When it comes to human nutrition, almost nothing compares to sugar. So much controversy and confusion surrounds this ubiquitous, largely maligned nutrient. Does it deserve its terrible reputation? And how many different names does sugar use these days?
Even a cursory review of sugar’s history makes it look like one of the most evil substances in human history. The institution of slavery in the Americas was founded largely to produce gargantuan amounts of sugar, to satisfy the insatiable sweet-tooths of Europeans, and nowadays food companies use sugar to get people addicted to their products. Sugar is also partially responsible for the obesity epidemic. No wonder some researchers want sugar to be classified as a drug. Also, is it a coincidence that the founder of the highly addictive Facebook, has a surname that literally means “Sugar-mountain” in German?
Obviously, it is a good idea to minimize or completely remove simple sugars from our diets, if only for our dental health. It is also highly immoral to enslave people, I do not recommend it. The links between sugar and poor dental health, and weight gain are impossible to deny.
At the same time, we all need sugar, since it is our body’s primary energy source. Sugar is a carbohydrate, and all carbohydrates are made of chains of the simplest sugar molecule, glucose, which is what all carbs are eventually broken down into during digestion.
The problem is that our bodies are very good at absorbing simple sugars, which I’ll come back to. In prehistoric times, back before sugar became so easily available and we were often on the brink of starvation, this was a good thing and had survival value. It didn’t just absorb quickly but we evolved to enjoy its taste so we could seek out this calorie-loaded life-saver.
Nowadays, when relatively few of us are at risk for starvation in the developed world, and we don’t have to outrun sabre-tooth tigers, this love for sugar and super-efficient sugar absorption can wreak havoc on our delicate metabolism. If consumed in excess on a consistent basis or if an individual has a genetic predisposition, it can lead to a strong insulin response that over time may cause our cells to become less sensitive to insulin(insulin resistance). Along with weight gain, this may eventually lead to type II diabetes. Insulin is needed to help cells absorb glucose from the bloodstream.
Since we still need sugar, the way around this conundrum is to consume sugar in its more complex, slow to absorb form. This is where complex carbohydrates or starches come in. These long, complex chains of glucose are difficult to breakdown, so they are slowly absorbed and don’t mess up your metabolism. Whole grains are mostly starch; candy and grape juice are mostly simple carbohydrate or sugar.
Since sugar knows it has a bad reputation, it often tries to sneak its way into our diet under a number of different disguises. Some are clever, while some are not, but it helps to be mindful of them and to realize that there really is no “healthy” form of simple sugar.
Cane juice or evaporated/dehydrated cane juice – This is just sugar. It is often used in some “health” foods to fool people into thinking it is either refined sugar-free or that it is a healthy alternative to sugar. Nutritionally, it is sugar and has all the same effects. Sure, maybe there are trace amounts of minerals in it since it is less refined than white, powdered sugar, but it is still sugar.
Brown sugar – It’s sugar, but darker!
Maple syrup – Sugar from maple trees. It’s really just liquid sugar from maple trees, the product of the sap from maple trees getting boiled down(having water removed). It is mostly sucrose, the same sugar that table sugar consists of. Often has trace amounts of minerals but it is still sugar.
Honey – Sugar made by bees. Yes it may keep better, and maybe some forms have modest benefits, but nutritionally this is just sugar again.
High fructose corn syrup – Right now, there is an epic battle going on between refined sugar(usually sucrose) and HFCS, with both of them pointing the finger at the other saying he is the more evil one. It’s rather amusing to see products at stores with the label “has no high fructose corn syrup”, yet lists “sugar” as its main ingredient.
Yet there is practically no evidence that HFCS is worse than sucrose or other simple sugars. The problem with HFCS isn’t that it is HFCS, the problem is it is sugar. So it can’t be held as uniquely responsible for the obesity epidemic, compared to other forms of sugar.
Let’s have a look at what the science says. According to Moeller SM, Fryhofer SA, Osbahr AJ 3rd, Robinowitz CB; Council on Science and Public Health, American Medical Association in The effects of high fructose syrup(J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Dec;28(6):619-26.):
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become an increasingly common food ingredient in the last 40 years. However, there is concern that HFCS consumption increases the risk for obesity and other adverse health outcomes compared to other caloric sweeteners. The most commonly used types of HFCS (HFCS-42 and HFCS-55) are similar in composition to sucrose (table sugar), consisting of roughly equal amounts of fructose and glucose. The primary difference is that these monosaccharides exist free in solution in HFCS, but in disaccharide form in sucrose. The disaccharide sucrose is easily cleaved in the small intestine, so free fructose and glucose are absorbed from both sucrose and HFCS. The advantage to food manufacturers is that the free monosaccharides in HFCS provide better flavor enhancement, stability, freshness, texture, color, pourability, and consistency in foods in comparison to sucrose. Because the composition of HFCS and sucrose is so similar, particularly on absorption by the body, it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose does. Nevertheless, few studies have evaluated the potentially differential effect of various sweeteners, particularly as they relate to health conditions such as obesity, which develop over relatively long periods of time. Improved nutrient databases are needed to analyze food consumption in epidemiologic studies, as are more strongly designed experimental studies, including those on the mechanism of action and relationship between fructose dose and response. At the present time, there is insufficient evidence to ban or otherwise restrict use of HFCS or other fructose-containing sweeteners in the food supply or to require the use of warning labels on products containing HFCS. Nevertheless, dietary advice to limit consumption of all added caloric sweeteners, including HFCS, is warranted.
This is also a good read based on science: Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t.
So no, there is no evidence that high fructose corn syrup was invented by the Devil to make children obese. It is no worse nor better than other forms of simple sugar, although some suggest it may be a little more addictive.
Agave nectar – It’s very similar to HFCS. Might as well just call it “high fructose agave syrup”. Just another form of sugar. I often see this used in “health” foods, as if it’s a healthier alternative to sugar or high fructose corn syrup, but there really isn’t any significant difference.
Just about anything ending in -ose is a sugar. “Dextrose” is just another way to say “glucose”. Even concentrated fruit juice is practically sugar. Fruit is definitely good to eat, but the most sugary ones like grapes and pears are loaded with fruit sugars. Rice syrup, barley malt syrup, and molasses are also sugar syrups or come awfully close. Even many fruit juices that don’t have added sugar are just sugar water drinks.
Sugar isn’t always horrible for you. After a long heavy workout, simple sugars are a great way to refuel. And while fruit contains a lot of fructose, it also has fiber, water(assuming its not dried), vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, so its not just empty calories. Fruit is good, just go easy on the most sugary ones.
On the other hand, sugar alcohols don’t cause cavities or metabolic problems, and contain fewer calories than regular sugar. One type of sugar alcohol, xylitol, is almost as sweet as sucrose(table sugar), but unfortunately it is much more expensive and can cause gas and/or diarrhea if you are not used to it. Sorbitol is another sugar alcohol. Many sugar-free gums and candies have sugar-alcohols as sweeteners. I sometimes chew xylitol gum for dental health.
Do you think you could come up with some new names for sugar, to hide that it is sugar?
Related articles: 8 Surprising Reasons Agave Is Bad for You