Sweet! That’s an exclamation and an adjective that connotes a blissful taste. Is there any human on earth who dislikes sugar-containing or sweet foods?

The dark side of sugar, however, as we know, is that too much will wreak havoc on just about every system in the human body, as well as make dentists quite busy.

Because we generally know that too much sugar is to be avoided, many of us do indeed make better choices to satisfy a sweet craving. However, there are hidden sugars that sneak into your body: the average American will consume approximately 22 teaspoons of added sugars every day – and this packs on an extra 350 calories!  According to the CDC, approximately 48% of the caloric intake in the American diet is carbohydrates (31), with 13% coming from added sugars

What Is Sugar?

Sugar is known chemically as sucrose. Sucrose is part of the carbohydrate family. Naturally occurring sucrose is made by plants, which make it via photosynthesis – turning solar energy into food. Sugar cane is so named because it is the richest source of sugar. Sucrose is also more abundant in fruits and berries. A sugar molecule has three elements – carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.

The major confusion swirls around the various types of sugars found on food/beverage and supplement gummy/liquid labels. Sugars are classified into three groups:

  • Monosaccharides (one molecule) – glucose (dextrose), fructose (fruit sugar), galactose (milk sugar – yes, milk has sugar!).
  • Disaccharides (two molecules) – sucrose (glucose +fructose), lactose from milk (glucose + galactose), and maltose or malt sugar (glucose + glucose).
  • Polysaccharides (more than 10 monosaccharides linked together) – starch.

Sugars can be single molecules as listed above, or they can bond together to form more complex units of carbohydrates – carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (the other two are fats and proteins).

Reading labels to ascertain sugar content can be an exercise in frustration because of nomenclature and how many calories are contributed. Sweeteners are either calorie-containing or calorie-free:

Calorie-containing:

  • Agave, 21 calories per teaspoon
  • Brown rice syrup, 16
  • Coconut sugar, 15
  • Date sugar, 11
  • Dextrose (from corn or wheat), 16
  • Fruit juice concentrate, 16
  • High fructose corn syrup, 17
  • Honey, 20
  • Maltodextrin (corn or wheat), 15
  • Allulose (corn), 1.6
  • Sugar alcohols (e.g., sorbitol, erythritol, mannitol and xylitol), 0.6-8 

By the way, “evaporated cane juice” is literally sugar from sugar cane.

Calorie-free:

  • Aspartame
  • Monk fruit
  • Saccharin
  • Stevia
  • Sucralose

Note that when perusing labels to find out amount of sugar within the product, ingredients are listed in order of domination. If sugar is second, it is the second “heaviest” ingredient. New Nutrition Facts Panels disclose “added sugars” and its/their corresponding 70% daily value. This DV of added sugars amounts to 12 teaspoons allowable in a 2,000-calorie diet for overall health maintenance.

When you consume sugary treats and beverages as well as “bad” carbohydrates such as refined/stripped white breads, pastas and rice, the sugars enter the blood and your pancreas creates and releases insulin, which is a hormone that chauffeurs the sugar into the cells to use as fuel, and the more in the cells, the less in the blood. When there’s less in the blood, the pancreas releases the hormone glucagon, which tells the liver to release stored sugars. 

Problems arise when the body can’t produce enough insulin to keep up with an overload of sugar waiting on line in the bloodstream station for a lift into cells. This is why physicians tend to focus on fasting blood glucose (sugar) numbers -- in the morning after night-time fasting gives a good indication of how healthy your ability to process sugars is.

Glycemic index (GI) is an easy tool to calculate how foods impact your blood sugar levels. According to one source, “the glycemic index ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 based on how quickly and how much they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high glycemic index, like white bread, are rapidly digested and cause substantial fluctuations in blood sugar. Foods with a low glycemic index, like whole oats, are digested more slowly, prompting a more gradual rise in blood sugar.”

High-glycemic foods have a GI between 70 and 100; low GI range up to 55, and middling is between 56 and 69. Research bears out the impacts of either a high- or low-glycemic diet on health concerns.

Long-term consumption of higher glycemic foods is known to lead to greater risk of diabetes type 2. For example, the landmark Nurses Health Studies I and II (involving 161,737 women) found that those women who ate more whole grain foods (low glycemic) had a much lesser risk.

But that – and of course, being a significant factor in obesity and cardiovascular diseases – a diet high in sugars has other less discussed havocs. Some studies have associated excess sugar consumption with colorectal cancer, age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) and female infertility (ovulatory). 

And, despite the ever-growing bounty of better-for-you foods – especially for kids – there are still much more sugary, carb-laden foods they are eating. Authors of one review write, “Strong evidence supports the association of added sugars with increased cardiovascular disease risk in children through increased energy intake, increased adiposity, and dyslipidemia.” 

Sugar and the Microbiome

Interestingly, according to one source, in 1900, the individual consumption of sugar was approximately 90 pounds per year – in 2009, more than 50% of Americans consume twice that – up to one-half pound of sugar per day (including in juices and soft drinks). Compare this to people in 1700, when it was estimated that the average person ate only about 4 pounds of sugar per year.

Has the microbiome adapted? If so, how? Some mouse studies have shown that the link between excess sugar consumption and disease etiology partially occurs through the gut microbiome.  Authors of the review write that they believe that “increased consumption of existing sugars and novel sweeteners has altered the carbohydrate pools available to the microbiome, creating distinct environments in the gut that are filled by exogenous microbes or endogenous microbes that have undergone adaptation, some of which are pathogenic.”

Conclusion

Perhaps the best way to reduce your sugar intake to ensure it’s at a reasonable level is to read the labels and be mindful of counting the added sugars that have caloric value. One excellent guide is the Fruit Nutrition Database. Calorie-free sweeteners such as stevia are showing up in many new products, and many other brands are reducing or omitting added sugars completely. For a sweet life simply “sugar” wisely.

 

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