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April 2, 2013 / TracyRysavy

Is Sugar a Poison?

While experts recommend that women limit themselves to 6 tsp. of added sugars and men to 9 tsp., one measly Cinnabon contains 13 tsp.

While experts recommend that women limit themselves to 6 tsp. of added sugars and men to 9 tsp., one Cinnabon-brand cinnamon roll contains 13 tsp.

Several weeks ago, the Green American editorial staff started researching an issue theme centered on sugar. With the labor abuse in the sugar industry and the fact that much of the sugar sold in the US comes from genetically modified sugar beets, we thought we’d have plenty of social and environmental problems to cover. We knew that science has long been establishing links between sugar and obesity and type 2 diabetes. But what we were surprised to discover was just how serious of an impact sugar is having on human health.

So we shifted our focus to look more closely at those health impacts in the April/May 2013 issue of the Green American, and the results were much worse than we’d expected.

America has a sugar problem, says Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco, in part because “our brains light up for sugar the way they do for cocaine.”

The American Heart Association recommends that women eat only 30 grams (6 teaspoons) and men consume 45 grams (9 teaspoons) of added sugars per day for good health. However, here in the US, the average person eats over 108 grams—or 22 teaspoons—of added sugars per day.

What is this sugar overload doing?

It might not surprise many of you that study after study has linked consumption of sugar—or, more accurately, the sweet fructose in sugar—to “metabolic syndrome,” a set of risk factors that together increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and stroke.

But new studies are coming out that pinpoint fructose as a primary cause of type 2 diabetes and a possible cause of Alzheimer’s (a link so strong the scientists who uncovered it are calling the brain disease “type 3 diabetes”) and cancer.  Add in the fact that much of the sugar on US store shelves comes from genetically modified sugar beets, and there are just too many potential risks associated with sugar consumption to ignore. (For more on the risks of genetically modified organisms, see select articles from our “Frankenfood” issue of the Green American.)

For more details on these links, see the upcoming issue of the Green American, “Sickeningly Sweet,” which should hit your mailboxes at the end of the month. (To subscribe, click here.)

The links are so frightening that Green America associate editor Martha van Gelder and I decided to get sugar out of our lives.

I know I have a sugar problem. Whenever I’m under stress, I tend to eat, and more often than not, I reach for sugar—probably thanks to the number of warm and comforting childhood memories I have around sweet food. There’s my mother’s chocolate chip cookies and pull-apart caramel bread. My grandmother’s apricot rolls and hard-as-a-rock-but-oh-so-good Christmas Bread. My aunt in Honduras making me a cinnamon, sugar, and milk concoction called poleada when I got homesick on a long visit in my teens. Summertime popsicles and winter hot chocolate. The list goes on and on.

So I’m starting slow, reading labels and limiting myself to the AHA’s recommended 30 grams of added sugar for women. Martha went cold turkey off of sugar. And online editor Andrew Korfhage has never been a big sugar eater, but he’s careful to make his overall diet as local, organic, and Fair Trade as possible., to avoid genetically modified organisms and avoid exploiting workers around the world. He also uses one of the best-option sugar substitutes we identified in the Green American: local and organic honey.

Every Tuesday and Thursday this month, Martha, Andrew, and I will be blogging about the social, environmental, and health problems associated with sugar and our attempts to limit it in our diets. (Or detox from it, in my case.) We may even have a couple of experts, including a holistic nutritionist, join us to offer advice.

What’s your relationship with sugar? Hate it? Consume it in moderation? Or do you, like me, have a sugar problem? What tips do you have to limit the amount of sugar in your diet?

