Every year the average American consumes over one hundred pounds of sugar! Excessively used in our Western society, sugar not only sweetens our food and drinks, but is also widely used in cooking and as an addition to food products such as ketchup, salad dressings, and baby foods. Millions of dollars are spent each year on advertising sugar and sugar-laden foods to our society because food manufacturers know that sugar is very addicting, making us continue to buy their food products.
But what’s the big deal with sugar? Well, sugar, especially the highly processed forms of traditional white sugar and high fructose corn syrup, is responsible for a huge number of health issues. To name a few, sugar is directly linked to obesity, tooth decay, diabetes, fatigue, headaches, arthritis, adrenal burnout, and physiological and emotional problems such as ADHD and PMS.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as just avoiding white sugar. Let’s take a look at the different forms of sugar.
First, there are the simple sugars. While all sugars are eventually broken down into the simple sugar glucose, consuming simple sugars is particularly damaging as they do not need to be broken down before entering our blood stream. Therefore, these sugars are quickly and easily absorbed into our blood stream, spiking our blood sugar and stressing the pancreas to have to secrete a large amount of insulin to remove the excess sugar from the blood. When this happens, not only does it stress a number of the body’s systems, but it then turns the excess sugar into fat, being stored particularly around the stomach region of the body.
This singular event is reason enough to decrease or eliminate consumption of simple sugars because excess fat stored around the stomach area tends to be more dangerous to our health. The reason for this is fat stored in the stomach region is closer to the heart and is therefore circulated through the organs and vessels more abundantly, and can cause greater accumulation that can lead to cardiovascular disease and other serious problems.
What are these simple sugars, these monosaccharides? The simple sugars include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Glucose is the form of sugar that the body uses for energy and is constantly needed by our brain and every cell in our bodies, but in a relatively small amount. Glucose is found in many foods, especially in carbohydrate heavy foods and in fruit. Then there is fructose, which is predominantly found in fruit, honey, and some vegetables. Fructose is sweeter than glucose and, when necessary, can be converted into glucose by the liver. The third is galactose, which is the least sweet of the three. Galactose can be found primarily in dairy products and sugar beets.
Disaccharides are sugars made up of a combination of these three simple sugars. The disaccharides include sucrose, maltose, and lactose. Sucrose is made up of glucose and fructose and is the common white “table” sugar we are all familiar with; it comes primarily from sugar cane and sugar beets, maple syrup, and molasses. Maltose is made up of a glucose and a glucose and is found particularly in starchy grains but can also be found in beer, cereal, pasta, and potatoes. Lastly, lactose is made up of a glucose and galactose molecule and comes from milk.
The complex sugars need to break down in the body into simple sugars before they can be digested and absorbed. This slows down the process of digestion, allowing for less of a blood sugar spike. Furthermore, foods that contain complex sugars also tend to also contain higher amounts of nutrients and fiber. This increases the health benefits, and the fiber further helps to slow down the digestion process to help decrease the amount of insulin required. On the flip side, foods that tend to be high in the simple sugars (especially processed white sugars) are typically highly processed foods with little to zero health benefits. These nutritionally bankrupt, high sugar foods are ones that we see commonly, such as candy bars, white bread, and white grain products, processed yogurt products, frozen treats, baked goods, and processed cereals.
Approximately twenty teaspoons of added sugar is being consumed per person per day, on top of the naturally occurring sugars that we are also getting! Abuse of sugar in this country, and worldwide, is having a significant influence on the abundance and the type of disease we’re seeing. Obesity, type II diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, dental problems, and mental issues such as ADHD and depression are all on the rise, and all of which are impacted by a high sugar intake.
One important way of maintaining or recovering our health and avoiding a number of diseases is to drastically reduce our sugar intake in all forms. Ideally, we will consume 100 grams or less a day of sugar (including processed carbohydrates!) from all sources. When looking at a food label, the sugar content refers to both added sugars as well as naturally occurring ones. In order to avoid sugar as best as we can, it’s important to know the different names of sugar that can be on the ingredient label, so we are able to detect when there is sugar.
There are many names and forms of sugar. One simple way to detect if an ingredient is a sugar is to look at the last three letters of the name. If it ends in –ose, then that ingredient is a sugar. For example, if you see the term “dextrose” on the label, you know that food contains sugar, as the last three letters are “ose.” Some other common names for sugar include:
- Corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup
- Corn sweeteners
- Maple or maple sugar
- Refined cane sugar or cane sugar
- Beet sugar
- Malt or barley malt
- Rice or brown rice syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- Dried fruit
- Invert sugar
Decreasing the amount of sugar in our diets, especially the highly processed forms, is a very important and positive step each one of us can take to improve the quality of our lives and of our health. While it does require effort, the beneficial outcome is well worth the sacrifice.