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.
For most of us, the occasional bout of hyperglycemia will go without notice. The problem is that as we’ve been consuming more sugar, research is increasingly indicating that we are, essentially, eating ourselves into chronic hyperglycemia. This isn’t a minor issue: Sustained hyperglycemia can damage tissues across your body from your limbs to your eyes. It may increase your body’s insulin resistance, which can set the stage for diabetes. Some experts even believe it might play a role in Alzheimer’s.
Ironically, sugar intake might also be worse for our health than the saturated fats we were trying to get out of our diets in the first place, although fat doesn’t get to escape all of the blame. It even appears that a high-sugar diet can increase your level of LDL, or bad cholesterol, although research is still ongoing.
Then, of course, there’s diabetes. Contrary to popular belief, the link between sugar consumption and diabetes is still controversial, but the link between obesity and diabetes is well-established. And the fact that added sugars are empty calories is public knowledge, so it’s not hard to draw a line between the two. It doesn’t really matter how you put on the pounds, in the end, but sugar definitely plays a role, and the more empty calories you eat, the more your body needs a place to store them.
Why didn’t we know this, back when we began working corn syrup into every industrial recipe? We may have. In September, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a historical study which revealed that the sugar industry was becoming aware of these problems in the 1950s. Their response was to fund studies that emphasized the role of fat in bad health while downplaying sugar’s role, failing to disclose funding or research support from the sugar industry, for these studies. As sugar takes over the food villain role, fats — particularly polyunsaturated fats like olive oil — have everyone excited again. (That said, this doesn’t mean you can wrap everything in bacon; too much fat, particularly saturated fats, still seems to play a role to play in your overall health, something researchers will be looking at for years.)
Sugar is also hitting you in the wallet, thanks to a Depression-era policy and common right-wing talking point, the sugar subsidy. Essentially, the US government artificially raises the price of sugar in the US with a mix of price controls, limits on how much supply can hit the market, and tariffs on imported sugar. Which means, in turn, if sugar is added to your food, the cost of that higher price is passed on along to you in any food that uses free sugars. In other words, that donut we had for breakfast is more expensive than it would be, because the baker had to pay more for the sugar in it than it would be priced at in a free market.
What about artificial sweeteners, like the ones found in Diet Coke? They have their own problems, and may raise the risk of diabetes by interfering with gut bacteria. That said, there is work to reduce sugar in foods without reformulating recipes; Nestle has developed a “super sugar” that can be used in confections, but not sweetened drinks. It basically cheats the molecule, making it into a Trojan Horse. And, of course, there’s still a lot of research to do. Many of the issues being discussed (artificial sweeteners, for example) were discovered only recently.
Sugar has a role in our health and our society that’s increasingly looking more complex than it really should be. Will it disappear from the food landscape? Obviously not. We have the right to indulge from time to time. But don’t be surprised to see dessert sizes shrink. Your next creme brûlée might come in a shot glass rather than a ramekin.
If you’d like to cut it out of your diet without waiting for chefs to do it for you, the WHO recommends that 10% or less of your food intake come from free sugars, ideally 5% or less for the most benefit. New labelling thanks to Michelle Obama can help you navigate that. The decrease may be hard for some of us to stomach, but if we don’t get our sugar jones under control, the consequences to our health, our economy, and our overall well-being might be bitter indeed.