SUGAR: Are You a Slave to Sweetness?
Every modern convenience that makes your life easier from electricity to cars; every treat from the global marketplace that you may buy as pantry basics from South American chocolate to South East Asian rice: all are courtesy of a cascade of events starting some 250 years ago.
The Industrial Revolution forever transformed our lives and expectations. It particularly gathered force with the development of the steam engine which powered ships across oceans with unprecedented speed and efficiency. This opened up new markets as more perishable cargo could at last be traded to numerous and further destinations.
Unfortunately this fresh cargo included slaves. The British – master of the seas and many adjacent continents – and other Europeans brutally abducted black Africans and transported them across the world under merciless conditions. They were forced to work until death on the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies and later the United States. The product was so profitable it was called ‘white gold’ and became the world’s largest and most lucrative industry. It enabled nice, Christian ladies to offer hospitality in the form of a dainty sweetener to accompany another exotic import, tea from China (where the British introduced and profited from opium – but that, boys and girls, is another story).
From this geographical and historical soil come the pristine and delicate crystals, no doubt in a bowl near you. Modern technologies have ensured that the supply is endless, the price cheap, and the product stripped of nuisance minerals to become immaculately white and uniform. What a visual contrast to the dark heart of its industrial story; a manuscript covered in blood.
Hidden From View
By the start of the 20th century in the industrialised nations, the average annual sugar consumption was between 3 and 27 kilos. In New Zealand this is now a hefty 60 kilos per person. Most of that intake is hidden. Massey University estimates that soft drink consumption is now over 100 litres annually with most modest serves containing 7-10 teaspoons of sugar. If you choose drinks with even nastier artificial sweeteners (see my website TIPS for: The Deception of MSG and Other Additives) sugar is still slipped into virtually every prepared food: meat pies, chips, burgers, pizza, baked beans, takeaways, pastry, batters and coatings, tinned and frozen meals, sushi, smoked salmon, bacon, salami, chilli sauce, pickles, relish, chutney, salad dressing, mustard, condiments, packet soups/sauces/stock cubes/seasonings, yoghurt, low-fat products, bread, savoury biscuits, seasoned nuts, flavoured coffees and other beverages, plus lozenges, toothpaste, mouth wash, many medications and supplements – as well as everything obviously sweet.
Also obscuring its dietary omnipresence is that the word ‘sugar’ has a confusing variety of meanings. There are natural forms of sugar found in many foods such as the simple sugars glucose and fructose present in honey and fruit (monosaccharides: a single sugar molecule). There is sucrose (glucose and fructose bonded together) from cane sugar, maltose from grain and beer, and lactose from milk (all disaccharides: a molecule with double units of sugar). There are sugars that may not taste sweet as in starchy foods such as rice or potato, or the glycogen in meats and seafood (polysaccharides: three or more monosaccharides in long, complex chains). In meat this is the stored sugar primarily in muscle that caramelises and browns during cooking. If a label’s nutrition panel lists ‘sugar’, these innate forms are included. If sugar is on the ingredient list this refers only to added sugar such as white or brown.
The Dark Side of White Sugar
Ever more refined versions of sugar are now produced. Globally, a little comes from processing sugar beets (grown in temperate climates) but primarily from tropical sugar cane. This bamboo look-alike plant is stripped of its mildly sweet, deep brown juice. It is crushed, filtered and mixed with lime to alter the pH, combined with phosphoric acid or carbon dioxide to trap impurities, boiled, spun (from which molasses emerges), bleached with sulphur dioxide, and neutralised into sugar crystals.
In ascending order of refinement first comes dark brown muscovado, then Demerara, raw sugar, and finally sugar syrups. Brown sugar is just white sugar with a little molasses added. More recently maize corn has been processed to produce a myriad of starches and thickeners (methyl-cellulose, maltodextrin and others), additives such as citric acid, and sugars such as dextrose and high-fructose corn syrup. Some of these additives can be produced from potato or other starch. Icing sugar is finely powdered and mixed with wheat, corn or tapioca flour. If glucose is on a label it is processed from wheat or corn, not sugar cane.
Persia and India have the first records – from around 500 BC – of boiling cane juice to produce solid sugar. This simplified method is used to produce sugars available in health stores and termed: dehydrated cane juice, Rapadura, and sucanat (also in specialty products such as some chocolate). One stage more processed is Organic Golden Granulated Sugar, available in most supermarkets. In recipes it can be used identically to white sugar. Available from health stores, speciality stores and some supermarkets are: date sugar (looks/tastes like brown sugar); agave syrup (from a Latin American succulent); rice or barley malt (dark syrups); honey, maple syrup, apple syrup (no added sugar), coconut sugar, palm sugar or jaggery (cooked sap from palm trees; used in Thai and Indian cooking), stevia powder (a remarkable sweet herb which comes in a green or white form).
“Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour”. King Richard II by William Shakespeare
Unfortunately for many, switching from a bag of Chelsea Refinery sugar to one organic and less processed may not sufficiently alleviate their health problems. All carbohydrates are broken down into blood glucose or blood sugar. Depending on the food source, the speed – and consequences – of this process will vary. Individual foods have been given a Glycemic Index or GI ranking. The process can be fast and spiking when consuming too many highly refined carbs (high GI; unsatisfying and inflammatory). Or it can be slow and steady (low GI; optimally fuelling brain and muscles). But high GI ratings can unfairly demonise a food such as potato or brown rice. Instead serve such foods with sufficient regulatory team mates (soluble fibre, protein, fat, culinary acids, ‘crunch’ etc: see Blood Sugar Levels, also The Shape Diet) to easily create a low GI meal.
When cells receive sufficient glucose any excess is converted into glycogen for storage in muscles and the liver (this is what well-muscled athletes can store to draw upon for endurance events). Without this sugar banking system you would have to eat all day without ceasing. But once the depots are filled any excess is sent back to the liver for conversion into triglycerides. These are stored as visible or visceral fat, or they circulate dangerously as thick, clogging blood fats linked to diabetes and cardiovascular risks.
Some people are so sugar-sensitive that too much fruit becomes problematic. This is especially true for the ENTHUSIAST and ANALYSER body-types (see The Shape Diet). Fructose, especially from refined sources, does not regulate appetite as efficiently as glucose and is metabolised differently. Despite being low GI compared to glucose and sucrose, it is preferentially converted into triglycerides. Excess fructose can lead to high uric acid levels related to gout, kidney, blood pressure problems; and the urinary loss of magnesium and calcium – essential for healthy hearts, muscles, digestion, bones, and managing stress.
Ups Stress and Fat; Lowers Immunity and Vitality
Sugar also competes with micronutrients. Nobel winner Dr Linus Pauling discovered that your immune system’s white blood cell (WBC) warriors require vitamin C to phagocytise or gobble up viruses, bacteria and cancer cells. The New Zealand Medical Journal 9-8-2002 states that the most common factor to tumour development “is the gross elevation of mean blood glucose”. Within 30 minutes of consuming 100 grams of sugar (NZ daily average 180 grams) the ability of WBCs to engulf and destroy can be reduced up to 50%. The effect can last over 5 hours. Glucose and vitamin C have similar chemical structures and compete for entry into cells (both require insulin). Whichever one is the largest amount, wins.
When too much added sugar or refined carbohydrates swiftly raise blood sugar, this is followed by a spike in insulin. It is this hormone’s job to courier glucose into hungry cells to produce heat and energy. High glucose means high insulin. Over time this encourages cells to become ‘insulin resistant’ and unable to access its cargo of glucose.
Your fuel-hungry brain is only 2% of body weight but requires 20% of your glucose. It’s the first to feel the lack with lowered cognition, memory and mood (some neuropathologists call Alzheimer’s ‘Type 3 diabetes’). Physical vitality soon sluggishly follows. You may feel urged to eat more – a subconscious attempt to elevate energy. But if food choices remain poor this yields only minutes of reprieve. High insulin promotes fat-storage; for most people evident in blood fat levels and appearance – while those thin can develop layers of hidden and dangerous visceral fat. Insulin is growth-promoting. In excess it can stimulate abnormal cell proliferation such as cancer (TIPS: Modern Milk).
Dietary sugars are notorious for dental decay and thrush. Bacteria and fungi love fermentable carbs to dine on. This produces mouth acids that demineralise enamel and lead to decay. A two hour rest from eating and drinking helps mineral-rich saliva re-fortify teeth. Poor blood sugar control is linked with gingivitis or gum disease. Teeth-cleaning (especially with sweetened toothpaste) is not as efficient as dietary strategies. Refined sugar is itself highly acidic. Calcium, magnesium and potassium are alkaline minerals needed to neutralise excess acidity. If intake is low, or frequent urination depletes them (due to stress, sugar, Caffeine, Alcohol-TIPS) they are withdrawn from weakening storage sites such as bones and teeth. These 4 factors also elevate the stress hormone cortisol which further lowers minerals, immunity and relaxation (TIPS: Adrenals; Sleep).