As a self-admitted sugar-holic, I can’t let the day that we consume vast quantities of sugar with reckless abandon pass without commenting.  With chronic disease on the rise, the debate around sugar vs sweetener continuing to rage, and the ever-increasing waistlines of our population, I thought I’d take a few minutes and attempt to dispel some of the myths around sweeteners and naturally occurring sugar.

What is Sugar?

Sugar, also known as sucrose, is both a chemically made and naturally occurring substance that consists of two types of molecules, fructose and glucose.  Fructose, found in foods such as fruit, root vegetables and honey, is the component of sugar that tastes sweet.  Glucose, present in practically everything we eat, is a life-sustaining molecule for all life forms.  It is the fuel by which every cell in our body functions.  When to body absorbs glucose, it enters the blood stream and causes the release of insulin, which in turn, helps cells absorb the glucose and turn it into energy or store it for future use.

Table sugar is derived from sugar cane and sugar beets.  These naturally occurring plants undergo a rigorous “purification” process in which it is bleached and refined.  Natural cane sugar and beet sugar contain significant quantities of vitamins and minerals, as well as small amounts of protein.  The chemical process of creating sucrose strips the vitamins, minerals and proteins from the sugar, leaving only sucrose.

Is Sugar Really a Problem?

The previous description would indicate that sugar is important, and thus, could not possibly be the cause of all the health problems we have today.  While sugar is crucial to our daily functioning, as with most things, too much of a good thing can end up becoming a bad thing.  We are programmed to seek sugar.  Back in cave-man days, our biology taught us that things that taste sweet provide short-term energy and sustain life.  This innate knowledge is present for times when food is scarce.  Unfortunately, it is not turned off in times of plenty.  In today’s society, where food is easily found without foraging in the bushes, or hunting in the forest, we have turned a life-sustaining molecule into an addiction.  When too much sugar is in the blood stream, the body releases large amounts of insulin in an attempt to force it into the cells before it causes damage.  Initially, the cells store it for future use either as glycogen (sugar chains) or as fatty acid chains (i.e. fat), leading to being overweight or obese.  Eventually, cells decide that they have stored too much glucose, and stop responding to insulin.  This is known as Type II Diabetes Mellitus (the fastest growing chronic disease in our society).  The other health problems that can be caused by excess sugar intake include dental carries, candida, depression, cancer, heart disease, immune suppression, and the list goes on.

Then Artificial Sweeteners are the Answer, Right? Sugar vs Sweetener.         

Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners cause their own list of health problems.  Cancer, depression, seizures, migraines, nerve function impairment and weight gain have all been linked to artificial sweetener use.  The debate is heated and ongoing, with research wavering on the validity of the claims of either side of the argument.  The key point to remember is that they are artificial; i.e. they are not natural and therefore the body does not know how to metabolize or use them.

The following is a list of facts on three of the most common types of artificial sweetener.

Sweetener Brand-Name

Facts

Aspartame  Equal, NutraSweet
-FDA receives more complaints on aspartame than any other food
-Is converted by the body to formaldehyde and then formic acid (toxic)
-Significantly affects mood and behavior
-Can increase appetite
-Has been linked to seizures, migraines, hives, Multiple Sclerosis and nerve dysfunction
-No nutritional value
-200 times sweeter than sucrose – loses sweetness when heated
Saccharin Sweet ’N Low
-Known cancer causing agent in rats after 2 generations of use
-300 times sweeter than sucrose
-Is not recommended in pregnancy
-Cannot be consumed by those with allergies to sulfa drugs
-Associated with headaches, diarrhea, skin rashes and breathing difficulties
-No nutritional value
Sucralose Splenda
-600 times sweeter than sucrose
–does not lose sweetness when heated
-No nutritional value
-Is not at all related to sugar.  It is a chlorine containing molecule that was initially developed as an insecticide
-Associated with bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea, rash, hives redness, itching, swelling, wheezing, cough, runny nose, chest pains, palpitations, anxiety, anger, moods swings, depression, and itchy eyes
-Associated with reduced number of beneficial gut bacteria in rats
-Interferes with absorption of prescription medication

So What are We Supposed to Do? 

While artificial sweeteners and excess sugar are known to cause a myriad of health concerns and diseases, the fact remains that sugar is a crucial element to both pleasure and health.  So the question arises, how do you ensure that you get enough sugar without adversely affecting your health?

The answer is to choose unrefined, naturally occurring foods and to consume those high in sugar in moderation.  Below is a list of sources of naturally occurring sugars.  Honey and maple syrup can be used to substitute for table sugar, as they are equal in sweetness, but contain far more beneficial nutrients then simply glucose.  Certain fruits can also be substituted for table sugar in baking for more interesting and nutritious baked goods.

Vegetables

  • Vegetables are composed of complex carbohydrates (or starch), which are very long chains of glucose.  These starches are broken down and absorbed slowly over time, reducing the insulin spike associated with simple carbohydrates (table sugar).
  • Added benefits include high vitamin, mineral and fibre contents
  • Beets, pumpkin and carrots can be used in baking such as cakes and breads to add sweetness and a variety of other important nutrients

Fruits        

  • Fruits contain fructose, which does not create the insulin spike associated with glucose
  • While consuming large quantities of high-fructose containing foods (such as corn syrup) is related to increased cardiovascular risk, consuming whole fruits is beneficial to the body.
  • Added benefits include high vitamin, mineral and fibre contents
  • Apples, pears and dates can be added to cookies and squares for natural sweetness and a wide variety of beneficial vitamins and minerals.

Honey         

  • Honey is high in Vitamin B6 and riboflavin
  • Excellent source of iron and manganese
  • Contains many other vitamins, minerals and protein
  • Antioxidant and enzyme activity
  • Beneficial to health gut bacteria due to its nutrient content
  • Anti-microbial activity – known to help the immune system
  • Equally as sweet as table sugar
  • Not recommended for infants under the age of 1 due to immature digestive tract
  • Honey can replace table sugar in any recipe at a 1:1 ratio

Maple Syrup         

  • Excellent source of manganese (2 Tbsp. = 37.7% daily requirements)
  • Contains zinc, potassium and calcium
  • Has been shown to inhibit two sugar-metabolizing enzymes associated with Type 2 Diabetes.
  • Contains antioxidant enzymes that reduce free radical damage to cells
  • Maple syrup can replace table sugar in any recipe at a 1:1 ratio