Sugar, we have a love hate
relationship with it. We spend millions of dollars every year trying
to avoid it with diet soda, sugarless gum, and artificially
sweetened candy. Is sugar really worth all the guilt and aggravation
we spend on it? Do we need to make it the forbidden fruit for our
kids? Does it cause us to gain weight? Is it making our kids
hyperactive? Will we become diabetic? What's the BIG DEAL?
All sugar is really, is a simple carbohydrate, a molecule
made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In the world of nutrition
with its phytochemicals, triglycerides, and micronutrients, it's
simplicity is refreshing. It's a wonder that such a simple compound
has inspired such controversy. Perhaps in knowing more about it, we
can put it in it's proper place, and then get on with enjoying our
There are two types of sugars, those made up of one
sugar molecule, called a monosaccharide, and those made up of two
sugar molecules linked together, called a disaccaharide.
monosaccharides include glucose, fructose and galactose. These three
combine in various ways to make up the disaccaharides. Glucose +
fructose = sucrose (table sugar), glucose + glucose = maltose (which
appears when starch is being broken down, like when seeds sprout or
starch is being digested), and galactose + glucose = lactose (a
sugar made by mammals and found in milk) Many sugar molecules linked
together form a complex carbohydrate, such as in grains, or
potatoes, and the sweet taste is lost. These carbohydrates are often
referred to as starch.
No matter how you eat your
carbohydrates, simple like in sugar, or more complex, all are broken
down in your body to glucose. That's because glucose is your main
energy source. Your cells can't use starch, or lactose, or fructose.
You might conclude then, that since glucose is the carbohydrate of
choice for energy for our cells, the best source would be a
concentrated sugar food. There are a couple of reasons why that
conclusion might not be right. To begin with, in order to function
consistently at their best, cells need a steady supply of glucose
coming to them via the blood. When blood glucose levels rise higher
than necessary, the body must adjust by storing the excess. It is
the job of the pancreas to do this. The pancreas rapidly responds to
too high blood glucose levels by secreting the hormone, insulin.
Insulin is the body's messenger telling cells to take up the extra
glucose. The result is a return to more normal blood glucose levels.
Should you eat something very high in simple sugars, which require
little processing in the body before being released into the blood,
your blood glucose levels may rise too high, causing the pancreas to
panic and over react, sending out excess insulin. In this zealous
response, too much glucose is taken up too fast. If there isn't a
back up supply of sugar coming, as from the slower digestion and
delivery of glucose from a more complex food, than you may
experience symptoms of hypoglycemia (too low blood sugar) such as
hunger, dizziness, headache and anxiety. Your muscles may become
weak and shaky. The cure is to eat promptly, but its prevention is
preferable. That means choosing and eating foods that breakdown and
deliver on a sort of 'time release' basis. Typically, foods high in
complex carbohydrates contain more fiber, protein, and fat, all of
which slow digestion, preventing that sudden, rapid rise in blood
When you do need to cure a case of hunger a snack or
meal that contains some simple sugars to deliver immediate relief,
along with more complex ingredients to sustain, is the wisest
From an energy supply standpoint, sugary foods are
as good as others, but that's where the equality ends. Getting your
energy from less refined, more natural sources, like fruits and
grains, means you will also be getting other necessary nutrients, of
which sugar doesn't contain any. Sugar's lack of vitamins or
minerals has earned it the descriptor of "empty calorie food". For
example, if you choose 200 calories of sugar, as in a soda, instead
of from a starchy food, like a bowl of Cheerios, you loose the
fiber, vitamins and minerals. Especially for your little ones, whose
caloric needs and appetite are rather small, you risk them filling
up before they have met their nutrient needs for the day. On the
other hand, if your child is an athletic, teenage boy, who needs
4000 calories a day, he may benefit from the additional calories
once he's met his nutrient needs .
