Where We Live: Spoonful Of Sugar

The history and current science behind this guilty pleasure.

Photo by Mykl Roventine (Flickr)
Where We Live: Spoonful Of Sugar
Download Audio
Audio Playlist
Where We Live: Spoonful Of Sugar

How much sugar do you eat? The U.S.D.A. estimates the average American consumes more than 3,500 pounds of sugar in their lifetime.

Sugar seems to be in or on everything. Cereal, coffee, yogurt, candy, ketchup and of course...soda. It certainly affects our health, and is seen as the main culprit in “epidemics” of obesity and diabetes.

But sugar has also impacted the course of history, changed the fate of empires, and affected millions.

The public perception of sugar is constantly changing as well. While it’s demonized by some, it’s also thought to be a better alternative to artificial sweeteners.

Today, Where We Live, we’ll talk about the history of and evolving debate over sugar. We’ll talk with one author who studied the history of the sugar trade in the West Indies.

Do you put it on everything? If you don’t use sugar, what about artificial sweeteners? How are you trying to reduce the amount of sugar you eat?



While it is mediated by

While it is mediated by multiple hormones, ultimately, that isn't a useful thing to say. The brain is mediated by many chemicals; so what? I have no control over the majority of them. There is a complicated interplay which inputs often do nothing meaningful to change. Insulin, on the other hand, has a very strong, noticeable function; people and animals without insulin cannot create fat, weaken, and die.

While the hormonal reasons for the breakdown of the metabolism under the influence of sugar are complex, the solution is straight forward. Insulin is the something over which you have significant control. Stop eating starch and fructose (sugar as it's being used, here), and you remove major antagonists. While it may please an academic to talk about the effects of leptin, or the disregulation of fat production in the liver apart from insulin production, ultimately, it's not necessary or meaningful to correct this idea. In fact, it's dangerous, since it can further confuse people who's health is falling apart, and are receiving mixed messages about the alleged healthiness of fruit and whole grains--which are absolutely not safe or reasonable for someone with metabolic syndrome to eat. Metabolic syndrome is almost just a euphemism for obesity.

Caloric use and storage is

Caloric use and storage is mediated by many homrones, not just insulin. Insulin is released in response to any rise in blood glucose, whether caused by brown rice or white sugar or HFCS. Whether or not the body stores calories is all about the balance between intake and output.

Calories In / Calories Out

"The real focus should be on the balance between caloric intake and caloric expenditure. Americans consume 500 plus more calories per day than they did 30 years ago. The bottom line is that we need to eat less and exercise more to reduce our daily caloric intake."

Doesn't this statement ignore the fact that creation and storage is regulated by the hormone insulin, which is released when sugar is consumed. Weight gain is biochemistry, not thermodynamics.

Response from the Sugar Association

Unfortunately, representatives from The Sugar Association were unable to join us on the show. We sent along several questions, which they answered in the emailed response below.---TI

What are the benefits of cane and beet sugar, over the alternatives such as high-fructose corn syrup and the artificial sweeteners?

Cane and beet sugar or “sucrose” as it is known in the food science community, is an all-natural food, and helps to make other, nutrient-rich foods palatable. At only 15 calories per teaspoon, sugar has been used safely for the past 2,000 years. Most other sweeteners are man-made and require extensive chemical modifications. Emerging science is starting to provide the biological reasons why artificial sweeteners can lead to the extra weight gain observed repeatedly in numerous diet surveys. Sugar—when consumed in moderation—is part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.

Why do you think sugar has gotten such a bad rap over the years?

Just like every other food or beverage that has ever gotten a “bad rap,” much of the public’s opinion of sugar tends to hinge on whatever dietary fad is popular at the moment. One day coffee is bad for you, the next it can save your life. We’re told not to eat fat, and then we’re told certain fats can cut our risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, it’s easy for people to get confused because of the amount of conflicting information sent their way. But consumers seem to be finding their way back to common sense—we’re hearing more and more that people would rather eat whole foods like all-natural sugar, rather than unfamiliar alternatives they can’t even pronounce. Consumers are starting to realize that what was good enough for our mothers and grandmothers might be good enough for us after all. In the fight against obesity, the real focus should be on the balance between caloric intake and caloric expenditure. Americans consume 500 plus more calories per day than they did 30 years ago. The bottom line is that we need to eat less and exercise more to reduce our daily caloric intake.

Can you discuss some of the research that says sugar does not cause obesity?

In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there was insufficient evidence to set a limit for sugar intake, based on data available on a variety of health issues including risk of obesity. This conclusion resulted from a three-year comprehensive review that cited 279 references on dietary carbohydrates. The study found “no clear and consistent association between increased intakes of added sugars and [body mass index].” This conclusion was reaffirmed in March 2010 by the European Food Safety Authority expert panel, which also concluded: “Available data do not allow the setting of an UL (upper level) for total or added sugars, neither an AI (Adequate Intake) nor a recommended intake range.” Needless to say, for anyone to simplistically target sugar or promote a one-sided limit on sugar intake is misguided and is ignoring the preponderance of science. More importantly, they have the real potential to result in flawed policy that continues to mislead consumers.

Listener email from Pauline

Was queued today with my question re: sugar in our daily diet but this most timely and interesting program ended before I could pose my question. Raw sugar or tubinado sugar is natural cane sugar. How does this stack up to refined or processed sugar. Or is this a case of sugar is still sugar no matter what form it takes and all sugar is bad for us?

Facebook comment from Fred

In searching for a substitute for sugar / or really sweetness whether in cane or HFCS are the sugar substitutes any better? They're sweet, however, more complex which the body does not know how to process?

Listener email from Tucker

I gave up sugar cold turkey in 1987 at the age of 33. As a child I was a total sugar addict and was always getting sick.....colds, flu, stomach upsets. When I gave up sugar, my immune system was suddenly significantly stronger. I was able to ward off almost any bug. I was never obese as a child, just very sickly. In order for this diet change to work, I gave up all forms of sugar, including artificial sweeteners, honey, maple syrup, molasses, and even fruit juices. The only down side of all of this is that I do feel fatigued a lot. I am certain it is because the population is moving at an artificial speed fueled by sugar and caffein and I need to move at a normal pace!

Listener email from Terry

We have tried to eliminate sugar and processed foods from our diet and have replaced them with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, etc. Should we be concerned about the fructose we get from the fruits we eat?.

Listener email from Ann

Food labels display their sugar content in grams, which most Americans do not use or understand. Most 12 ounce cans of soda have about 50 grams of sugar, it has between 10 and 12 teaspoons of sugar in it. Surprised? So are most of my patients! Also, it's not really sugar any more, its high fructose corn sugar, which is a problem because its so cheap it can be included in everything!

Listener email from Barbara

Its mainstream now- everyone has access to the books the china study, the inflammation syndrome, eat to live. Yet the american cancer society, diabetes institute are all about "finding the cure". I hope we will see the day (soon) when "prevent it in the first place" is the mantra.