Often I come across nutrition advice that warns people to avoid foods with “Added sugar”. Even the American Heart Association guidance on sugar intake is restricted to “Added sugar”. The implication seems to be that there is something different – toxic – about this particular version of sugar. The idea is a bit bewildering to me.
Consider the case of an individual cell in your body, maybe a heart cell, a liver cell, a brain cell, or a cell lining a blood vessel, doesn’t matter. The cell is basically swimming in a sea of blood and the blood is carrying the nutrients absorbed in the intestine. So our little cell is sitting there and reacting to the presence of sugar in the blood. But how does the cell know where the sugar came from? Fact is, it doesn’t. Too much sugar in the blood is bad, period. Sugar (or more properly its components, glucose and fructose, as described below) reacts with certain key molecules to form product that impair essential cell functions, and it does this in an irreversible, i.e., permanent, way. In fact, these reaction products are referred to as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. And as the name implies, these products are known to accelerate, functionally, the aging process, primarily by damaging blood vessels. And that’s true whether the sugar came from table sugar, cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, fruit or any other substance eaten. HFCS is approximately an equal mixture of glucose and fructose, and these are the same products formed when regular sugar (sucrose) is broken down in the intestine.
Consider the sugar impact of eating a piece of fruit, say an apple or an orange, compared to drinking a glass of fruit juice. One typical glass of juice contains the sugar found in 3 to 4 whole fruits. From the point of view of “added sugar” neither the fruit of the juice is a concern. But from the perspective of our little cell friend, eating a piece of fruit is the much better alternative, exposing the cell to much less sugar overall. Of course the fruit has the added benefit of slowing the absorption of the sugar, moderating the concentration in blood, as an added bonus.
The upshot of all this: The best advice is to avoid added sugar, but more importantly, to limit the TOTAL amount of sugar we eat each day. A good working limit, according to the World Health Organization 2015 guidance is 50 grams. The trick is to pick foods that give the best nutritional bang for the sugar buck. Many health drinks labelled as healthy and natural are loaded with sugar. Yet they can claim to have no “added” sugar. With a little careful searching, however, you can find nutritious drinks that have only a fraction of that amount of sugar.
Compare the three single-portion beverages shown below…
Of course you would expect the soda pop to have a lot of sugar – and it does, 35 grams. But look at the two veggie juice products. One has 47 gram of sugar and the other has only 6 – wow – big difference! And neither has any added sugar. It pays to check the label. Downside of low sugar drinks and foods of course is that they are not as sweet tasting, of course! If you’re a sweet-fiend like I am, consider sprinkling in/on a little stevia. While stevia is not completely innocuous, there are numerous studies that show it is safe to use at the small quantities generally consumed (the bulk of a stevia packet is inulin filler).
Finally, let’s consider a natural product generally considered by the Christian community to be a bastion of clean and healthy living , honey. Honey is over 80% sugar, and while none of it is “Added”, it’s still there. A single tablespoon contains nearly 20 grams of sugar. Yes, the trace nutrients in honey do make it a better choice of sweetener than straight sugar, but it’s not better by much! So, let me close by paraphrasing the proverbial admonition, “Do you like sugar [honey]? Don’t eat too much, or it will make you sick”!