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Sweet tooth

We are born with a sweet tooth. Human milk is very sweet to the taste due to its lactose content, a sugar specific to milk and necessary for building the nervous system. Humans seem to be innately hardwired to like sweet tastes, but in nature sweet foods, such as fruits, come packaged with fiber, vitamins and minerals necessary for the digestion and utilization of the sugar. It is when we process and concentrate the sugar from natural foods that we tend to overeat it. Not all sugar-containing foods are sweet, however, providing a trap of sorts. Starch, a component of all plant foods, is made up of long chains of sugar, which our bodies efficiently cut apart and absorb. In this post I will explain the many forms in which sugar is available to us, and which ones may be less detrimental to our health.

Chemically speaking, sugar is a general term for an organic compound consisting of a ring of carbon atoms (6 in glucose, 5 in fructose) with hydrogen and oxygen atoms attached. Sucrose, commonly called table sugar, is a disaccharide (2 sugars) composed of 1 glucose molecule bonded to 1 fructose molecule. It is one of the energy storage compounds in plants. Plants also store energy in the form of starch, which is composed only of glucose molecules bonded together in long branching chains, and does not have a sweet taste in this form. When seeds germinate they often hydrolyze the starch into maltose, another disaccharide, consisting of 2 glucose molecules bonded together and most often used in the brewing industry. The other sugar commonly consumed is lactose, found in milk and consisting of 1 glucose and 1 galactose molecule bonded together. These are the sugars that nature provides and the ones that we should be consuming, albeit in smaller quantities than most of us are accustomed to.

Unless we are getting our sugar from whole foods, all sugar is processed to some extent. The least processed, those that still contain some of the vitamins and minerals of the original plant are honey, molasses, maple syrup, rapadura and sucanat. All of these except honey are sucrose. Raw honey is made from nectar by honeybees and extracted from their hives, filtered, and bottled, but most honey has been heat treated and further purified. Honey is a mixture of equal parts glucose and fructose, with small amounts of other sugars also present. Molasses is the liquid left after most of the sucrose has been extracted from sugar cane. Pure maple syrup is the boiled sap of the sugar maple tree and has nothing else added. Rapadura is sugar cane juice that has been squeezed from the cane and dried into cakes, which are later shaved into small particles for use. Sucanat is very similar to rapadura but it has been heated in processing. Both contain the natural molasses that is part of the sugar cane and make excellent substitutes for table sugar and brown sugar. All other forms of sugar have been highly refined, heated, washed, chemically treated, and crystallized. Even those that are labeled organic, raw, natural and other terms, are really no better than table sugar. The brown forms have been highly purified and then have had molasses added back in. Save your money. Also remember that although using the minimally processed sugars is more desirable than using the refined ones, they are still a concentrated form of pure energy and should be used sparingly. Concentrated apple, pear or whatever juice on labels is still just sucrose.

Even less desirable than refined sucrose are the industrially produced, ultra processed sweeteners. High fructose corn syrup is the prime example. While not sold as such on grocers’ shelves it is used in a myriad of processed foods, such as breads, cereals, cereal bars, ice cream, yogurt, soups, lunch meats, and of course soft drinks and condiments. It is produced from corn and contains a ratio of about 55% fructose to 45% glucose; thus it is sweeter to the taste than sucrose, but manufacturers do not cut down on the amount in their products to compensate for the extra sweetness. Besides acclimatizing us to like sweeter tastes, it is the greater amount of fructose contained in this sweetener that is the problem. While glucose is absorbed directly into the blood from the digestive tract, to be used as energy by our cells, fructose must first be processed by the liver, where is shunted into the metabolic pathway that leads to fat synthesis. Because of this fructose does not appreciably affect insulin levels but it does lead directly to fat storage. And beware—high fructose corn syrup may now be called corn sugar on product labels. An even more insidiously problematic sweetener is a relatively new product being touted as a health food—agave syrup. This industrial waste product of tequila manufacture is 85-95% fructose. Eat it if you really want to pack on the pounds!

Sugar substitutes or non-nutritive sweeteners are to be avoided. These include Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, Canderel), Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, SugarTwin), Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One), and Sucralose (Splenda). These are highly processed industrial (non) foods which, although they contain no calories, research is beginning to suggest may trick our bodies into eating greater amounts of food subsequent to consuming them (1). One product that may be okay is natural stevia leaf. However, beware of such highly processed products as Truvia and PureVia, which contain crystalline extract of stevia and other additives. For a thorough discussion of artificial sweeteners see Sugar Free Blues.

Apropos the recurring theme of this blog, eat whole foods and keep refined products to a minimum. Current research is showing that the high levels of sugars and starches that we have been advised to consume may be largely responsible for the existing obesity and diabetes epidemics. Use sugar sparingly and when you do stick to the least processed varieties.

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