L. Lee Coyne
By L. Lee Coyne, Ph.D.
The consumption of “added caloric sweeteners” (usually referred to as sugar) over the last thirty years has risen to an estimated seventy-one kilograms per person per year.
A report published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has called for better labeling and warning labels on sweetened products in view of the rising incidence of obesity and heart disease.
The sugar industry has objected to this report, suggesting it to be misleading because of some confusion in the methodology of reporting sugar consumption versus the availability of sugar. Surveying the literature shows a variation of reported sugar consumption levels ranging from 29 kilograms up to 71 kilograms per person per year. If we accept that there is some variation in defining consumption we can assume that the figure is somewhere in between.
To put these numbers in perspective, 29 kilograms per year equals 318 calories per day or 16% of a 2,000 calorie diet. 71 kilograms per year equals 746 Calories per day, or 37% of a 2,000 calorie diet.
Dr. Marc Leduc reported in his Healing Daily newsletter during the years 1887 to 1890, average consumption was only five pounds (2.25 kilograms) per person per year!
In October of 2005 the international business trends publication Dawn reported North American consumption at 38 kilograms per person (416 calories per day) with South Americans at 47 kilograms per person (508 calories per day) and Asian consumption at 18 kilograms person (175 calories per day).
Although there is no published recommended level for sugar intake, several nutrition authorities like the Nutrition Council of Greater Cincinnati have suggested a desirable level to be 10% of daily calories. For a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet that is 200 calories, or 50 grams (12 teaspoons), of sugar per day (18 kilograms per person per year).
A Brief History
- Sugar cane is native to tropical South and Southeast Asia.
- AD 350 India discovered how to crystallize sugar from the juice of the sugar cane.
- 10th century AD The Muslim Agricultural Revolution saw Arab traders adopt the technology of India and establish large-scale sugar mills and plantations.
- 1420 Sugar production spread to Canary Islands, Madeira, and the Azores.
- 1500s The Portuguese brought the sugar industry to Brazil where over three thousand mills were built before 1550. Brazil is still one of the largest producers of refined sugar.
- 1600 A French agronomist discovered the sweetness of beet juice.
- 1625 The Dutch carried sugarcane to the Caribbean (Barbados and Virgin Islands).
- By the 18th century sugar had become popular throughout Europe. In Britain most sugar was added to tea but later spread to confectionery and chocolates.
- 1747 marked the development of crystallized sugar from beets in Germany.
- 1768 In Jamaica the introduction of steam-engine-powered sugar mills dramatically increased production.
- 1801 The first sugar beet factory was built at Cunern in Lower Silesia (Germany).
- By 1850 a single steam-powered mill could refine 1,500 tons of sugar daily.
- Today thirty per cent of sugar comes from beets.
Not All Sugar Is Bad
Table sugar (sucrose) has a number of positive functions, particularly in the baking industry. It provides texture, structure, and “mouth feel” to many baked goods and ice cream. It is used in the fermentation processes of many forms of alcohol (although some would question that as a value), and it is used as a preservative in the canning of fruits and vegetables.
Some forms of honey have been used as a therapeutic agent during viral and bacterial infections, soothing of sore throats, decreasing digestive upsets and even reducing some localized allergy symptoms.
A group of sugars known as “polysaccharides” and “oligosaccharides” are complex collections of single sugar molecules (monosaccharides) that exhibit protective structures against bacterial infections. Some are low-glycemic starches in plants, and others are structural in nature and known as fibres. These include cellulose, chitin, and inulin. The latter promotes the growth of intestinal probiotic bacteria.
All carbohydrates are digested into simple sugars, mostly glucose, fructose, and galactose. Some carbohydrates like rice cakes, instant rice, tropical fruits, white potatoes, and corn are high-glycemic foods and raise blood sugar rapidly. The body treats them in the same way it treats added sugar.
- Sucrose: Table sugar, a disaccharide; one molecule of glucose and one of fructose produced by refining the juice of the sugarcane or sugar beet.
- Fructose: Known as fruit sugar, but found in many plants, a monosaccharide.
- Glucose: The other monosaccharide in sucrose and the main product of carbohydrate digestion.
- Dextrose: Basically a synonym for glucose, usually refined from corn.
- Molasses: A thick syrup left over from the refining process of sugarcane or sugar beets.
- Brown Sugar: Sucrose mixed with molasses; slightly more calories than white sugar and contains some calcium, phosphorous iron, potassium, and sodium.
- Maltodextrin: A loosely connected string of glucose (dextrose) molecules often found in sport drinks and produced from corn.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): A group of corn syrups that have undergone enzymatic processing in order to increase fructose content.
- Honey: Higher in calories (sixty-five per tablespoon) than sucrose (forty-five per tablespoon); a combination of glucose and fructose.
- Lactose milk sugar: A disaccharide of glucose and galactose.
- Invert Sugar Syrup: Acid treated to hydrolyse the sucrose into glucose and fructose; the crystals become smaller and smoother; less sweet than sucrose, but holds moisture longer; has many baking applications.
- Maltose: A disaccharide of two glucose molecules derived from malt barley; used mainly in confectionery.
- Malt Syrup: Made from sprouted malting barley (same barley as used for beer); sixty-five per cent maltose and thirty per cent polysaccharide; half as sweet as white sugar and used to flavour many products.
