Every day there seems to be a new story regarding sugar and the effect it is having on our health.
We are being told how it contributes to all manner of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Sugar comes in many forms and in almost every food we eat.
So are all these forms of sugar bad for our health?
- 1 What Is Sugar?
- 2 Natural and Refined Sugar
- 3 Sugar and Weight Gain
- 4 Call It What You Like – It’s Still Sugar!
- 5 Summary
Before we look at the various types of sugars and the effects they can have on our health, let’s update our basic understanding of sugar.
What Is Sugar?
Most of us know sugar in the form of ‘table sugar’ – sweet tasting, white or brown odorless granules we add to hot drinks, cereals and in baking.
Sugar comes from the word ‘sucrose’ or ‘saccharose’, and like any food that comes from plants, is a carbohydrate.
It basically comprises of 2 sugars (fructose and glucose) bonded together in equal parts.
Natural and Refined Sugar
There has always been a ‘grey area’ regarding the health benefits of natural sugar (those found in fruit and honey etc.) compared with refined sugar (the stuff people have in their tea and coffee). Let’s take a closer look at the difference between the two:
Refined Sugar (Sucrose)
Refined sugar is the type of sugar or ‘table sugar’ most of us are familiar with, and what we usually have at home.
It is otherwise known as ‘sucrose’ which comes from the Latin word sucrum = “sugar” and the chemical suffix – ose.
One molecule of sucrose is made up of one molecule of glucose, and one molecule of fructose: Glucose + Fructose = Sucrose
Virtually every plant contains sucrose, but the only 2 that have it in high enough quantities to be extracted, are sugar-cane and sugar-beet – hence their names!
Once extracted the sucrose goes through a refining process where all the impurities from the plant (as well as any nutritional compounds) are removed.
Refined sugar is exactly the same whether it is extracted from cane or beet.
This refined sugar has zero nutritional value and is a pure carbohydrate substance.
Different Name – Same Sugar
Table sugar is often named differently, such as; brown sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar, confectioner’s sugar, raw sugar, powdered sugar, refined sugar and saccharose.
A misconception is that brown sugar is slightly healthier than white.
The difference between the two is the addition of molasses.
Molasses is a naturally occurring substance from the sugar plant that is added back to white sugar to make it brown.
Molasses gives brown sugar a slightly sweeter taste and makes the sugar slight clumpy or sticky in texture.
There is no nutritional value to it.
You may have heard about glucose. Glucose is almost entirely used to fuel the cells in our body including our muscles, and is essential for the brain.
All forms of carbohydrates (sugar is a carbohydrate) are converted by the body into glucose.
Any excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscle cells as ‘glycogen’, which is ready for immediate use if the body needs an extra boost of energy.
When more glucose is produced than we need, the body has no other choice than to store it in fat cells.
Just the word ‘fructose’ makes most people (me included until I did my research) think about fruit and healthy things!
Yes there is fructose in whole fruits, as well as vegetables and other plants. Every type of vegetation contains sugar (fructose) of some sort, with fruit being the most plentiful.
This is what we know as ‘natural sugar’. Unlike refined sugar, natural sugar also contains vitamins, minerals, fiber protein and antioxidants, which all form part of a healthy diet.
Once fructose is removed from the food and processed in any way, it can no longer be called “natural”.
Not All Sugars Are Created Equal
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that fructose also appears in sucrose (our table sugar).
This can be confusing, especially when food labels list “fructose” as one of the ingredients. You might think that it’s fine because it comes from fruit.
Now we know this is not the case, as fructose is also a component of refined sugar.
Refined fructose from sugar plants that has ‘no nutritional value’ is one thing – fructose from highly processed corn is another.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
HFCS was introduced to America and the Western world in the 1960’s and 1970’s and has nothing to do with fruit or fruit fructose.
It is a highly processed blend made from corn (which can also be genetically modified).
Food manufacturers love it because it is extremely cheap to produce (thanks to government subsidies on corn), is just as sweet as table sugar, gives foods a longer shelf-life and mixes well with other foods.
HFCS has taken the food industry by storm since the 1970’s and today it can be found in dozens of everyday household staple foods including, soft drinks, ketchup, jam, sauces, salad dressings, ice-cream and even some breads.
HFCS has subsequently received a lot of bad press and producers have even tried to re-label it as just ‘Corn Syrup’. Fortunately they weren’t allowed to do so.
