You know the saying “if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? When it comes to “healthy” sweeteners inevitably most fall into that category.
Most people think of sugar as that sweet crystalline substance, refined from sugar cane or beet. Often referred to as “white and deadly”, table sugar is notoriously associated with tooth decay, obesity and diabetes. But there are many other types of sugars, including honey and almost anything ending in “ose”, as well as new “natural” products on the health food store shelves.
Most sugars are simple carbohydrates, which quickly break down to glucose, our basic source of energy in the body. We can also metabolize glucose from complex carbohydrates (e.g. nuts, grains and beans), fruits and vegetables. The sugars in these foods take longer to be broken down and are “slow release” forms of energy.
But there is a common source of natural sugar that doesn’t get metabolized in this way and that’s where the sugar debate starts getting very interesting.
The problem with fructose
Fructose (fruit sugar) unlike other sugars isn’t converted to glucose, instead it goes straight to the liver to be broken down. While the body can cope with a little bit of fructose being metablolised in this way, when the load is high it can actually damage the liver. For example an apple contains 7-8% fructose and 2-3% sucrose but there’s also a lot of fibre and water to slow the breakdown of the sugar. However the fructose load of some sweeteners including fruit juice concentrates, honey, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and agave nectar/syrup can be over 40%. HFCS contains 42-90% fructose but the latest “natural” sweetener agave syrup/nectar’s range is 56-92% according to Wikipedia.
While HFCS is now viewed as a significant factor in the obesity epidemic, agave syrup has been touted as both natural and healthy. In reality the two products are both high in fructose and are metabolized in the same way, potentially causing the same amount of damage in the body.
HFCS is cheaper to produce than table sugar and as a liquid it’s easily transported in tankers. It is often used as the sweetener in cheap processed foods from soft drinks (both the big brands and some boutique labels), to lollies, ice cream and baked goods. Many health experts believe the increased use of HFCS since the 1970’s is a bigger cause than dietary fats and a sedentary lifestyle in the rise of obesity and diabetes.
The fructose and liver connection is important not just because insulin is not involved in moderating this form of sugar like it does with glucose, leading to conditions like insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome but because of the damage its breakdown products cause to the liver itself. Fructose triggers uric acid production leading to gout, increases LDLs (the “bad” type of cholesterol) and can causes liver damage through “non-alcoholic fatty liver” which may eventually lead to cirrhosis. Read a transcript of this excellent ABC Health Report interview with Professor Robert Lustig to understand how this occurs.
One thing nutritionists considered a positive about fructose is it’s lower glycaemic index rating (how quickly a food breaks down to glucose). But do you really want to barter a low GI for more “bad” cholesterol, uric acid and liver damage.
While agave syrup does have a low-glycemic index, so does antifreeze — that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
You can read more about agave in my previous article.
So you don’t think you have a problem with sugar?
Even if you are avoiding HFCS, it doesn’t make regular forms of sugar a health food. You may not be ladling spoonfuls of sugar into your hot drinks or in your cooking but it’s surprising how it all adds up. Sugar has a habit of creeping into our diet in the form of healthy looking muesli bars (often containing 3 or more different forms of “natural” sweeteners) and Asian food (Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian etc cuisines is laden with the stuff). Let alone the obvious sources such as cakes, biscuits, ice cream, lollies, soft drinks, Milo, and most breakfast cereals.
Manufactured food comes with a list of ingredients but there are clever ways to obscure the amount of sugar in a product. Producers wishing to avoid sugar being the first (highest amount) on the list tend to use a variety of sweet sources. For example the first three ingredients of a popular brand of cornflakes are “corn, sugar, barley malt”. This means potentially sugar + barley malt could add up to a higher content than the corn itself.
Common forms of sugar included in foods:
• fruit concentrate
• almost anything ending in “ose”
• corn syrup
• golden syrup
• high fructose corn syrup
• rice syrup
• maple syrup
• agave syrup/nectar
And let’s not forget alcohol. Wine buffs are familiar with the term “residual sugars”, yes wine and some forms of alcohol are a source of sugar.
As a society we are hooked on sweetness. Sugar, like alcohol, is linked to celebrations and lifting our moods. But consumed on a daily basis we actually become addicted to the stuff. If you have even an average amount of sugar in your diet, going cold turkey can cause withdrawal symptoms, though not dangerous they are annoying at least and debilitating at most. Kate Swoboda wrote a great account on her blog of her withdrawals from sugar and it’s an eye-opening read.
Artificial sweeteners have a checkered history and it’s a testament to consumer pressure that they ever got approval for use as a food. Any sweet product that boasts being “sugar free” or “diet” is likely to contain one of these sweeter than sugar chemicals. They also are sneaking in to toothpaste and chewing gum. These articles on health concerns about artificial sweeteners are worth a read to help you make an informed choice.
The naturopathic approach is to train your palate to enjoy a wider variety of flavours, rather than seek alternative sources of sugar. For more information read my article on how to break the sugar cycle.
* Thanks to all the callers to the show today. I’m sorry we couldn’t take all the calls as we ran overtime. To the listener who wanted more information on fructose malabsorption I’ll post an article on the subject soon but in the meantime you might find this fact sheet useful.