Sugar: Is it Toxic?

By Rebecca Jones

We all try to make good decisions with our diets. We know that we should consume mostly whole grains and vegetables and consume fatty foods in moderation but when it comes to sugar where is that happy medium? Can we enjoy the occasional sweet or is sugar so bad for us that it needs to be avoided entirely? Ever since Doctor Robert Lustig released his “Sugar: the Bitter Truth” lecture on YouTube many of us are rethinking our relationship with one of Americas favorite food groups. From the New York Times to the Huffington Post Dr. Lustig’s lecture has sparked a firestorm of debate over the negative health consequences of sugar. No one believes that sugar is particularly good for us but to suggest that, regardless of its caloric impact on our diets, it is actually a toxic is perhaps just too bitter a pill for us to swallow.

The Sugar vs. High-Fructose Corn Syrup Debate

If you want to feel your head spinning in circles just try to get a grip on the ever changing sugar vs. high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) debate. In the 1970’s HFCS was promoted as the healthier alternative to sugar. Because it was cheaper to produce it soon replaced traditional sugar in soft drinks and processed foods. In recent years the perception has reversed now HFCS is the unhealthy choice and many products have reverted back to sugar in order to appeal to consumers. The irony is, if Dr. Lustig is to be believed, that the two are essentially identical when consumed. They are both made up of the bonded molecules glucose and fructose, during digestion the bond breaks down and both are released independently into the body. Though HFCS does contain about 5% more fructose than table sugar the impact on our system is nearly identical. Basically the villainization of HFCS is a product of the marketing wars not it’s innate make-up. Of course regardless of which you consume Dr. Lustig claims they are both toxic.

Carbohydrates vs. Sugar

It’s important to differentiate also between the sugar in foods like bread, rice and potatoes and refined beet and cane sugars. These foods only contain glucose one of the key nutrients for sustain life. Every cell in the body not to mention everything living creature on earth requires glucose for energy. For every calorie of glucose you consume 80% will be used as fuel for your organs. Since sugar is 50% fructose it is used by the body very differently. The liver is the only organ that can process fructose and in doing so will create toxins like uric acid which is responsible for both gout and hypertension.

Sugar vs. Fat

More alarming still, consuming too much sugar actually creates more fat in the body than actually consuming fat. According to Lustig 30% of all fructose we consume is converted into new fat. All those low-fat products we buy thinking we’re doing the right thing for our diets are often extremely high in sugar. Since this is more likely to be converted into fat these diet versions are actually worse than the original full fat varieties.

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Fiber vs. Sugar

Before the advent of processed foods the average human consumed about 200-300 grams of fiber a day, today thanks to most our food being processed the average has dropped to about 12 grams. The more sugar we consume the more important it is to consume fiber for 2 main reasons. Fiber doesn’t is essential for feelings of fullness and satiation. A high fiber diet is a great deterrent to overeating. Secondly, fiber slows down the absorption of sugar into the blood stream this helps keep our blood sugar even and prevents overeating. To help reduce sugar consumption try eating more high fiber foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

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Sugar vs. Breast Milk

Ready to put down the candy yet? If not consider this, the CDC released a study earlier this year revealing that 10% of American infants and toddlers are obese. For low income families participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Program numbers got as high as 21%. What is the culprit behind these alarming findings? Lustig believes that baby formula is the common factor. Many baby formulas on the market today consist of up to 44% corn syrup solids and 10% sucrose (the same amount of sucrose found in soda.) This is not only unhealthy for infants but can set children up for a lifetime battle with weight and sugar cravings.

It’s hard to say whether sugar is the villain Lustig makes it out to be or if this is just another example of Americans eating too much and moving too little. Whether actually toxic or not it does illustrate that we are consuming far too much processed and refined food and that to establish a healthy lifestyle we need to return to a more natural diet and take a pass on the candy jar.