The not-as-sweet side of the story
“Some of the largest companies are now using brain scans to study how we react neurologically to certain foods, especially to sugar. They’ve discovered that the brain lights up for sugar the same way it does for cocaine.”
― Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
“Want a sugar cube, doll?”
We have all heard that too much sugar is bad for you. Yet, why? The story goes beyond the calories contained in it.
Back in the 1700s, the average person consumed a mere 4 pounds of sugar per year. Fast forward to World War II and sugar consumption has already tripled. Today, 1 in 4 adults in the UK is overweight, while obese six-month-olds around the globe are at an all-time high. Growing concerns about obesity, alarming scientific reports of the threats posed by natural and artificial sweeteners and soaring agricultural prices endanger the standing of what was once considered “white gold”.
Sugar, either in a white granulated form – commonly known as sucrose – or as high fructose corn syrup is found in all soft drinks, fruit juices and sports drinks. What’s more, the sugar lobby is currently so strong that sugar, predominantly fructose, is hidden in almost every processed product on the market —from bologna to pretzels to cheese spreads.
Thompson, the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York believes that many pre-cancerous cells would never acquire the mutations that turn them into malignant tumors if they weren’t being driven by insulin to take up more and more blood sugar and metabolize it.”
The links between excessive consumption of sugar and heart disease have long been known. We now know that fructose elevates uric acid, which decreases nitric oxide, raises angiotensin, and causes your smooth muscle cells to contract, thereby raising your blood pressure and potentially damaging your kidneys. Increased uric acid also leads to chronic, low-level inflammation, which has far-reaching consequences for your health. Additionally, all sugars raise your insulin levels; you eventually end up with insulin resistance. The factor that links obesity, diabetes, and cancer is insulin resistance.
Do you still think that you literally crave sugar?
No wonder – the brain lights up for sugar the same way it does for cocaine.
Do you still believe you need it as an energy pick-up?
The “Sugar Rush” myth has now been debunked – the resulting post-sugar hyperactivity and sugar ‘highs’ are simply a placebo effect. High amounts of sugar lead to severe attention span deterioration – raised insulin levels decrease your brain activity and affect your memory and your ability to learn.
Do you still reckon that fructose, the natural sugar found in all fruits, is a safe sugar alternative?
Fructose is harmless when taken in small doses in its natural condition, within fruits. Yet, today it is consumed at doses 500% higher than during pre-industrial times. At such dosages it is more toxic than artificial sweeteners and can result in metabolic toxicity. The latter slows your brain response and effectively makes you dumber. Any other type of sugar – honey, commercial fruit juices or agave – contains high amounts of fructose, with agave containing close to 90%. Even brown sugar, once dubbed healthy, is simply sugar crystals with no more than 6.5% residual molasses content.
What about switching to artificial sweeteners – the no-calorie alternative?
Most artificial sweeteners can be worse for you than sugar and fructose. “Diet” foods and drinks ruin your body’s ability to count calories, thus boosting your inclination to overindulge and eventually – your chances of obesity. Additionally, calories are not created equal and artificial sweeteners do contain some calories.
A calorie from glucose, such a pasta or bread, is vastly different from a calorie from sugar since they are metabolised differently within the body.
Fructose is metabolised by the liver, which converts the majority into fat. In case you consume fructose in liquid form, as is the case with soda, the effect is magnified.
Aspartame, the main ingredient within most artificial sweeteners, “diet” foods and beverages is a synthetic chemical. It is composed of two amino acids, 50 % phenylalanine and 40 % aspartic acid, and a methyl ester bond – wood alcohol. Once inside your body it metabolises into wood alcohol, a known poison and formaldehyde, which cannot be eliminated from your body through the normal waste filtering system.
The combination of amino acids in massive quantities and in an unnatural ratio creates a neurotoxin which attacks your cells and can even cross the blood-brain barrier, attack your brain cells thus leading to toxic cellular overstimulation, excitotoxicity, which pathologically damages your neurocells.
Let’s put it this way – you become dumber. The same reaction is caused by Monosodium glutamate, MSG, a flavour enhancer found in Chinese dishes, restaurant food and the main villain behind our never-ending love affair with fast foods.
Well, is there anything left to sweeten up the bitter aftertaste of coffee and late night exam sessions?
Yes, Stevia or pure glucose, also known as dextrose, are safe alternatives to sugar and fructose. In moderation, some sugar alcohols like pure xylitol can also be used as substitutes. The latter can help fighting tooth decay and is considered reasonably safe.
Life is short, you’ll tell me. Can’t we just live it as we please?
Here’s Murakami’s answer to leading a healthy lifestyle:
“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Read more: On the history of sugar consumption, National Geographic
The article has been published in the monthly newsletter of the Faculty of Life Sciences and Computing in London Metropolitan University