39 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. El_boricua_atrevido / Apr 2 2013 11:38 am

    I don’t think I have a sugar problem, but the cravings for a Coke often surface, and one is enough I suppose to satisfy the recommended daily consumption, if I don’t eat the rest of the day (an idiot notion). Since processed foods, the NYC Commissioner of Health informs, are the primary culprit of overconsumption of salt (and sugars from corn), it would appear that the problem of toxic food and poor health is a structural societal problem WE create with our inability to confront the behavioral factors that drive our eating habits. I am no friend of the processed food industry, but they are not to blame (and I am suggesting you’re doing that) for our diet related health dilemmas as much as we are for our response to the supply of foods that kill us. It’s a two street: we create the demand for the toxic food, even if out of ignorance or willful denial. Of course, government also has to stop being in the pocket of the processed food industry; and again WE are responsible for that to happen. Since the average person cannot possibly maintain a memory bank of do’s and don’ts regarding food choices, our best strategy (for those willing to be informed) is the old saying “everything is good” in moderation with a reasonable consumption of fresh vegetables and plenty of fruits (that are in season), and an occasional piece of poultry and fish.

    I have no trouble resisting my Coke cravings and have found that I can no longer drink a 12 ounce can of Coke. I also enjoy my single malt scotches now and then – don’t care what the doctors say, it’s great for the heart. My ramblings are simply to point out that all these single cause warnings, yours included as much as I appreciated the information, are of limited value since most of the country has been conditioned to eat voluminously. Education is the answer, of course, but it has to start in kindergarten – by the time baby is a mom or dad it’s too late to stop that train to the town of the walking dead.

  2. Linda Eatenson / Apr 2 2013 1:01 pm

    I’ve read that in the primitive world, nothing sweet was poisonous, so we could rely on a sweet taste to signal safe nutrition. Obviously not so in the modern world, but it’s a hard response to overcome. Sugar today is not sugar as we found it 12,000 years ago. Or even 2,000 years ago. Or 200 years ago. I disagree that “everything is good” in moderation. Many substances will kill us (mercury, lye, lead, arsenic, certain plants, mushrooms, etc.) no matter how moderate we are. I do agree that we participate in the proliferation of lousy food choices…but there are social and economic causes that are driving this bus. And it’s headed over the cliff.

    • TracyRysavy / Apr 2 2013 1:30 pm

      Linda, that’s so interesting about sugar’s history–it makes sense that sugar hundreds of years ago was different from what we have today. In Dr. Robert Lustig’s book Fat Chance, he says that our ancestors only had fruit at harvest time, in many cases, so they had to stock up and increase their “adiposity” (i.e. fat stores) for the lean winter months. So sugar’s lurehad a purpose–and the main avenues of sugar, fruits, also contained fiber that offset unhealthy blood sugar spikes. Now that our weight gain doesn’t need to go up and down with the seasons anymore for survival, and now that sugary foods are everywhere all the time, we’ve gone out of whack with our sugar habits!

  3. TracyRysavy / Apr 2 2013 1:21 pm

    I’m glad you chimed in, El Boriqua. I do agree with you that we are largely the captains of our own ships when it comes to our food choices, and much of avoiding sugar has to do with simply having the willpower to do so. As a working mom, I know that reaching for convenience foods can often be tempting—to satisfy one’s own hunger and to get a quick meal on the table for the family.
    The sorry thing about convenience foods is that they’re largely overloaded with salt, sugar, and/or fat to entice customers into eating them. I’ll be blogging about Michael Moss’s book Salt, Sugar, and Fat in a future entry this month, but what he has to say about how the processed food industry tries to induce cravings by relying on these three “bad boy ingredients,” as he calls them, is a bit maddening. If the industry focused on customer health rather than customer pocketbooks, we’d all certainly be better off. But they label things as “all-natural” and “wholesome” when they are unhealthy, and that’s on them.
    And when it comes to low-income communities—often communities of color—that are located in “food deserts,” they often don’t have access to a grocery store with fresh food and rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants that are within walking distance.
    So to me, it’s a combination: We absolutely must take charge of our health and make better choices. Buying local, organic, healthy, and whole food has to be a priority for those of us who can afford it. And society has a responsibility, I feel, to help those who don’t have easy or affordable access to this food to get access.
    But do I wish companies would focus more on health rather than just money when creating their convenience foods? Yes. Do I wish their labeling wasn’t deceptive? Yes. I think it would make a big difference–perhaps not as much for the Green America readers who are so educated on these issues, but certainly for society as a whole.

