Much of the sugar consumption comes from
sweeteners added to the food we make and buy, it is not misleading to
describe sugar as the number one food additive.
DEFINITIONS The word "sugar"
actually applies to more than a hundred substances that qualify as
"sweet" - including honey, corn syrup and molasses. The most
basic of all sugars are fructose and glucose - the so- called "simple"
sugar molecules (meaning only six carbon atoms) made by the green
leaves of plants using energy from sunlight with water and carbon
dioxide as raw materials. Remember that photosynthesis equation
we all had to learn in school? From these basic building blocks,
more complex sugars and carbohydrates are made and consumed by both
animals and man.
When most people speak of sugar, they
are referring to sucrose, a 12-carbon molecule resulting from the
linkage of glucose to fructose; sucrose is the sugar that is
ultimately obtained from sugarcane or beets and refined to the white
granules on our tables. The consumption of sucrose has remained
stable for many years, just under 100 pounds per year per person in a
country. However, the use of sugars derived from corn starch
(corn syrup, corn sugar, corn sweetener) has jumped dramatically in
the past thirty years from an estimated 13 pounds per person to over
30 pounds recently. In other words, most of the increase in
sugar consumption in a country in recent times has come in the form of
sugars not usually identified as "sugar" but, in terms of sweetness
and calories, very much the same as table sugar (sucrose).
Indeed, this lack of precision in
defining "sugar" on labels makes it difficult for the average consumer
to know how much sugar he is getting in the food he buys. In
reading labels, it is important to remember that all carbohydrate
sweeteners qualify as sugar, even though they may be called by other
Ordinary table sugar (sucrose)
is, as mentioned, derived from sugarcane or beet plants. In
initial stages of processing, the juice obtained from the cane is
separated into raw sugar (crystals) and molasses
(syrup). Raw sugar is banned because of impurities such as
insect parts and bacteria; white refined sugar, which results from
several additional stages of raw sugar processing, is "safer" if not
more "healthy." Brown sugar consists of sugar crystals coated
with molasses syrup; in some countries, most of it is made by spraying
refined white sugar with molasses syrup. Honey varies in
composition depending on its nectar source, but it is essentially a
mixture of simple sugars, mostly fructose. Maple sugar
and syrup are, of course, derived from the sap of the maple tree and
consist largely of sucrose. The various corn sweeteners
are derived from corn starch and are composed mainly of dextrose,
maltose and more complex sugars.
The important point to be made is that
all these sugars are essentially the same in that they consist largely
of calories with very little else of nutritional value. There
may be minor differences between various sugars in terms of minimal
nutrients or sweetening power per calorie, but these differences are
Is Sugar bad for us? Given the
discussion thus far, you might be surprised to be reminded that blood
sugar (glucose) is absolutely essential to the body's cells as an
energy source. Indeed, almost all of the sugars and more complex
carbohydrates we eat are processed, at least in part, into glucose by
our bodies. A metabolic system of elegant precision maintains
the amount of glucose in the blood within a relatively narrow normal
range; excess amounts are stored in the liver as glycogen or (the bad
news) converted into fats to be stored you-know-where. Although
some sugar in our blood is essential to life, that "blood sugar" can
be obtained from almost any source - including fruits and vegetables.
So we might as well pick up some other useful nutrients (minerals,
vitamins) along with the calories. It is not even necessary to
rely on commercial sugar products for so-called "quick energy", for
unless we have been on a prolonged fast, our body stores of glycogen
can be quickly converted to blood sugar to meet any sudden demand.
Also, the inherent sweetness of sugar tempts us to eat more calories
than we otherwise would.
In addition to this basic
"empty-calorie" problem, sugar products may be associated with
other health problems. There is a firm link between sugar
exposure and tooth decay though individual resistance and manner of
exposure (constant caramels versus sugar with meals quickly brushed
away), can make an enormous difference. Any causative role of
sugar in diabetes is far from certain - though it may contribute
indirectly via obesity. The same can be said of heart disease,
possible indirect contributions.
In summary, most of us need some sweets
in our lives. The question, as always, is one of balance - in
our diet and on the scale.