The truth about sugar…
15th June 2012
Thursdays nights at home are not normally that exciting in the I Love Greens household, especially when half the number is out having fun! However, this Thursday I got totally overexcited when watching ‘The Men Who Made us Fat’ on BBC 2. Finally a programme on TV, reaching the mainstream explaining one, if not the, biggest food problem we have today – sugar consumption. Jacques Peretti is an investigative journalist and in the first of three episodes he travelled to America to investigate the story of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). If you didn’t catch the programme I strongly recommend you click here and watch it – it will change the way you think about food.
Now there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of HFCS but don’t worry you’re not alone! One look in your kitchen and you’ll very quickly realise that it is everywhere – and the reason? It’s cheap and it’s super sweet – two fantastic ways for food manufacturers to get us to eat more of their product. Perhaps it’s best to start with a little explanation as to what sugar is – so here is the science…..
There are lots of different sugars which are either made up of one (monosaccharide) or two (disaccharide) molecules. Table sugar, or sucrose, is only one such sugar. This chart helps to explain:
|Fructose (Monosaccharide)||Found in fruits & vegetables|
|Glucose (Monosaccharide)||The sugar we refer to in the blood. Often found in sports drink/gels|
|Galactose (Monosaccharide)||Dairy products and certain forms of soluble fibre|
|Sucrose (Disaccharide)Glucose + Fructose||The sugar most commonly used as food|
|Maltose (Disaccharide)2 x Glucose||Germinating grains, pistachios, sweet potatoes and various fruits|
|Lactose (Disaccharide)Glucose + Galactose||Milk and other dairy products|
Sugars join together to form polysaccharides or starch (think bread, cereal, pasta etc.) – which is probably what you think of when referring to carbohydrates.
HFCS is a sweetener – a highly processed mix of glucose and fructose. It also provides much more ‘free’ fructose than would normally be found in food (particularly fruits which also contain essential nutrients and fibre). Many people believe that HFCS is metabolised differently to other sugars, tending to be converted into triglycerides (fats found in the blood and a common marker of cardiovascular disease risk). Others believe the problem relates to the ubiquitous presence of HFCS in so many foods and the overall increased consumption of sugars/carbohydrates. Either way this refined sweetener is being linked to the massive increase in obesity over the last decade. In 2009, almost a quarter of adults (22 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women aged 16 or over) were classed as obese. Obesity can lead to diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke and osteoarthritis and by 2030 over 50% of us can look forward to the prospect of these diseases as obesity levels soar.
For too long the focus has been on fat as the ultimate food nasty and as a result sales of ‘fat free’ and ‘diet’ products have soared. Certain weight loss programmes even make their own branded ‘diet’ meals and snacks (check the ingredients list, although you might get bored halfway through!). But if you take the fat out you have to replace it with something else, and that something? Sugar or artificial sweeteners (a blog post for another time!) or HFCS added by the bucket load to everything you can think of.
If the long terms health consequences of excess sugar consumption aren’t enough to put you off, what about that 4 p.m. slump that you get every afternoon, leading you straight to the biscuit tin (and ultimately to M&S for a bigger pair of trousers)? The shakes, tiredness, anxiety, irritation, cravings that you get because your body’s blood sugar levels are all over the place due to the amount of sugar you unwittingly pile into it every day!
The problem with sugar and refined carbohydrates is that they are rapidly digested and released into the blood stream as glucose. This causes a quick spike in blood sugar levels. The body responds by producing the hormone insulin to move the glucose out of the blood and into cells to be used for energy (any excess sugar is stored as FAT). But because of the quick rise in levels the body panics and produces too much insulin, causing the blood sugar levels to drop too low – this is known as reactive hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) – and this is when you get all those symptoms listed above. Now if you switch out the refined carbohydrates and sugar for a balance of protein, healthy fats and a smaller amount of complex (unrefined, wholegrain) carbohydrates you slow down digestion and help to balance the blood sugar levels. It’s that simple!
So thank you BBC 2 for finally bringing the truth about sugar to the public – now to change the eating habits of a nation!
Take a look at the packaging on your food today and let me know where those hidden sugars and HFCS are hiding……
 To give some background, Ancel Keys was the American scientist who decided that cholesterol and saturated fat were linked to heart disease (and then spent the rest of his life trying to prove his theory!) and encouraged everyone to switch to low fat, high carbohydrate diets. At the same time another British scientist, John Yudkin, was arguing in his book ‘Pure, White and Deadly’ that sugar and refined sweeteners were linked with heart disease (by raising blood triglycerides) and type 2 diabetes (by raising insulin levels). Unfortunately Yudkin’s findings were discredited and the focus was firmly put on removing fat from products to make them ‘heart healthy’. And so the fat free revolution started.