishing pile of sugar - 6 teaspoons in less than 1 cup of juice!!!
At first this one didn't seem horrible, but then looking at the small amount of granola in the bowl was already going on 4 teaspoons for 2/3 cup!
An Experiment for Your Taste Buds
One thing I have done is try taking as much refined sugar out of my diet for a certain period of time, such as a week or so. Our taste buds get used to a certain level of sweetness, and come to expect that degree of sweet. By slowly starting to lower the amount, we retrain our taste buds (and expectations), so to speak.
Again, above are images of products often consumer by kids that are thought to be healthy. They are organic and are free of artificial ingredients, dyes and preservatives. However, the amount of sugar is still pretty startling. Personally, I would still rather my kids have these than foods that are made with genetically modified (GMOs) ingredients, artificial colors and foods that have chemical pesticides on them. That is just my preference in weighing the pros and cons for my family. I do strive for balance, but it doesn’t always happen.
So What Now?
My purpose in writing is simply to bring an awareness to a food product that seems to get the old “I know it’s bad, but…” disclaimer and accompanying eye roll while we devour sugar laden goodies and pass a few on to the kids. We don’t need to feel guilty about consuming sugar, but simply informed. If you are experiencing some health concerns, sugar may be something to consider reducing in your diet. The side effects are real. Equally, deprivation and subsequent binging and guilt isn’t healthy either. That darn word comes back – balance.
And teaching this to our kids is just as crucial. Everyone does it differently and what works for their families. We try to swap out refined sugars for less refined sugars when we can. And when I want to just bake a cake, I do (although, it probably has some sort of vegetable in it…we all have our limitations!) Remember, knowledge is power. The more knowledge we can take in about the world (and products) around us, the more informed our decisions can be. Now go eat some cookies, (preferably made with bananas and maple syrup)!
Some treats free of added sugar that we love here at The Nourished Seedling:
**DISCLAIMER: As indicated throughout The Nourished Seedling, the information presented here is solely for informational purposes, not intended to diagnose or cure any disease. As with any change in diet or supplement program, it is advised to always consult your healthcare professional when making these decisions.
¹ Haas, Elson M. and Daniella Chase. The New Detox Diet. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 2004.
² Haas, Elson M., Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1992.
³ Holford, Patrick. The Optimum Nutrition Bible. Berkeley, CA: The Crossing Press, 2004.