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The truth about Sugar

Sugar certainly has gotten a bad rap lately. It’s blamed for everything from obesity and diabetes to heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. But is it really all that bad? Is there nothing redeeming about those tiny, sweet granules? Or is a lot of what we hear misinformation?

We know one thing for sure. Sugar consumption in America has skyrocketed. In 1990, Americans ate an average of 4 teaspoons (16 grams) of added sugar per day [source: Lustig]. By 2014, that number had shot up to 20 teaspoons (80 grams) daily [source: American Heart Association]. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says Americans obtain 16 percent of their total calories from added sugars, namely soda, energy and sports drinks, grain-based desserts, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, dairy-based desserts and candy. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation? We should only be getting less than 10 percent of our daily calories from added sugar. In 2014, the WHO even proposed slashing that recommended rate to less than 5 percent.

Clearly, we need to pay attention to sugar and our consumption rate. But first, we need to learn the truth about our favorite sweetener.

People Can Easily Limit Sugar Intake

OK, we need to eat less sugar. No problem. We’ll just stop eating dessert, eschew the doughnuts brought in by our colleague and pass on the Halloween candy. But — argh! — why is it so hard? Are we weak-willed babies or what? Sugar is actually an addictive substance. Animal studies show sugar consumption causes bingeing, withdrawal and craving. Regularly eating sugar also makes it easier to become addicted to another drug. When humans were studied, consuming fructose (a form of sugar) caused the brain’s reward center to light up. However, much like a drug, over time the subjects needed to consume more and more fructose for the reward center to light up as brightly [source: Lustig].

Additional research shows sugar and sweetness can actually be more addictive, rewarding and attractive than drugs such as cocaine. Seems a bit preposterous, but a possible explanation, say scientists, is humankind’s past evolutionary need to eat foods high in calories and sugar [source: Ahmed et al.].

Another problem: Sugar is added to more products than you might think – it’s in ketchup, instant oatmeal and spaghetti sauce, for starters.

Added Sugar Is Bad for You

In 2014, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends Americans slash their sugar consumption from the average 20 teaspoons (80 grams) a day to six (24 grams) for women and nine (36 grams) for men. And the group notes, added sugars are particularly worrisome. Added sugars are sugars or syrups that are tossed into our food and drink during processing or preparation. They can be natural (e.g., honey) or chemically manufactured (e.g., high fructose corn syrup). They’re troubling because they don’t provide any nutrients — just excessive calories. And they’re in more products than you might think – in ketchup, instant oatmeal and spaghetti sauce, for starters.

Yet you don’t have to nix all added sugar from your diet. Sugar may not have any nutritional value, but it can enhance the flavor of foods that do provide important nutrients, such as whole-grain cereal or yogurt. So if sprinkling some sugar over a cup of healthy, plain yogurt is the only way you’ll eat the yogurt, it’s worth it to add the sweetness. Luckily, in most instances all you need is a small amount of sugar to achieve a satisfactory taste [sources: AHA]. That’s why it’s better to buy the no-added-sugar version of the product and add a little sugar than to buy the “regular” or fully sweetened version.

Artificial Sweeteners Are Healthier Than Sugar

Many health-conscious people favor artificial sweeteners for their food, figuring they’re a better bet because they don’t contain any calories. It’s true you’re avoiding calories when you stick with artificial sweeteners, but the jury’s out on whether they’re healthier for you. The FDA deems artificial sweeteners safe, but experts say their long-term effects still aren’t known. Further, there are numerous studies that raise red flags. For example, one study performed by researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine found that if you eat artificially sweetened foods that are low in calories, it may cause you to down high-calories foods later in the day, especially if you ate the artificially sweetened stuff when you were tired or hungry. Artificial sweeteners don’t signal “energy” to the brain the way regular sugar does [sources: Alpha Galileo, Gupta].

