Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Sugar... oh how sweet it isn’t

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Recently someone offered cookies to a group of people I was with, and someone said, “Oh, yeah, sugar makes everything better.” Actually, it doesn’t. It would be far more accurate to say sugar makes everything worse, far beyond the commonly recognized hazards of weight gain, cavities and ruining your appetite before supper. Nutrition experts who aren’t in the pockets of the food industry have long recognized the dangers of sugars and highly processed foods, but well-paid lobbyists do their bit to protect the industry, and we don’t want to hear that our favorite treats are really bad for us, so we generally prefer to ignore both the available information and just plain common sense. What does trickle out to the public is through a heavy filter of advertising from an industry with a lot to lose.

The excessive use of high fructose corn syrup has received a lot of attention. It’s found in foods you wouldn’t expect, like applesauce, crackers, flavored oatmeal, cold cuts, peanut butter, canned soup, flavored milk, mayonnaise substitutes, steak sauce, ketchup, relish and other condiments, dressings and sauces. It almost makes sugar sound good and good for you in comparison, but don’t be fooled. One website I looked at said that high fructose corn syrup makes you fatter and dumber, ages you and your skin, and is addictive. All of that applies to sugars, cane and otherwise.

Sugar comes in many forms, hidden on labels behind names like sorbitol, maltodextrin, muscovado, panocha, barley malt, honey, molasses, agave syrup, and over 50 others. You might ask, as I have many times, why would a food company take a nutritious food like peanut butter and adulterate it with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, not to mention other unhealthy additives? Why wouldn’t they do everything in their power to create the healthiest version of peanut butter they could, given that it’s a favorite with children? Instead they specifically target the young, marketing products like peanut butter with jelly or chocolate. This is one of my favorite food rants because I really like peanut butter, and it bugs me that they have poisoned a nutritious food choice that kids generally like. Adults, too, for that matter: Americans eat 700 million pounds a year, enough to coat the floor of the Grand Canyon. Do you want to rate your peanut butter? You can go online, but it’s quite simple: it should have one or two ingredients: peanuts or peanuts and salt.

The top three brands, Jif, Skippy and Peter Pan, are all made with fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, like soybean and rapeseed. that are extremely hard, wax-like fats made by forcing as much hydrogen as possible onto the carbon backbone of fat molecules. To obtain a manageable consistency, food manufacturers often blend the hard fat with unhydrogenated liquid fats, with more fat in a two-tablespoon serving than in a small order of fries. Tasty treat for the kids, eh?

I’ve considered writing about this topic for a long time because of my own addictive dance with carbohydrates and my awareness of the pervasive negative effects of the sweet poison in our country and worldwide. Diabetes rates in the U.S. doubled over 20 years to 9.3 percent in 2014, more than 25 percent of seniors (65 and older) have diabetes, which is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. Childhood obesity is epidemic, and Type 2 diabetes in children is increasing by 5 percent per year, when it used to be rare. I’ve hesitated to tackle this topic due to the complex web of information and misinformation. I also realized that it’s similar to the subject of overpopulation: everyone who is the least bit conscious knows that it’s a problem––a serious problem, without easy answers––so we generally prefer to not discuss or think about it and just keep doing what we want to do. But one in four people with diabetes don’t realize they have it, so I think it’s a good thing to keep talking about it and face our own patterns around sugar. Since I can’t do this topic justice in one column, I’ll just write more until I’m satisfied or bored with it. Sound bites won’t do it justice, and I trust the Timberjay readers can handle in-depth information.

When I say “sugar” or “sugars,” I am referring to all highly processed foods and simple carbohydrates that metabolize into sugar very quickly in our bodies: white rice, pasta, popcorn, soda pop and everything made from white flour. Even 100-percent fruit juice, once considered a healthy choice, has a heavy load of fructose, natural fruit sugar. Eating the whole fruit is a better nutritional choice. The healthy diet solution is simple, just not easy for most of us: avoid all of the aforementioned mostly or entirely, depending on your sugar sensitivity. Eat whole foods, real, unprocessed foods and healthy protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and oils, and plenty of water. A simple guideline suggests that if your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize the ingredients in a product or if you can’t pronounce them, don’t eat it.

Why is the simple advice not easy? For a number of reasons: sugar has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, like a 100-armed octopus reaching in and around every birthday, wedding, get well visit, and holiday with traditional family recipes playing the starring role. The workplace lounge offers hard-to-resist doughnuts, cookies, candy, and birthday cakes. In classrooms students are rewarded for performance or good behavior with sugary treats, ironically, because behavior often deteriorates after consuming sugar. Every teacher and parent knows and dreads the sugar highs and lows. We’re all familiar with the whiney or screaming kid in the grocery store, begging for his favorite package of sugar, artificial flavoring and coloring: that’s a pint-sized addict right before your very eyes. The truth is, we all have that whiney kid inside us, wanting to feed our habit, wanting the comfort of that favorite sweet or starchy treat.

When our country was new, only the wealthy could afford much sugar; the average citizen consumed six pounds of sugar a year compared to 130 pounds today. From the 1700’s on, the sugar beet and sugar cane industries grew, then the Mason jar was invented in 1858, triggering demand for white sugar for canning purposes. In 1875, the U.S. signed a free trade agreement giving Hawaii free access to the U.S. market in exchange for land that became Pearl Harbor and American companies invested heavily into sugar cane plantations.

During World War II, sugar was rationed because cane fields in the Pacific were cut down or burned by armies, and the war effort needed sugar to make everything from antiseptics to explosives. A five-gun salvo used up the yield from an entire acre of sugar cane. After the war, sugar became available again and in demand. The food industry recognized that the public had an insatiable sweet tooth, that sugar was addictive, and that their sales would soar by adding inexpensive sugar to replace more expensive, more nutritious ingredients. Today sugary treats sing their siren songs from checkout counters everywhere, but we should think twice before giving in, as research shows that simple carbs are implicated in most, if not all, of the chronic diseases we dread. To be continued...

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