  4. Jim McGowan / Apr 2 2013 3:45 pm

    Very timely. I just started looking at the grams of sugar in the items I eat. I too believe that my 35-40 extra pounds are because of sugar and I also believe that sugar is poisoning us slowly. It is the legal cocaine of our times.

    • TracyRysavy / Apr 2 2013 4:06 pm

      Jim, I hope you’ll come back this month and share any tips to help ease the sugar detox. I know I can use them! :)

  5. Alice Mosley / Apr 2 2013 4:57 pm

    Thank you for raising the issue of sugar overdose in our time. I never had a serious sweet tooth, but did love desserts and fresh fruit. However, a few years ago, I was struck down with Type 1 Diabetes, and now have banished it from my diet completely (Sadly, “Good-bye Scharffenberger’s Chocolate!” but “Hello! Divine’s 85% Dark Chocolate” – Fair Trade and support to small organic African cooperative farmers).

    I have also given up much of the grain, which I learned, turns into glucose in your bloodstream. Wheat and corn are heavily subsidized, and hence much cheaper and easily available than healthier alternatives.

    • TracyRysavy / Apr 3 2013 11:48 am

      Alice, I’m sorry about your diabetes, but so glad you can still enjoy good dark chocolate! Thanks for making it Fair Trade.

  6. Kit GearhartSchinske / Apr 2 2013 5:28 pm

    I’ll be joining you on that sugar detox. I have detoxed from sugar several times and often allow myself sugary, starchy, grain filled treats around the holidays and special occasions. It usually takes me a couple of weeks, sometimes a month or two to get back on track and stop consuming sugar and banish it from my house. My family is currently suffering from an Easter candy hangover. Most of this candy came from the grandparents. We’re all short tempered and sluggish. About 90% of our candy was sent with my husband to work yesterday. The kids were devastated.

    Now that I know there are others out there currently detoxing with me, it will make it easier to get it out of my house and my body faster. I find that for me, if I make myself a smoothie (raw greens, celery, pea protein powder, chlorella or spirulina or raw veg powder, frozen berries, and unsweetened coconut or almond milk) for breakfast that I can ease through my sugar cravings. Other snack ideas are: apple slices with raw almond butter and medjool dates with soaked & dehydrated pecans or walnuts. I can’t allow myself the medjool dates on a regular basis because they are so good and defeat the purpose of retraining your taste buds to not want that sugar regularly.

    Good luck to you. Can’t wait to read the article and blog posts.

    • Richard D / Apr 3 2013 1:02 am

      I have almost kicked the habit of all sugars that includes HIGH Fructose corn syrup. Yes you have guessed it…I am type 2 diabetic. If you need a sweetner in anything you eat or drink…USE STEVIA! You can pick it up at whole foods or Miery’s.

      • TracyRysavy / Apr 3 2013 11:54 am

        Richard, I do often use stevia in my tea, but there are some troubling studies from independent sources (i.e. not the sugar industry) that have given me pause. That’s going to be one of my upcoming topics–I need to look more into that. In the upcoming Green American, we recommended at least limiting stevia. Organic (and local) honey and sugar alcohols like xylitol were best-options in moderation. (Xylitol can cause stomach upset in some people if you eat more than 20 grams, and honey contains fructose.)

    • TracyRysavy / Apr 3 2013 11:52 am

      Kit, the smoothie idea is one I’m embracing. My blender needs a new part, but as soon as that comes in, it’ll be Smoothie City around here! (No juicing, so the sugar-balancing fiber stays put.) Glad you’ll be joining us! A new favorite site of mine is the Detoxinista’s blog (detoxinista.com). In her favorite recipes on the right side of the page, she has a chocolate-peanut butter smoothie that’s extremely light on the fructose and pure heaven. It only contains a little honey, frozen bananas, (Fair Trade) cocoa, almond milk, and peanut butter, and you can easily throw in spinach or other greens without jacking up the flavor. Glad to have you joining us!

      • Linda Eatenson / Apr 3 2013 11:59 am

        This is really useless until we identify which sugar, from what sources, processed or not, etc., etc. It sounds like most comments are assuming white table sugar, probably from GM beets, and the occasional mention of high fructose corn syrup probably from GM corn. The word “sugar” has not been defined in these comments. Sloppy. Even Stevia has not been well-tested. Good grief!