Additionally, many people who rely on artificial sweeteners knowingly eat a little more throughout the day because they feel like they can afford to do so. After all, they’ve saved calories by opting for Splenda or Equal in their coffee or plain yogurt, so it’s fine to have that extra hamburger or serving of potatoes. In the end, it may be best to simply eat less real sugar than swap it out for artificial sweeteners [sources: Gupta, Trant].

Organic (Raw) Sugar Is Healthier Than Table Sugar

Raw sugar looks so appealing, with its light caramel hue and nuggety shape. This organic sweetener, less refined than table sugar, is found in many health-focused products — so surely it must be healthier for you. Actually, it’s not.

Both raw sugar and table sugar are derived from sugarcane, although table sugar can also come from beets. Raw sugar is created when sugarcane juice is boiled once. This leaves some molasses in the product and gives the sugar its signature golden color. Table sugar results from sugarcane juice that is boiled several times, a process that removes all of the molasses from the juice, hence its white color.

Some raw sugar boosters claim the molasses left in raw sugar contains valuable nutrients that our bodies can use. But most experts say there are only trace nutrients left — tiny amounts that have no impact on our health. And for the record: Raw sugar and refined sugar have the same number of calories. So while they’re processed differently, they’re really pretty identical [source: Butler].

Sugar-free Diets Are the Healthiest

OK, so we eat too much sugar. And artificial sweeteners or other forms of the sweet stuff, like raw sugar, aren’t any better than plain old table sugar. So maybe the answer is simply to cut all sugar out of our diets. Perhaps. But that is a complicated plan. Technically, if you were able to eliminate all sugar from your diet — meaning eating solely foods where no sugar was added during its creation or afterward — that might be the healthiest option. But if your suggested “sugar-free” diet means eating foods labeled “sugar-free,” then that won’t fly [source: Larkin].

Foods that boast of being “sugar-free” typically really aren’t. That’s because while the sugar has been yanked, it’s been replaced with an artificial sweetener. That sweetener could be the pleasant-sounding honey or agave nectar; chemical-sounding sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol; or noncaloric sweeteners like saccharin (brand-name “Sweet’N Low”) and sucralose (“Splenda”). Unfortunately, many of these alternative sweeteners are still high in carbohydrates and/or calories. And sugar alcohols are famous for causing stomachaches and diarrhea if they’re ingested in large quantities. Experts say the wisest strategy is to eat unprocessed foods, adding as little sugar as possible [sources: Joslin Diabetes Center, Larkin].

Don’t Eat Too Much (Sugary) Fruit

There’s no denying it — fruit contains sugar. A lot of it. Think of biting into a fresh, juicy peach or pear, and all of that sweet juice exploding in your mouth (or dribbling down your chin). Is it really so bad for you?

No. True, there’s a lot of sugar in fruit. But it’s natural sugar, or fructose, which is far healthier than added sugar. Fructose isn’t the only thing you’ll find in that peach or pear, though. Fruit is also filled with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients that are great for your body, helping it fight disease, stabilize your blood sugar and more. Fruit is also considered a low-density food, which means it makes you feel full and satisfied. This is a positive, because if you’re satiated, you won’t eat too much fruit, nor will you be tempted to start noshing on something else that might not be nearly as healthy (say, a chewy chocolate chip cookie). So load up on fruit with no worries [sources: Larkin, Trant].

Sugar Causes Tooth Decay

Ever go trick-or-treating at your dentist’s home as a kid, only to receive a pencil or sticker because, your dentist said, candy (sugar) will rot your teeth? Your dentist wasn’t totally wrong. If your teeth come in contact with sugary foods and drinks, decay can result. But that’s only if those sugary substances sit on your teeth for a long time. Further, your teeth can also be damaged if all sorts of other foods are in contact with them for prolonged periods — fruit, for example, or bread or oatmeal. Even healthy veggies can wreak havoc on your teeth [source: Health24]. Here’s why:

A substance called plaque is what causes cavities. Plaque starts forming on your teeth the minute you eat or drink something. If you don’t get rid of it, it will eventually erode the enamel on your teeth, creating tiny holes that are the very start of cavities. To prevent tooth decay, then, it’s best to brush your teeth after eating. Even rinsing your mouth with water can help. If you’ve eaten foods that can easily get stuck in your teeth, like raisins, dry cereal, popcorn or raspberries, a thorough job of brushing, flossing and rinsing your teeth is critical [source: Palermo].

