Facts About Sugar:
Natural and Artificial Sweeteners
and Their Impact on Your Health

sugar cane

The facts about sugar may surprise you. It is estimated that the average amount of refined sugar consumed by those who follow a typical western diet is a whopping 125 pounds per year! The recommended level of sugar consumption, according to the World Health Organization, should only be about 10% of your daily intake of calories, which amounts to only 200 calories per day in a typical 2000-calorie daily diet.

The excessive consumption of refined sugar leads to a number of health problems, and unfortunately it's an ingredient that is found in a large percentage of items on supermarket shelves, even those traditionally considered “healthy”.

Studies have shown that the high consumption of sugar leads to an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, hyperactivity, and tooth decay. In addition, sugar causes the depletion of important vitamins and minerals, such as B-vitamins, calcium, and magnesium, and depresses the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections. Those colds that everyone seems to get around the holidays are often due to the excessive consumption of sweets at holiday parties, coupled with close proximity to other people in overheated rooms. 

Excess sugar consumption upsets the balance of intestinal flora in your digestive tract and can cause symptoms of intestinal distress such as bloating, cramping, and gas. Too much sugar can also lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, whose deficiency is linked to depression. Like an endless loop, low levels of serotonin actually trigger more sugar cravings.

If sugar Sugar is eaten between 30 and 60 minutes before an athletic event it can hinder performance. Though it temporarily increases the level of glucose in your bloodstream in order to give you more energy, your body will release insulin in response to the sugar so as to moderate the glucose level, leaving you with less energy than you had to begin with.

Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes such as aspartame, saccharine, cyclamate, and sucralose are even more harmful to your health than refined sugar, so it's a good idea to stay away from them completely. They are comprised of chemicals that are known to be dangerous and cause negative side effects in some people. In addition, there are no long-term studies on the safety of regular, long-term consumption of these substitutes. 

Weight-conscious people often think that because they are consuming foods low in sugar that they can eat more of them. However, as these foods are also usually high in bad fats and white flour, the pounds just keep accumulating.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

sugar in soda

The process for making high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was developed in the 1970s. Use of HFCS grew rapidly, and soon outpaced the use of sugar. Today Americans consume more HFCS than sugar. Processed food manufacturers prefer it to sugar because, though it goes through far more processing than regular sugar, it's actually cheaper because corn is highly subsidized by the government.

Most processed foods contain sugar, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Soda is one of the major sources of sugar consumption in the western diet. Just one 12-ounce can of soda has an average of 10 teaspoons of sugar in it!

When HFCS is eaten, it is directly metabolized by the liver, which turns the sweet liquid into fat, and unlike other carbohydrates, HFCS does not cause the pancreas to produce insulin, the substance that acts as a hunger quenching signal to the brain. So we get stuck in a vicious cycle, eating food that gets immediately stored as fat and never feeling full, causing us to crave even more food in an attempt to get the nutrients we need.

One of the main reasons white sugar and high fructose corn syrup (or any ingredient ending in “ose”) are bad is that they basically contain no nutrients, consisting solely of empty calories. The fiber, vitamins and minerals are removed in the refining process. Sometimes called turbinado sugar, raw sugar is not much better. It goes through the same purification process white sugar does, with only some molasses added back in to give it that tan color. 

Natural Sweeteners

maple syrup

If you feel the need to add sugar to something, better choices are natural sweeteners such as muscovado, sucanat, rapadura or evaporated cane juice, made from raw organic cane and minimally processed so as to retain most of the cane's nutrients. Real maple syrup, molasses or raw honey are some other more healthy choices. The important thing is to use any of these sweeteners in moderation, and preferably let your palate adapt to less added sugar so that it learns to enjoy the natural sweetness inherent in food. 

Another alternative is stevia, an herb native to South America that is up to 30 times sweeter than sugar. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found the herb to be high in antioxidants, substances that help prevent and repair the DNA damage that can lead to cancer. It has virtually no calories and causes no significant increase in blood sugar levels, something useful for diabetics. 

So how do you make smarter choices when you're craving something sweet? Become familiar with the sugar content of various foods by reading the label on packaging, if it has any. When reading labels, if sugar is the first or second ingredient on the list it's usually a good indication that you should stay away from it, or at least reduce the amount you consume. Labeling laws were established in the 1990s, as a way for the consumer to be aware of the facts about sugar in food products. 

Healthy Food Choices

For breakfast, consider passing up the juice (30g sugar), cereal (14g sugar), or granola bar (13g sugar) in favor of eggs (2g sugar) or plain oatmeal (0g sugar). Though even 100% fruit juice contains a lot of sugar, most juices are made from concentrate with added sugars. Eating more protein and fiber will make you feel fuller longer so you won't get those mid-morning munchies. 

organic sugar

Rather than juice, it's better to eat a piece of whole fruit, as it will provide you with essential nutrients and fiber. It's the presence of fiber in fruit that allows the sugars in it to be absorbed more slowly by the body so as not to cause a sudden spike in your level of blood sugar. 

Grapes and bananas have the most natural sugar (15g and 12g sugar, respectively), but you could substitute other fruit such as grapefruit (7g) or strawberries (5g) if you want less sugar for breakfast. Also keep in mind that canned fruit is far higher in sugar than the fresh variety. For instance, canned peaches in syrup contain 18.64g of sugar per 100g, as opposed to the same quantity of fresh peaches at 8.39g. 

For a healthy snack, I'm sure yogurt has crossed your mind as a possibility. However, you may be surprised at how much sugar it contains. It's not uncommon for a low-fat fruit yogurt to contain 26g of sugar. A better choice might be unsweetened, plain organic Greek yogurt, which is rich enough to keep you satisfied, with only 6g of sugar. Add some fresh raspberries for a special treat. Cottage cheese with added nuts, and cheese on whole grain crackers, are other healthy low-sugar snacks.

As far as dessert, you may be surprised to find that chocolate can actually be a healthy choice. Milk chocolate is not quite as good as the dark variety, as it has less cocoa and a higher sugar content, but a bar of dark chocolate contains only 17g of sugar, and in addition, contains mood-elevating serotonin, provides magnesium and iron, antioxidants in the form of flavonoids, and has been shown to lower blood pressure and your level of bad cholesterol.

Now that you have an understanding of the facts about sugar, you can make healthier choices for you and your family.


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