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The Scoop on Sugar

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 food.

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.

The 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 sugar.

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 choice.

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 also, genetics.

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 placebo.

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 diet?

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?

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