What a Sweet World It is!

Courtesy of WayHomeStudio

If you are like me, you like a little sweetness in your life. Unfortunately, consuming too much sugar can have numerous adverse effects on the body.  It can can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation, both of which are a pathway straight to heart disease. Health experts agree that we should monitor our sugar intake, specifically the added sugar. In other words, the additional sugar you add to make your food taste sweeter – whether it’s the honey you drizzle on your yogurt or the sugar you add in your coffee. 

Understanding Sugars

There are two types of sugars:  natural or added.  Natural sugar is sugar that occurs naturally in whole, unprocessed foods (like fruits).  Added sugars are ones added to foods during processing, cooking, or when consuming.

These added sugars come in many forms: chemical-based sweeteners, processed sugars, syrups, nectars, honey, and juices.   The selection is vast, and it is often difficult to decide which one is the best to use.  Some are better for you than others, and with some, when consumed in large amounts, the potential risks are astounding! 

When understanding sugars, you have to consider a few things.  First, glucose, fructose, and sucrose.    Glucose is a simple sugar that is a monosaccharide (a type of carbohydrate). Fructose is a type of simple sugar that makes up 50% of table sugar (sucrose).  Sucrose is composed of one molecule of glucose plus one of fructose joined together.  It is produced naturally in plants, and it is from here that refining of sugar takes place.  One or a combination of all three is in most sugars, and each has adverse effects.

Next, consider the antioxidant capacity.  Sugars are processed and refined in different ways.  The ones that are the least processed or refined tend to have higher contents of minerals and plant compounds.  These compounds increase antioxidant capacity, which reduces cell damage in the body that can cause several chronic diseases.

Finally, when talking about sugar, you need to look at the glycemic index (GI).  The glycemic index is a concept to compare how carbohydrates in foods raise blood sugar levels over two hours.  Why is this important?  Different types of sugars raise the amount of sugar in our blood at different rates after being consumed.  Low glycemic foods help you feel full longer and help you keep blood sugar even.  By minimizing spikes in your blood sugar and insulin levels, you can control your weight. Keeping your sugar level even is particularly important if you have type 2 diabetes or are at risk of developing it. Low-glycemic diets help to reduce risks for cancer, heart disease, and other conditions.

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Let’s Talk About Sugar

Refined Sugars

The most popular type of sweetener in the world is white sugar (also called table sugar).  White sugar is the final product of processing or refining sugarcane or beet.  During the processing, moisture, minerals, and compounds that give the plant its color are removed, resulting in white, refined sugar.  Interestingly enough, a by-product containing the compounds is molasses.

The second type of sugar is cane sugar that is extracted directly from sugarcane.  Unlike white sugar, it still contains a relatively small amount of vitamins and minerals present in sugarcane juice.  Cane sugar has a blonde to light brown color because of the remaining molasses and moisture from the plant.

Raw sugar bypasses the final refining process of white sugar, and brown sugar is refined white sugar with varying amounts of molasses added.  All these sugars are considered sucrose, and a high intake of any of these can cause an increased prevalence of chronic diseases.

Coconut sugar is also a granular natural sugar.  The sap from the coconut tree boils, and the water content evaporates, resulting in sugar.  Coconut sugar is very similar to white sugar, with up to 79% of it being sucrose.  It is promoted often as a healthy sugar that is a good source of certain minerals. The truth, however, is that its high sucrose content outweighs the minimal potential benefits.

Courtesy: Steve Buissinne

Honey and Nectars

Honey is sugar-rich nectar collected by bees from a variety of flowers.  Its sweet taste is due to the high content of fructose.  Composed of approximately 17% water and unrefined honey, it contains several compounds considered to have antimicrobial properties.  It also contains micronutrients and polyphenols that help manage blood pressure levels and keep blood vessels healthy and flexible.

Honey can also help reduce chronic inflammation, which is another risk factor for heart disease.  It is, however, very high in sugar and should be consumed in moderation.

Fruit nectars are made by diluting fruit juices with water and sometimes additives, sweeteners, and preservatives.  Most are found in supermarkets, and some are healthier than others.  (Read the nutrition label when using nectars to get a good idea of the sugar content.) Nectars are typically high in calories. They are often consumed in beverages but can be used to make sauces.

Syrups

Syrups come from many plant sources, with four of the most popular being agave, corn, maple, and molasses. 

Agave syrup is nectar made from the agave plant, native to the southern United States and Latin America.  In its raw form, agave has some healing properties.  Due to the processing, however, the final result sold in stores has little nutritional benefit.  Agave syrup is first broken down into sugar and then concentrated into syrup during processing. It is one and a half times sweeter than table sugar yet is still low in the glycemic index.   Because it is so high in fructose, consuming large amounts creates a higher potential to cause adverse health effects, such as increased body fat and fatty liver disease.

Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is high in fructose like its name suggests.  HFCS is found primarily in the packaged and fast-food industry (the most famous user being Coca-Cola). Made by the enzymatic breakdown of starch in corn to form glucose, it then combines with an enzyme called glucose isomerase.  This enzyme partially converts glucose into fructose. Corn syrup contains approximately 55% fructose, which is much higher than table sugar.  There are concerns that corn syrup adds an unnatural amount of fructose to your diet and can increase the risk for obesity, weight gain, fatty liver disease, diabetes, and other serious diseases.  Corn syrup also contains no essential nutrients.  Because it is relatively inexpensive, however, you find it in many of today’s foods.

