Sugar was not always in abundance. It was once a delicacy, a spice to use sparingly. Not to mention it was difficult to process and therefore expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford such a treat. This is far from the case today. Sugar processing has been refined, as has the substance itself. It is easy and cheap to make and the demand for it is high! Sugar is now a staple in our diets, not a luxury to savor. As quoted from a National Geographic article on sugar “In [a] span of 30 years (1870-1900) world production of cane and beet sugar exploded from 2.8 million tons/yr to 13 million plus… Today the average American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually or more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day”. That is a lot of sugar; I would say that is too much sugar.
Why is consuming so much sugar bad? Because sugar is half fructose.
Sugar is made of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. The glucose may initially raise red flags to you, as this is associated with blood glucose, insulin levels and Diabetes; however, it is fructose that is of greatest concern.
Fructose and glucose are both individual sugar molecules, the simplest form of carbohydrate that may be absorbed after digestion. Due to its structure, fructose metabolizes very differently in the body compared to glucose. It is treated more like a fat.
Fructose is sweeter than glucose. This means high reward signals to the brain when it is consumed, and increased cravings for more sugar! One of the main sources of fructose in the American diet is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS has a higher percentage of fructose than does table sugar. It is also cheaper to produce than table sugar. This combination of extra sweetness and low cost makes it an excellent addition to food and beverage for catering towards our cravings for this pleasurable compound.
We consume an average of 63 pounds of our total sugar per year from HFCS. The main place you will find HFCS is in sweetened beverages, like soda pop. According to the NHANES government food survey, Americans consume more calories today than 20 years ago and they are all from an excess of sugar-sweetened beverages.
These excess calories mean excess fat, but in the case of excess fructose it can mean a lot more than just that.
The majority of dietary glucose, so 50% of the carbohydrate, or calories, in sugar will be picked up by cells immediately after absorption and used for energy. The arrival of glucose into body cells will automatically release a hormone signal to the brain to tell you you’re full and to stop eating. Only 20% of this dietary glucose will make its way through the blood to the liver. Once there, these few glucose molecules are easily converted to glycogen for storage. Only when we over consume carbohydrate are any of these glucose molecules converted to triglycerides, or fat, and sent out to be stored in our adipose (fat) cells. Fructose on the other hand ALL ends up in the liver after digestion, 100% of it. This means the liver must deal with a lot more of this carbohydrate. Its metabolism is not as straight forward as that of glucose and the byproducts of its breakdown are particularly dangerous. Here is the short version:
First, since all fructose goes to the liver none of it will enter body cells, which means the feedback loop to the brain to tell you you’re full will never happen. In other words, fructose won’t satisfy your appetite the way glucose will and you have more of risk of over eating.
Second, breakdown of fructose in the liver yields uric acid. Uric acid build-up is responsible for Gout, an inflammatory and painful condition in the joints, as well as hypertension, also known as high blood pressure.
Third, fructose is more easily converted to triglycerides (fat) than glucose. Increased conversion of fructose to fat means increases in very low density lipoproteins (VLDL) which become low density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol) in the blood. The VLDL deliver fat for storage in your body and the resulting LDLs are more likely to contribute to cardiovascular disease. This also means an increase of fat storage in the liver itself, which is a slippery slope to fatty liver disease.
Fourth, fructose has been shown to increase insulin resistance in both liver and muscle cells as free fatty acids are produced during triglyceride synthesis, causing the liver to not properly regulate insulin. This means an inability for glucose to be delivered to cells for energy and increasing blood glucose levels; both risks for development of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
We associate excess calories as excess fat stored on our body, however the solution is usually to cut out fat from the diet. Ironically, cutting out fat often means replacing it with sugar in the diet. Added sugar, as we now know, only feeds the fire for fat production and a host of other unpleasant side-effects. Be aware of added sugar and fructose in your diet and limit its intake!
TIPS for decreasing sugar in your life:
1. Identify where there is sugar so that you can avoid it in your food.
As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”… and there are many names for sugar! Here are a few to look for:
- Agave Nectar
- Barley Malt Syrup
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids
- Dehydrated Cane Juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum or sorghum syrup
- Turbinado Sugar
2. Train your taste buds to not need as high of amounts of sugar for the same satisfaction. You need to decrease your tolerance for sugar. Eventually, less sugar will taste just as sweet. You can do this cold turkey by completely cutting it out, or slowly wean down, whatever works best for you!
3. When you do eat sugar, or fructose, eat it with fiber to slow its digestion. The best way to do this is by consuming natural forms of sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth. Such as fruit or dairy.
4. Avoid artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose and aspartame, as they will increase your tolerance for sugar because they are much sweeter than table sugar. In addition they have no calories, which mean no feedback to your brain to alert that you have eaten anything. You will be more likely to over consume, just like with high fructose intake.
Cohen R. Sugar Love. National Geographic August 2013: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sugar/cohen-text
Tappy L, Le K.A. Metabolic effects of fructose and the worldwide increase in obesity. Physiol Rev 2010; 90(1):23-46.
Elliott S.S., Keim, N.L., Stern J.S., Teff K, Havel P.J. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome American Society for Clinical Nutrition 2003, 76(5): 911-922.
“Sugar: The bitter Truth”, lecture by Dr. Lustig at UCSF: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM
Bray G, How Bad is Fructose? Am J Clin Nutr October 2007, 86(4): 895-896.