Sugar Causes Hyperactivity

What parent of little ones hasn’t heard that eating too much sugar will cause her kids to get too keyed up, or a bit hyper? And it often seems anecdotally true. Watch as kids scarf down candy, cake and soda at a birthday party, then promptly run wild all over the place, screeching and screaming. But do we ever stop to think that maybe they’re just overstimulated by the excitement of the birthday party itself? Or ponder the fact that lots of adults pig out on sugary snacks and desserts with no similar aftereffects?

There have been extensive studies about the relationship between sugar and hyperactivity, and no link has been found between the two [source: Digitale]. A group of researchers further reviewed several reputable studies and concluded that sugar in children’s diets doesn’t affect their behavior, apart from a small subset of kids [source: Wolraich et al.]. Interestingly, another study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, asked mothers of boys whom they thought were “sugar-sensitive” to rate their sons’ behavior after they’d had soda. The mothers of the boys who’d had a sugar-filled soda thought their children’s behavior was more hyperactive than the boys who’d been given an artificially sweetened soda. The trick was that all the kids in the study had been given an artificially sweetened drink, meaning that the behavior was based on perception rather than sugar [source: Hoover and Milich].

Sugar Causes Obesity

A lot of people equate obesity with sugar: candy, ice cream, pastries and the like. If you’re fat, the thinking goes, surely it’s because you eat a lot of sugary desserts. Those a little more versed in nutrition often warn against eating too much starchy food (potatoes, rice, cereal) because your body changes starches into sugar — and eating sugar piles on the pounds. However, this is not true. If it was, people who ate a lot of rice (say, the Japanese) or pasta (the Italians) would be among the world’s fattest people. But guess what? They’re some of the slimmest [source: The McDougall Newsletter].

Here’s the thing. If you eat a lot of sugary foods, like cake and cookies, and drink sugary sodas and juice, you will gain weight. But that’s because you’re ingesting a lot of calories, period, not because sugar is inherently fattening. If your overall calorie count is within a healthy range, eating sugar is not going to create love handles or a jelly belly [source: The New York Times].

Sugar Causes Diabetes

One of the more prevalent sugar myths is that it causes diabetes. This misconception likely occurs because diabetics’ blood sugar levels are often out of whack, so they have to watch their sugar intake. But in general, there is no direct cause and effect between sugar consumption and the development of diabetes with one exception, which we’ll discuss in a minute.

There are three main types of diabetes [sources: Kids Health, Trant, WebMD]:

  1. Type 1 diabetes develops if your body’s pancreas can’t make insulin. Insulin is a hormonethat takes the sugar from the foods we eat and allows it to enter our tissues, where our body can use it as fuel, or energy.
  2. If your pancreas is making insulin, but it’s not enough or the insulin doesn’t work properly, you’ll have Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes typically occurs in people who are overweight, inactive and eat a diet high in calories from any source, not just sweets.
  3. Some pregnant women develop gestational diabetes when the hormonal changes from pregnancy affect the way their insulin works.

So what’s the exception to the sugar-diabetes linkage? People who regularly down lots of sugary drinks (sugar-sweetened soda, fruit drinks) are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. Of course, many people who guzzle sugary drinks are overweight and eat poorly, two factors that can cause Type 2, but studies show even those who are trim and eat healthily are more likely to develop diabetes if they’re also drinking lots of sugary drinks [source: Harvard School of Public Health].

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