Maple syrup concentrates the sap from maple trees to produce a thick syrup.  It contains many trace minerals, including calcium, riboflavin, magnesium, potassium, polyphenols, zinc, and iron in its pure form.  High in antioxidants, it also provides half your daily recommended manganese intake in just two tablespoons (manganese helps bone health, metabolism, and brain and nerve function.)  The one downside to maple syrup is that it gives your body carbohydrates without the associated fiber.  Carbohydrates break down into sugar glucose and can result in swings in blood sugar and insulin levels.  As a result, people with diabetes should not eat maple syrup.

Molasses (or black treacle) is a by-product that results from the processing of the compounds found in sugarcane or beets.  The juices from these plants boil down to create this thick syrup. It has a strong, bitter taste and is a good source of vitamins and minerals with reasonably large amounts of magnesium, iron, potassium, and calcium. Although it may be a healthier alternative to table sugar, consuming large amounts can cause digestive problems.

Fruit Sugars

Sugar can come from pretty much any fruit or root by drying and grinding down into a powder.  Sugar produced through this process shares many similar nutrients as its source.  Without any added preservatives or chemicals, it can also be healthy.

One of the most popular sources of fruit sugar is monk fruit. Native to South-East Asia, this sugar has no calories and carbohydrates and is considered the most natural plant-derived sweetener.  Its sweet taste comes from its compounds that are a class of antioxidants.   Sugar produced from the monk fruit has zero calories, zero carbohydrates, zero sodium, and zero fat.  Its extract is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar which means less is required.  This sweetness level makes it popular with manufacturers who make low-calorie products.

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are designed and created in a lab and are either reduced-calorie or zero-calorie.  Some artificial sweeteners, like Sorbitol, are synthesized with the use of natural ingredient extractions.  Reduced calorie sugars, like Xylitol, have about half the calories of refined sugars and are often used in sugar-free gum and candy.  Zero-calorie versions are available for consumer use as well in manufacturing.

Some types of known artificial sweeteners include Saccharin, Aspartame, Sucralose, and Stevia.  Each of these has distinctive properties and potential risks to consider before using.

Other artificial sweeteners primarily used in manufacturing include Acesulfame Potassium (or Ace-K), Advantame, Neotame, Allulose, Erythritol, Maltitol, Sorbitol, Swerve, Tagatose, and Xylitol.  When reading ingredient labels, there is a good chance you will come across one or more of these artificial sugars in most products. 

If you are using any of these artificial sweeteners, you must be careful.  Although they are low in calories and have a low GI, studies have reported a possible link between non-nutritive sweeteners and disruption in the beneficial intestinal flora. These same studies also suggest they may cause metabolic disorders and glucose intolerance. In addition, large quantities consumed may result in gastrointestinal issues, so you must limit your intake. (To get a quick comparison of each type of sweetener, click on chart image below.)

Natural or Artificial?  Now I’m Confused!

Some of us have health issues or are worried about developing them.  With this in mind, we might opt to use artificial sweeteners instead of natural ones. Using this sweetener, however, might not be as beneficial as you think. According to an analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the consumption of sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose can cause weight gain and a higher risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart attacks, and stroke. Mounting evidence is suggesting that they can even mess with your gut bacteria.  

Then what about natural sugar? Since most sugars are either sucrose, glucose, or fructose, you should understand what these compounds can do to you. Sucrose breaks down into fructose and glucose when digested, and each affects the body in different ways. Too much of it can rupture blood vessels and cause cavities and gum disease. Glucose is fuel for all the cells in your body when it is present at normal levels. High amounts, however, slowly erode the pancreas cell’s ability to make insulin. Fructose impairs the composition of your blood lipids and may raise the level of VLDL cholesterol. Cholesterol can lead to fat accumulation around the organs, heart disease, gout, and high blood pressure.  

What is important to note in all of this is the keywords added sugar. An adult eating 2,000 calories per day should have no more than 10% of your total daily calories – 200 calories (Health Canada). According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of daily added sugars for men is 37.5 grams (9 teaspoons) and women 25 grams (6 teaspoons). Just for a day, add up the grams on the packaged food you eat. That includes things like bread, pasta, and yogurt. You’ll be astounded by how quickly they add up and how much sugar you are consuming.

The Final Word

Let’s face it.  Eating something sweet puts a smile on our faces.  That’s because sugar stimulates pathways in our brains that are associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.  It’s not something I’m willing to give up. 

Out of all the artificial sweeteners, Stevia is probably the healthiest.  Studies have shown that, in its processed state, it has some health benefits as long as it is used occasionally (there have not been enough studies to determine the long-term effects of consumption).  Some brands do contain dextrose and maltodextrin, ingredients that add small amounts of carbohydrates and calories.  As far as natural sugars go, honey, molasses, and maple syrup contain more nutrients than highly processed ones, but the amount is so minuscule that it won’t have any significant impact on your health.

What’s the answer?  Limit your sugar intake or choose an alternative option.  If you are craving something sweet, add some fresh fruit. One cup of blueberries has the same antioxidant properties as two cups of molasses and can provide that burst of sweetness you crave.  Try alternative condiments.  Salsa has less sugar than ketchup, and avocadoes can add a rich, buttery flavor to any sandwich. Sprinkle cinnamon in your coffee instead of sugar.  Limit your intake of carbonated drinks.  Treat yourself to a recipe made with zero-calorie Stevia (try my Monkey Bread).  The final word is: enjoy some sugar but in moderation.

Courtesy Jill Wellington

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