Sugar, is it really necessary or just another addiction?

Sugar, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, stevia, xylitol, dextrose, honey, agave, high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, rapadura, cane juice…sugar has so many guises that it can be incredibly hard to avoid!

But is sugar really necessary?  Or is all sugar bad for you?  Do you need to quit sugar completely to be healthy? Hopefully I can help clear-up some of the confusion!

Firstly, we do need sugar derived from carbohydrates such as whole-grains, fruits (some) and veggies.  What we don’t need is the refined sugar that is prevalent in many everyday processed foods and drinks.  We don’t need the high amounts of natural sugars found in dried fruits and fruit juices.  That’s right.  Dried fruits and fruit juices have no place in a balanced diet.

Secondly, our cavemen ancestors only really had access to an abundance of carbohydrates (I’m thinking perhaps wild berries) during spring and summer, which they ate to build up a fat layer to see them through the winter when there was a shortage of them. In winter they would be less active and use the stored fat as energy.  Nowadays though, our bodies are accustomed to the availability of carbohydrates all year round and the problem is that winter never comes.  So hence our bodies get fatter and fatter, for it’s endless summer.

Thirdly, from an early age we associate sweet foods with pleasure foods; as soon as we eat something sweet our brain responds by activating the reward system.  When the reward system is activated by sugar we get a rush of brain chemicals that gives us a sense of wellbeing.  As babies we are fed our mother’s milk which is naturally sweet and rich in tryptophan which makes serotonin, the feel-good hormone. As kids, we may have been told that if we ate our dinner we would get dessert or or maybe we were given lollies for being well-behaved.  Thus a seed is sown linking sweet foods to feeling good.

Sugar breaks down into glucose and fructose and it is the high glycemic-load and fructose parts which are causing the main health issues.  Generally the glucose from low glycemic-load foods is released slowly and either gets used up by our body, as every cell in your body needs glucose or a small amount is stored in our liver or muscles. The fructose on the other hand isn’t used as energy straight-away but stored in our body as fat; the glucose from high-glycemic foods may also go down this route.

Our bodies are not designed to handle the vast quantities of fructose that is in our standard diet today; our cavemen ancestors only had access to fructose in whole fruits, in amounts that were relatively dilute.

The problems set in when we discovered how to turn real foods which contained fibre, water and other nutrients into pure sources of sugars, for example by refining sugarcane into table sugar.  And then we started to consume this and other refined sugars in excess.  The more we eat, the more we crave and so the vicious cycle begins.

Fructose and some of its effects on your health
–          may increase your risk of heart disease and type II diabetes
–          may suppress the immune system up to 5 hours after consumption
–          it may upset the mineral balance in your body
–          interferes with the absorption of calcium and magnesium, think bones and nervous system
–          can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels leading to fatigue
–          can cause premature aging
–          can lead to headaches
–          may exacerbate depression and other mood disorders
–          may increase oestrogen in males
–          may worsen the symptoms of ADHD in children
–          may  assist the uncontrolled growth of candida or thrush
–          may contribute to the development of certain cancers

AND in case you missed it, fructose gets stored as FAT!

Why artificial sweeteners are not the answer.
Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose and  saccharin are added to drinks and diet-foods as a sugar replacement, to cut down on calories.  However, these sweeteners do not satisfy our brain’s need for something sweet and this may lead to overeating in an attempt to quench this craving.

Why fruit juice should be avoided or at least diluted.
Fruit juice isn’t the same as a whole piece of fruit as it lacks fibre; it has got as much sugar as many carbonated or fizzy drinks. It is also absorbed very fast, so by the time it gets to your stomach your body doesn’t know whether it’s cola drink or orange juice!

You’re definitely better off eating the whole fruit (in moderation) but if you do have to drink juice, then definitely make sure it is diluted with at least 50% water.

Knowing what to look out for on food labels
–          If sugar is the first or second ingredient, it might be wise to avoid it.
–          Dairy contains 4.7% lactose, the milk sugar that doesn’t contain fructose; dairy products with more than this may well have added sugar, of which half will be fructose.
–          Avoid products with more than 3 – 6g of sugar per 100g
–          Sugar may be present in 1 of its other guises, honey, agave, high-fructose corn syrup etc
–          Sugar is often added to weight-loss products, cook-in sauces, salad dressings, mayonnaise, yoghurts, flavoured milks, marinades and the like
–          Some sugar-free products may contain agave which still contains 50% fructose.

Some safer sugars
I predominantly tend to go for rice malt syrup: derived from fermented cooked rice, so no fructose.
If you do need to use “sugar”, rapadura sugar is made from evaporated cane juice and whilst it still has fructose it also has a higher nutrient content than white sugar.