    • TracyRysavy / Apr 3 2013 12:07 pm

      Linda, I do specify in the post–it’s fructose that’s causing the health problems. Fructose is present in white table sugar and raw sugar; whether it’s from sugar beets or sugar cane doesn’t affect the fructose level, which is 50 percent. High-fructose corn syrup has only slightly more fructose in it at 55 percent, so it’s roughly equivalent in terms of fructose-related health problems. The GM sugar beets and GM corn syrup compound the problem, but the GM factor doesn’t affect the fructose. We’re much clearer about all of this in the upcoming Green American issue, where we have more space.

      We’ll talk about alternatives in a future blog this month and in the issue, but long story short, organic, local honey still has fructose, but less than table sugar–40 percent. It also has beneficial minerals. But because of the fructose, you still have to consume it in moderation. Sugar alcohols like xylitol have no fructose, but they can cause stomach upset in large quantities, so the standard recommendation is to limit them to 20 grams.

  7. Linda Eatenson / Apr 3 2013 12:00 pm

    PS: The notion that “all sugars behave the same in your body” is simply not borne out by research or experience.

  8. Martha / Apr 3 2013 8:48 pm

    Tracy and Linda — you two are spot on. The other day I was reading the nutrition info on plain yogurt and was surprised by the sugar content. I had to remind myself that it was lactose being counted in the sugar content, and while lactose is a sugar, it’s going to affect me differently than fructose.

    While you’re waiting for the magazine to arrive, here’s an interesting table on the comparative sweetness of different types of sugar + sugar alcohols: http://www.dansukker.co.uk/uk/about-sugar/types-of-sugar.aspx

  9. Erica Etelson / Apr 10 2013 12:45 am

    I find that a xylitol mint (I like Spry) after a meal helps me resist sweets. And kombucha too (though it does have a tiny bit of sugar still in it after fermentation).

  10. Maria / Apr 19 2013 2:59 pm

    The problem with fructose is the way it is metabolized in the liver. The way it needs to be handled is similar to the treatment alcohol needs. (This is what I learned listening to Robert Lustig who you referenced in the original post.) Fructose is a component of sucrose (table sugar), high fructose corn syrup and….fruit. The fructose in fruit comes in a package including fiber. The fiber slows down the digestion and your liver doesn’t get hit with it all a once like it does with the processed forms. Just like we ideally don’t overwhelm our liver with alcohol, we would do well to have some consideration for it as well with fructose.

    Aside from that, sugar in general is an addictive substance for many of us (myself included) – regardless of the source. Tracy, the key for me is avoiding dips in my blood sugar. When it goes low, I really crave sugar. Eating plenty of protein and fat helps me keep my blood sugar steady. Some people advocate eating frequently. You can also eat sweet vegetables like sweet potatoes and butternut squash to satisfy that urge to enjoy sweet. As you wean yourself from processed sugar, you will be surprised at how you start noticing how sweet other foods are. Even kale can have a certain sweetness to it.

    • R. Dalka / Apr 19 2013 11:09 pm

      And if you really need a sweetener use Stevia

  11. Sherry / Apr 23 2013 10:47 pm

    I just read the article on alternative sweeteners. I think it is important for readers to know that aspartame is derived from genetically modified e.coli bacteria and that neotame is basically “super-aspartame,” meaning that it, too, is derived from GMOs.

    • Rich / Apr 23 2013 11:56 pm

      Yes, I agree all alternative sweeteners are man made and are shown to be toxic. There is one sweetener that I have researched thoroughly and that is STEVIA which is not man made, not toxic and not bad for you at all. But do remember everything should be taken in moderation and not overused.

  12. S Rice / May 21 2013 2:37 am

    What are you folks eating for breakfast, other than the smoothies mentioned above?

    • R. Dalka / May 22 2013 11:31 pm

      I am not eating smoothies for breakfast. I sometimes eat a piece of toast or a small bowl of cheerios

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Trackbacks

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