Believing that using more
natural forms of sugar will cure the 'empty calorie' problem is
misguided and only minimally true. Sucrose is highly refined and is
almost pure sugar (99%) because all the impurities, mineral,
flavors, and colors have been processed out. Less refined sugars,
such as cane juice crystals and maple syrup are about 90% sugar
since only the impurities have been removed. These more 'natural'
sugars, i.e. less refined, therefore do contain more minerals than
sucrose, but in order to contribute meaningful amounts you'd have to
eat unreasonable quantities.
The fact that they have more
nutrients than table sugar does not make them a nutritious food.
Therefore, it is safe to say " sugar is sugar'. Besides sucrose,
some other ways that sugar is listed on ingredient panels are: corn
syrup, honey, fructose, levulose (the technical name for fructose),
dextrose (the technical name for glucose) molasses, white grape
juice concentrate, maple syrup, invert sugar, and maltodextrin.
Although sugar does come with these drawbacks, we don't
really need to make it our archenemy. Despite researchers numerous
attempts to do so, sugar has not been proven singularly guilty in
the cases of obesity, tooth decay or hyperactivity, and other
maladies people like to blame it for.
It is easy to suspect
sugar as the cause of obesity. Evidence is certainly incriminating.
However, there is no scientifically proven link. Perhaps because it
has been impossible to separate the effects of sugar consumption
from the effects of eating too many calories and obesity. Studies
show that when sugar intake goes up, usually fat intake does also,
and physical activity decreases. So, along with sugar, other
suspects include, too much dietary fat, too little exercise, and
And what about blaming all those cavities on
sugar? Cavities are caused by the acid that is produced when
bacteria in the mouth chow down on all those tasty, leftover food
particles. Bacteria are especially fond of all types of
carbohydrates. More than the simple presence of carbohydrate is the
problem. How sticky that carbohydrate is and how long it hangs
around is more important, because it gives those bacteria more time
to do their work.
The sugar from a lollipop stays around
less than the sugar from a sticky raisin! Water, or a glass of milk
drunk with a meal will help to wash the carbohydrate off of the
teeth. Sugar coated cereal in a bowl with milk is less dangerous
than a handful of dry crackers! Of course dry crackers and a glass
of milk is an even better choice.
How many times have you
blamed the wild behavior of your kids on that last cookie you just
let them eat? For years the debate over the contribution of sugar to
hyperactive behavior in children has been waged. Numerous,
inconclusive studies have added fuel to the fire. In fact, no study
has ever been able to definitively link sugar to hyperactivity.
Studies at Yale University, and a Vanderbilt review of 23 other
studies have all but disproved the theory. The Journal of The
American Medical Association pointed out that linking sugar to
hyperactivity is often a function of parental expectations. In one
study, parents who were told their kids were fed sugar maintained
their kids were hyperactive, when in reality, they had received a
Sugar does provide kids with a quick supply of
energy, but that doesn't mean they are hyperactive. You may also be
blaming their out-of control behavior on sugar, when in fact the
circumstances surrounding its consumption may be the problem. Could
it just be the excitement of Christmas, and not the fudge, or the
fun of the birthday party and not the cake and ice cream, or the joy
and delight in going to Grandma's and not the jar full of favorite
cookies she baked?
In reality , sugar is not a villainous as
it is made out to be. But does that mean it has a place in your
Refined, concentrated sugar is relatively new to the
human diet. Our ancestors ate perhaps, twenty pounds of sugar a
year, only as part of their fruit and vegetables. In contrast,
Americans eat upwards of 100 pounds of sugar a year, mostly as sugar
added during processing. These simple added sugars provide no
significant nutrients. So, when making the decision to allow sugar
in your diet, try to most often choose those that come with
nutrients attached, like apples, tomatoes, or milk. But, should some
refined sugar end up in your diet, there is no need to worry. Mary
Poppins did offer some sound advice several years ago: "Just a
spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." If you are caught in
the dilemma of a child who just won't eat her oatmeal, or swallow
the rich, orange squash, than a little sprinkling of something sweet
may help. A eaten serving of winter squash, lightly sweetened with a
bit of brown sugar or maple syrup does much more good than harm.
Perhaps that's why mother nature put lactose in mommy's milk?