Unfortunately manufacturers have now produced an almost identical product – Agave Syrup.
It is even labeled as a so-called “natural” sweetener.
Trust me, there is absolutely nothing natural about Agave!
It is actually much worse than HFCS, being almost pure fructose.
You can read more about HFCS’s evil twin here: Why I NEVER Use Agave.
Studies have shown that these types of fructose are a greater risk to our health than any other form of sugar.
As we will discover in Part 2, unlike glucose, (which the body distributes to all our cells), 100% of the fructose goes straight to the liver and may cause significant health issues.
Sugar and Weight Gain
The problem isn’t so much that sugar, (in the form of HFCS, natural sugar or refined sugar) is calorie dense, it is more to do with the amount of sugar (both refined and natural) we are consuming, plus our higher intake of processed carbs.
Refined Sugar Consumption Trends in Past 300 Years:
- In 1700, the average person consumed about 4 pounds of sugar per year.
- In 1800, the average person consumed about 18 pounds of sugar per year.
- In 1900, individual consumption had risen to 90 pounds of sugar per year.
- In 2009, more than 50 percent of Americans consume 1/2 pound of sugar per day, which is 180 pounds of sugar per year.
This is a staggering increase and might explain why obesity rates are increasing despite fat consumption dropping.
Despite the dozens of fad diets that continually circulate, and the amount of wacky, wonderful ideas for losing weight, the formula has never changed:
If you eat more calories than you burn each day, you will gain weight
It doesn’t matter if your food consists of protein, fruit, vegetables, nuts, fat, green tea, meat or sugar.
Sugar unfortunately is just pure calories (just over 16 grams per teaspoon) and contributes nothing else.
Other foods such as vegetables and complex carbohydrates contain much fewer calories (as well as all their other healthy nutrients) and so you can eat more of them.
Fat Isn’t The Problem
For years we have been told to eat less fat, largely because it contains a lot of calories.
For the most part we have reduced our fat intake, and yet we are still getting fatter.
Foods are now fat-free, half-fat, 20% less fat, virtually fat-free, blah blah blah.
Unfortunately the fat that was once there to give food its taste, is gone, and is now replaced with sugar!
It’s quite tragic really.
When we were hunter-gatherers, and sugar was only present in plants, fat from meat was our main source of energy.
Our bodies are designed to process fat for this specific reason.
We are not designed to process all this sugar, and our health is suffering as a consequence.
Sugar in one form or another is included in almost every food product we buy.
It is actually harder to find foods that don’t contain added sugar.
Call It What You Like – It’s Still Sugar!
One of the biggest problems people face when it comes to reading food labels, is not knowing what foods contain sugar.
If sugar (or one of its many pseudonyms) is listed as one of the first ingredients on a food product, you can safely assume it is high in sugar.
Manufacturers are great at trying to disguise sugar in ingredients by calling it a whole number of different names.
Here are just some of the different names for sugar that can be found on food products:
Fruit juice concentrate
High-fructose corn syrup
Invert sugar (50:50 fructose-glucose)
This processed, added sugar is hidden everywhere and we are consuming more than our bodies can handle (and that’s not even including the table sugar we add to our tea, coffee, cereals etc.).
The Health Dangers Of Sugar
Unless we take more control of what we are eating, i.e. stop eating so much sugar; (in whatever form it takes) heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer will continue to rise.
In Part 3 I will show you recent studies that reveal the damage sugar can potentially do to our health.
Here’s a re-cap on what we’ve discovered:
- Sugar tastes great and is addictive.
- Table sugar (which is refined) comes from beet and cane plants.
- Refined sugar (known as sucrose) is made up of fructose and glucose. It contains zero nutrients or fiber – just pure carbohydrate.
- Glucose is used by every cell in your body including your brain and muscles, for fuel.
- Sugar is present in every plant, although much more so in fruit, which is primarily fructose.
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup and Agave Syrup is cheap to produce, blends well with other foods, (especially foods we thought were healthy) and is as sweet as refined sugar.
- Sugar has a lot of different names. The Devil isn’t one of them..yet!
- Fructose, particularly HFCS and Agave, is added to, (or is a by-product of) countless processed foods.
In Part 2 we discover why fructose poses a far greater health risk than glucose; how much sugar we should be consuming ‘v’ how much we actually are; and which common foods are especially high in sugar.