Sweet tooth…eating lots of sugar.. empty calories…blah blah blah…tooth decay..weight gain…yes we know. Most don’t care. We want it.
As a forever-recovering sugar addict, I wonder often about what causes us to WANT the stuff so much. Sugar has an addictive quality, meaning that when you eat some you want more. Eating a candy bar isn’t like eating black beans or salmon where when you’ve had an ample portion, you don’t start whining for me. As I’ve said many times, I’ve yet to see a child throw a huge screaming tantrum because they wanted more scrambled eggs.
I’m sure that most of your heard the news this week linking fructose consumption with cancer proliferation (specifically pancreatic cancer). We have known for awhile that heavy sugar consumption results leads to many medical problems such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer, but it’s good to see mainstream news reminding us.
In the news articles reporting the story, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was called out. Not surprising. HFCS, which is 55% fructose, is “in everything”. Food manufacturers leapt on to this cheaper sweetener borne from the overproduction of subsidized corn and have been using it to keep American’s sugar lust raging.
Though HFCS will be in the cross hairs because of this study, it is not the only fructose enemy at large. Fructose is what makes foods sweet. Honey is about 40% fructose, maple syrup (depending on the grade) has a similar proportion of fructose. And regular old cane sugar is about 50/50 glucose and fructose. The new natural foods darling, agave, can have anywhere from 55-97% fructose, depending on who made it. Fruit juice can be as high as 50% fructose and has been shown to cause weight gain in children. For more on fructose metabolism watch Dr. Lustig’s excellent lecture on video, “Sugar: the Bitter Truth”. The bitter truth is that fructose is not only damaging to your health, consuming fructose calories doesn’t turn off satiety signals and cause cravings for more. Ouch.
I like using honey, maple syrup and unrefined cane sugar because I understand how they are made and experience them as having more flavor. Healthier? Debatable.
Okay okay. So what do we do? How can we curb the addiction and still enjoy apple pie at Thanksgiving. Tough love suggestions:
1. Eat whole fruit, drink water
2. Limit all calorie-laden drinks (fruit juice, wine, beer, soda, lattes). One or two a week is ample. Remember these calories don’t register and make you want more. And if you think zero-calorie sweeteners are the answer, sober up. Talk about cancer-causing…(an exception may be the pure form of stevia)
3. Make desserts at home; don’t buy them. This will really keep things in check because most of us don’t have time to make a batch of brownies before heading off to work. Plus, the dessert will have simple recognizable ingredients and love in them.
Easy, right? Ha! This is a tall order. Tell me what tricks you use to keep the sugar monster at bay – either for yourself or for your children.
Agave nectar! A sweetener that’s good for you! Let’s make cake!
The insatiable American sweet tooth may have celebrated too early. As Seattle’s Nutrition Educator Goldie Caughlan, points out in her balanced article Bitter & Sweet: Agave Syrup, there is no perfect sweetener. Close to 19% of the American diet comes from some form of sugar. That’s too much of a sweet thing no matter what health expert you’re interrogating. Does it matter whether it is agave, honey or plain old white sugar? It does to me. I choose my sweeteners based on ethical behavior and kitchen-ability.
True, a sweetener was once upon a time made from the juice of the agave cactus. The traditional sweetener from the agave sap/juice (miel de agave) was made by simply boiling it for several hours. The new improved nectar marketed to us in the 90’s is mostly chemically refined fructose, anywhere from 70% and higher. For comparison, the high-fructose corn syrup used in sodas is 55% refined fructose. The sugars in the nectar are converted to fructose using an enzymatic process similar to how corn syrup is converted into HFCS. Are we saps for believing it was somehow “natural”?
Low Glycemic Index
One of agave’s marketing points is its low glycemic index, meaning it won’t raise blood sugar levels as high or as fast as some other sugars. Sounds good huh? But as Joy Bauer points out in her article How Sweet it Is (msnbc news) “the reason agave has such a low glycemic index is that it is extremely high in fructose — a simple sugar that ranks low on the glycemic index, but can trigger symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as gas, bloating and abdominal pain. Fructose has also been shown to increase the risk of heart disease by increasing triglycerides and — due to its negative effect on several appetite-regulating hormones — weight gain and obesity.” Agave nectar is advertised as a “diabetic friendly,” raw, and “100% natural sweetener.” Misleading?
I have to go back to the whole foods concept and ask the whole foods questions – what has been done to the food since it was harvested? The seed to table journey is long; making several stops in the laboratory for some enzymatic conversions. Are all of the original edible ingredients present? Truth is there are not many sweeteners where much of the food matter hasn’t been tossed. Maple syrup and honey are possible exceptions; agave is not. How long has this food been known to nourish humans? Here the operative word is “nourish”. Agave nectar may disqualify right there. I tend to distrust new and approved foods that don’t have a several decade track record. Bottom line (my flexible line in the sand) – I don’t know how I could make commercially-sold agave nectar in my kitchen. Agave has no kitchen-ability.
If you want to see and hear an excellent lecture that explains clearly how the steady increase of sugar in the American diet is responsible for wreaking havoc on our health, watch this. If you want to feel okay, from a nutritional point of view, about the good fats in your diet – whether they come from animal or vegetable sources, Dr. Lustig will make your day. If you want to understand in detail how fructose (particularly high fructose corn syrup) is metabolized, this lecture lays it out.
I know. It’s ninety minutes long and not everybody is nutrition nerdy enough to make it through. Here is an article by Dr. Lustig that summarizes the major points but you won’t derive the passion and excitement that he brings to the topic in the video.
Robert H. Lustig, MD, is UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology. He explores the damage caused by sugary foods and argues that fructose (too much) and fiber (not enough) appear to be cornerstones of the obesity epidemic through their effects on insulin.
In the video he clearly shows, down to a molecular level, how fructose(from all sources) metabolizes similarly to alcohol. Both convert to fat quickly and both fail to give satiety signals causing us to eat more and want more. Fructose consumption has incrementally increased 5-fold compared to a century ago while fat consumption decreased. High intake of sugar is linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. Quit blaming butter!
But don’t take my word for it. Watch this. Loaded with startling facts and put into context with American food history and dietary trends.
I know. Cynthia why are you raining on sugar just before the sweets for sweetheart holiday? Problem is, there’s almost no time of year that we’re not about to have a holiday focused on sweets. Right? How do you keep your family’s sweet tooth in check???
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