In a recent post, What Did Our Ancestors Really Eat, we detailed the changing food climate and how different our diets are today than they were just 100 years ago. One of the biggest differences in our diets, caused by both modern-day food processing and fast food, is the introduction of sugar into a large percentage of the food we consume.
With the invention of canned and boxed foods came the commercialization of many familiar brands that America relies on. It’s not just sweet foods like cookies, cakes, yogurt, and fruit drinks that are carrying added sugar but savory foods, as well. Products like pasta sauces, salad dressings, breads, crackers, and even peanut butter all have varying amounts of sugar. The list is more extensive than we can detail here; the point being that sugar has a presence in nearly every part of every meal in the standard American diet.
In order to produce consistent quality on a mass scale, often to meet global consumption needs, many companies will cut corners. They use less flavorful (but cheaper) fats and oils or they may use ingredients that are either grown in a lab or worse, not even ripe at the time of processing. Adding sugar to the product helps to compensate for the corners they cut by upping the flavor quotient. Sugar is pleasing to the palette and can help make the most mediocre of foods taste good to many people. This change to our diet has had a profound impact on the expectations we have in relation to food and flavor. Many have the mindset, “if it isn’t sweetened, it doesn’t taste good” and they don’t even realize it.
An increasing trend in cutting corners among food producers is in the use of refined or processed sugars. These concentrated, chemically-altered forms of sugar are much cheaper to produce than pure cane sugar and thanks to modern science, they often pack a sweeter “punch” with a smaller portion, stretching a company’s dollars even further. Commonly used refined sugars can be found labeled as: dextrose, maltodextrin, glucose, sucrose, crystalline fructose, and high fructose corn syrup. And although they are often marketed as “safe,” the impact on our health is profound.
To understand the effect that regular consumption of refined sugars has on our bodies, a simple understanding of the chemical makeup of these sugars is needed. Naturally-occurring sugars like cane sugar or honey are composed of a tightly bound chemical makeup, primarily glucose and fructose in a nearly 1:1 ratio. To metabolize these sweeteners, the body must first break down the two sugars before absorbing them. This process, along with the fact that they are not primarily fructose (much sweeter than other forms), allows for a slower rise in insulin levels in the body. Consuming simple sugars, or sugars in an unbound form like glucose and fructose, causes a greater insulin spike because the metabolic process has begun before the food even hits our mouth. Frequent high insulin spikes leads to a condition called insulin resistance, where the body’s cells begin to fail to respond to the production of insulin. Insulin resistance is a precursor to metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes (1).
This metabolic process explains the problems with one of the most popular sweeteners on store shelves today: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is made through a sophisticated laboratory process, yielding a sweetener that is higher in fructose and lower in glucose than pure cane sugar. Another important difference being that the fructose and glucose are not chemically bound together, resulting in extremely quick absorption by the body and a correspondingly greater insulin spike. This impact on the body is shown to decrease satiety and contribute to weight gain (2).
Finally, diets high in sugars that are primarily fructose like HFCS, crystalline fructose, and even agave nectar (55-97% fructose, depending on the brand) can also be damaging. Fructose is treated by the body via the liver in a process called lipogenesis, or the conversion of the sweetener into fatty acids like LDL cholesterol. The greater amounts of fructose consumed, the higher your LDL cholesterol levels will spike. High LDL cholesterol levels are associated with obesity (3), elevated blood pressure (4), fatty liver disease (5), and diabetes.
It’s important to note that even products marketed as “healthy” or “natural” use other highly-concentrated forms of sugar like brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, and fruit juice concentrates. Reducing your overall sugar consumption, particularly the forms listed in this article, will not only curb sugar cravings overall but will directly decrease your risk of developing diet-related illnesses that are common in today’s society due to our changing food climate. Read your labels and watch your serving size for products you consume with these ingredients. And when in doubt, make your own at home! Our Recipe Index has numerous recipes for condiments, dressings, meals, and desserts using low amounts of natural sugars.
- Metabolic Syndrome as a Precursor to Cardiovascular Disease and Type 2 Diabetes, American Heart Association, 2005: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/112/20/3066.full
- Consumption of HFCS in Beverages May Play a Role in the Epidemic of Obesity, The American Clinical Journal of Nutrition, 2004: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/79/4/537.full
- Fructose Overconsumption Causes Dyslipidemia and Ectopic Depositions…, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/6/1760.full
- A Causal Role for Uric Acid in Fructose-Induced Metabolic Syndrome, American Journal of Physiology, 2006: http://ajprenal.physiology.org/content/290/3/F625
- Fructose-Induced Fatty Liver Disease, American Heart Association, 2005: http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/45/5/1012.full