Demonizing particular foods and specific categories of foods, such as carbs or fats, is a peculiarly American trait. If you are over 30 years old, you watched margarine dethrone butter only to be dethroned when butter was restored to its former glory. You watched eggs disappear from refrigerators only to be welcomed back as an excellent source of protein. Remember when fat-free diets were promoted? A few years later when the Mediterranean diet was introduced, we learned that all fats were not evil. Some, in fact, were good for us.
Is sugar the latest food to be demonized? Is it addictive? Do you crave a sugar fix?
As a nation, two facts are undisputed. We are getting heavier, and we are consuming more sugar—in fact, 30 percent more than in 1970. The average American consumes 350 calories a day in the form of sugar, mostly in sugared beverages. According to researchers, even drinking one 12-ounce can of regular soda boosts the risk factors for heart disease by 25 percent.
If you’re going to locate all of the sugar you are consuming, you will need to become a very clever food detective. Sugar is hidden in processed foods, such as breakfast cereals, bread and spaghetti sauce. And it regularly is masked under different names, for example, sugar, brown sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, malted corn syrup, barley syrup and molasses. And although federal regulations require listing the main ingredient on products first, you won’t necessarily find sugar listed even when it is the key item. Listing the different kinds of sugars as separate ingredients effectively circumvents this requirement.
Even when we know we are consuming sugar, we have a hard time resisting. In The End of Overeating, author David Kessler asserts that foods that combine fat, salt and sugar (and are, incidentally, accessible on a 24/7 basis) alter brain chemistry and trigger an impulse to eat more.
The increase in sugar consumption and sugar’s possible link to the epidemic of obesity have triggered questions about the relative virtues (or vices) of corn syrup versus natural honey versus white sugar. Because results are inconclusive and in some cases conflicting, some of us have simply tuned out the argument and are switching to sugar substitutes. If life gives us lemons, we say, we can still make sugar-free lemonade.
To be fair, sugar substitutes are not without their critics, but here are the current options if you are determined to avoid the evils of sugar:
Stevia is made from a plant leaf and is considered generally safe. Product names are Truvia, PureVia and SweetLeaf.
Sucralose is made by chemically altering sugar molecules. It is considered the safest sugar substitute by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Product name is Splenda.
Aspartame is used in desserts, yogurts and beverages. Recent research on rats raises questions about safety. Product names are NutraSweet and Equal.
Saccharin was one of the first sugar substitutes. Long-term studies indicate it is safe to use. Product names are Sweet’N Low and Necta Sweet.
Acesulfame-K is a calorie-free artificial sweetener. Some recent studies on rats suggest this product is not safe. In some people, gas and bloating have been reported. Product name is Sunett.
We can be assured that if we remove sugar entirely from our diet, we won’t be missing any essential nutrient. Except for blackstrap molasses, which contains a modest amount of calcium, iron and other nutrients, sugar lacks significant nutritional value. For this reason, calories consumed as sugar, while boosting our energy, are frequently referred to as empty calories.
At the same time, humankind is not likely to live by whole wheat unsweetened bread alone. An occasional sweet treat brightens our day. For some of us, though, occasional is a word that does not appear in our sugar vocabulary. Sugar is to us what one drink is to an alcoholic. We can’t stop with one cookie or one scoop of ice cream. Consequently, we find it easier to abstain entirely than to eat sugar in moderation.
Whatever your strategy, be prepared to pay more for sugared treats. Several giant food firms are predicting a shortage that may drive prices up. Besides paying more, you may have to adjust your perspective on sugar as new research challenges our current thinking. If history is our guide, we can be certain of only one truth: sugar fashions, just like clothing fashions, are subject to change. Until we learn otherwise, however, minimizing the sugar in our diet is highly advisable.