I’ve learned some things about sugar recently. My interest was sparked by learning that agave syrup is not an ancient plant-based source of sugar, but a relatively new one, having surfaced around the late 1960s, and one that must be processed in order to make it sweet. It is low GI, but it contains up to 75% fructose, which is more fructose than High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS – the bad stuff that is in almost all processed food), so even if agave is from a natural source, and the fructose isn’t manufactured … I still wanted to know what fructose actually DOES in your body.
This is a fascinating subject! Basically what I have learned is that glucose is used by every cell in the body, and the percentage that ends up in the liver (20%) is transformed into glycogen and saved there. It also stimulates the body to produce insulin which tells the brain that you’ve had some sugar and now you need time to digest it – so the brain sends out hormones saying “I’m not hungry any more” and our appetite shuts down. The 20% that ends up in the liver is transformed into fat that is used by the body.
But fructose doesn’t do that. It doesn’t stimulate insulin, so the brain gets no dialogue and doesn’t even know that it has had sugar. All we know is we’ve had something yummy and we want more … so we have more. Also a higher percentage of the fructose (80%) ends up in the liver, where it cannot be completely broken down – so it produces large stores of fat and the liver tries to dump it out into surrounding organs and the blood stream – which leads to inflammation, gout, hepatitis, hypertension. diabetes, heart disease, obesity … all the symptoms of metabolic syndrome.
HFCS and sucrose are both made up of glucose and fructose, but HFCS has a higher percentage of fructose and this link above will tell you how it is made. HFCS is cheaper to produce so that is what goes into all the packaged goods, including baby formulas, sweetened yoghurt, chocolates, cheese, juice, soft drinks, flavoured milk, pastry, bread …. in short – everything that comes in a packet or a bottle, and it is just labelled as ‘SUGAR’! The worst offender is sports drinks, which are marketed to children. Elite athletes do not drink Gatorade! **
I also found out that the calories in a soft drink and a can of beer are the same, and they are processed by the liver in the same way – but because our brain recognises alcohol (made from sugar) we can instantly feel that it is working somehow in our body, but because the fructose does not make its presence known to the brain, the same metabolic processes are going on in the body (particularly our liver), only we don’t recognise it. We don’t let kids drink alcohol but we do let them have soft drink!
Fructose is a poison to the body, in that its by-product cannot be used by the body and is harmful to the functioning of our bodies. Nature makes fructose naturally and provides us with the antidote in the same package: all fructose occurring in nature comes wrapped up in fibre. So fruit is ok to eat – it has fructose but also fibre. Consume both together and the sugar is easily absorbed and used by the body. That is as much sugar as we should be consuming in a day. Sugar cane is mostly fibre, but we have to take the sweet juice away from the fibre to access it. When we make juice, even our own fruit juice, we are concentrating fructose and not using the fibre – so giving our children (particularly infants) lots of juice, daily, is actually contributing to obesity. Perhaps if you have a glass of juice with your porridge in the morning then you might be balancing that out? We always water ours down slightly.
In Sally Fallon’s book “Nourishing Traditions” she mentions a study where it was shown how sugar can affect your IQ – which demonstrated how the IQ of children who regularly drink soft drinks will increase when they no longer have the sugar in their system. That floored me. I knew soft drinks were bad, but I didn’t realise they made you dumb.
For myself and my family – we don’t buy sugar that often. We love honey, but honey loses its nutrients when heated, so not great for cooking. We also use molasses, which is a by-product of cane sugar processing and still has lots of iron and B vitamins in it, but also quite a strong flavour. We have a small amount of organic raw sugar crystals for guests teas and coffees, but I prefer not to use it regularly. Rapadura would be a good alternative (but expensive!). Rapadura is dehydrated cane juice, so it has the bulk and the sweetness of white/raw sugar.
We also love maple syrup, which is still heat-treated, still high in fructose, but has lots of lovely nutrients in it. We have maple syrup often, but after reading about fructose, now only on weekends … back to good old grated granny smith apples to sweeten our morning porridge!
If you have a spare hour and a half I recommend that you watch this youtube clip that explains how fructose works in the body. It gets a bit scientific but stick with it, it is totally worth it! I was on the edge of my seat 🙂
For a shorter summary of sugar info (only 4 minutes!), take a look at this one.
** Just adding an after-note to this blog – I stand corrected on the comment that athletes do not drink sports drinks! I got a little carried away in my enthusiasm and assumed people could read my mind 🙂 I would assume that professional athletes drink sports drinks that are specially formulated to replace lost sugars from extended exercise, in which case such drinks would be entirely appropriate – but would they drink them otherwise? There is little point. When these drinks first came out they did not contain the amount of sweetness that they do today. There is no doubt that by adding colours and flavours and then selling them in tuck shops and supermarkets and corner stores where children go with their pocket money after school that these drinks are being sold to the public NOT as a sports drink but as a soft drink.
Please watch the youtube clip I posted for more information.