- Raw Sugar: Known as sugar in the raw, turbinado, or Demerara, this is the product of the first stage of refining when the syrup is washed with steam to remove some impurities.
- Maltitol, Xylitol, Sorbitol, Mannitol: Some of the “sugar alcohols” also known as Polyols, low glycemic index carbohydrates that have been hydrogenated (hydrogen added); less sweet than sucrose and fewer calories, they are not metabolized by bacteria in the mouth, so do not contribute to tooth decay; used in many confections, particularly gum, as they elicit a “cooling” effect.
The Negative Side of Sugar
Many articles will begin with a statement like “sugar is without question one of the most dangerous substances on the food market today.” This is likely an exaggeration and what is really meant is, the excess consumptions of refined white sugar and other high glycemic index sugars are creating some serious health problems. The emphasis is on “excess” and “high glycemic index.”
Dr. Joseph Mercola has reported in his newsletter “76 ways Sugar Can Ruin Your Health” and supplies 111 scientific references to support his list. However, he does emphasize the statement “excess sugar intake.”
Dental problems are created by oral bacteria (bacteria in the mouth) that convert sugars of all kinds into acids that attack tooth enamel.
The major problems with these refined sugars:
- Low nutrient density. They provide calories but no nutrition and tend to replace nutritious food options.
- High glycemic index sugars (most sugars except the polysaccharides and sugar alcohols) cause a spike in insulin production by the pancreas. Chronically elevated insulin leads to excess fat storage, unexplained hunger, and inflammatory problems like eczema, psoriasis, migraines, arthritis, and asthma. There is also the “invisible inflammation that manifests itself in heart disease.”
- Elevated insulin also signals the liver to produce more cholesterol. We produce far more cholesterol than we eat, and the greatest problem lies in hyperinsulinemia caused by excess sugar consumption.
- Excess sugar (added or from carbohydrate digestion) causes a union between the hemoglobin of the red blood cell and glucose. This is known as glycation or glycosylation and the glucose permanently occupies the space where oxygen should be carried. Thus it reduces the oxygen capacity of the blood. Glycated hemoglobin lasts for the 120-day lifecycle of the red blood cell.
- Excess sugar consumption is associated with high blood triglycerides. A triglyceride is basically a combination of one-half a sugar molecule (known as glycerol) and three fatty acids. No glycerol, no triglycerides.
- There are many reports of an association among elevated blood sugar, elevated blood insulin, and suppressed immune function. There are several metabolic mechanisms at work (far beyond the scope of this article) here including interference with vitamin C uptake by white blood cells to interference with normal growth hormone function.
In November of 1973 the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study by A. Sanchez et al., showing that ingesting 100 grams of simple sugar lowers white blood cell activity for up to 5 hours. He got this result using processed honey, table sugar, and processed orange juice. This translates into a 50% reduction in the ability of white blood cells to engulf bacteria. The immune suppressing effect begins within 10 minutes of ingesting the sugar.
- Conditions like ADHD have been implicated directly and indirectly to sugar consumption. The conclusion remains controversial because of the difficulty in conducting clean and neat clinical trials. However, reducing sugar intake will never hurt a child and may help in many ways.
- The link between Type 2 diabetes and sugar consumption is not clear in the scientific literature, but experience has shown that a diet of low to moderate sugar consumption can reduce the symptoms.
Is Sugar a Toxin?
Sugar by itself is not a toxin and yet most detoxification protocols require the elimination of sugar. Sugar is toxic when it combines with oral bacteria to create the acid that causes tooth decay.
The refining process for white sugar includes the use of several chemicals to produce the white in sugar. These may be toxic at the level of sugar consumption today.
However sugar in the raw (Demerara or turbinado) sugars should not be toxic. The same can be said for certified organic dehydrated cane juice or organic honey.
Some honey may carry toxins because some of the crops the bees visited may have been sprayed with herbicides and pesticides.
What about Artificial Sweeteners?
This subject would require a dissertation to provide a complete discussion. So I will only make a few points here.
The major players are Aspartame (an unnatural combination of two natural amino acids), marketed as NutraSweet; Sucralose (a chlorinated sugar molecule), also known as Splenda; and Acesulfame K, or Acesulfame Potassium. These are all chemical creations and hold the potential for toxic reactions and other metabolic problems.
The following is from an article I wrote on Aspartame several years ago:
“Independent research finds problems with aspartame research. An analysis of 164 peer-reviewed medical studies by Dr. Ralph Walton of Northeastern Ohio University found that of the 90 non-industry-sponsored (independent) studies, 83 (92%) identified one or more problems with aspartame. Of the 74 ‘aspartame industry’ sponsored studies all (100%) claimed that no problems were found with aspartame. This review provides little comfort for the consumer.”
The other potential problem with all non-caloric sweeteners is that some have reported evidence that the perception of “sweet” will still trigger an insulin response. It is referred to as the “neural/humoral connection” (neural as in nervous system, and humoral as in hormonal system). It does not appear to be identical in all people and more research is necessary.
If you insist on having a non-caloric sweetener, I would choose the natural pant extract known as Stevia.
L. Lee Coyne, Ph.D., is a Calgary-based nutritional consultant, lecturer, and author of Fat Won’t Make You Fat, The Little Book of Nutritional Nuggets, and the Lean Seekers coaching program.
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