As 2017 begins, we’re all focused on our health. We’re hitting the gym, putting down the booze, and looking closely at what we eat. For a lot of people that involves looking at, among other things, sugar intake. Books like the The Case Against Sugar are climbing the bestseller charts, we’ve been talking about high-fructose corn syrup and its problems for years, and people are finally examining just where sugar fits into a balanced diet.
As we start a new health journey in 2017, here’s what to know about the other white powder.
First off, we need to be specific here about the difference between the sugar you’re thinking about, namely the sugar that’s added to food after it’s made, aka free sugars, and sugars that naturally appear in your food. Sugars are the simplest form of carbohydrates, and as a result they’re found in just about everything from vegetables to meat. When we eat sugars, they get broken down into glucose and our pancreas creates insulin with whatever’s left stored in the liver and the muscles for later use. Remember, as far as our genetics are concerned, we’re still fighting bears for spacious three-room caves on a regular basis, so we’re geared to find, eat, and store the sweetest stuff possible for when we really need it. It’s why chocolate ganache tastes so good; because high-sugar and high-fat foods are rare in the wild, so our body demands more of them.
The problem, of course, is that these days most of us only hunt and forage in the grocery aisle, so we don’t need to carbo-load like our ancestors did. Alas, our tastebuds haven’t evolved; we still seek out sugar and fat. With, say, an apple, that’s not really a big deal; your average apple has roughly ten to twenty grams of fructose, but it also has fiber, which keeps you fuller for a longer time, vitamins, a little protein and is low in bad fats with no cholesterol. Compare that to the nutritional value of a handful of Hershey Kisses, which have a few grams more of sugar but less nutritional value overall.
That became a particular problem in the 1960s, when it became clear that eating too much fat, especially saturated fat, was potentially killing us. So, to ensure low-fat foods still tasted good, food companies began using sugars like high-fructose corn syrup.
That tactic had a downside that only slowly became clear, however. The simpler a carbohydrate is, the less time it takes for the body to break down (each food’s “glycemic index”). Likely the GI of a food is familiar to you from infomercials, but it’s been a tool for diabetics to work out their diets for years. Foods with a high glycemic index raise your blood sugar faster, something diabetics have to keep an eye on.