by Les Saidel - October, 2013
"A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down", merrily sung by Mary Poppins, seems to echo what is almost a genetically inbred desire for sweets in humans. What the song doesn't tell you however, is that too many spoonfuls of the wrong kind of sugar are going to require you taking a lot more medicine.
Sugar is one of the most basic and essential nutrients. Without it, no energy would be produced in the body and our systems would grind to a halt. We need to understand sugar better though, because not all sugars are equal and without a deeper understanding of the types of sugar and the way they work in the body, we can unwittingly do ourselves serious injury, causing diabetes, obesity and heart attacks to name but a few.
This article is not like many others that abound calling sugar a poison, but rather an eye opener exposing the reader to hitherto unknown facts about how uninformed and misguided use and consumption of sugar may lead to illness.
Lets start with the different types of sugar and how the body processes (or metabolizes) them.
There are three groups of sugars - simple or monosaccharide sugars (glucose, fructose and galactose), compound or disaccharide sugars (sucrose, lactose and maltose) and complex or polysaccharide sugars (starch, glycogen).
Simple or monosaccharide sugars can be used directly without having to be broken down further. They are the basic building blocks of the more complicated sugars.
Glucose, a sugar found in plant matter such as sugar beet, sugar cane and honey, is the most easily absorbed sugar and is metabolized directly via the Krebs Cycle. This is a chemical reaction in the cell that converts sugar into energy and the excess into storage sugar. Excess glucose is converted into glycogen, (the storage form of glucose), in the liver and when this reserve is filled and glucose is still present, it is converted into another storage medium - fat. This multilevel storage mechanism maintains normal body function under all circumstances. First the readily available glucose/fructose/galactose is used to create energy. If that runs out and more is needed, glycogen is then used and finally, when no glycogen remains, fat is metabolized and converted into energy.
The next type of sugar is fructose. Fructose is found in fruits, vegetables and other plant matter, such as sugar cane. It is sweeter than sugar and is processed by the body in a completely different way to glucose. We will examine this a little later.
Galactose does not occur usually in its free form but is rather a building block (together with glucose) that makes up the compound sugar lactose.
Compound sugars or disaccharides, unlike the monosaccharides need to be broken down by enzymes into their components before being used in the body. The names of these enzymes end in the letters "ase"
We first have sucrose (also known as table sugar). Sucrose is found in plant matter such as sugar cane or sugar beets. It comprises 50% glucose and 50% fructose. It requires the enzyme sucrase to break it down.
Lactose is the compound sugar found in milk and is made up of 50% glucose and 50% galactose. To process this sugar the enzyme lactase is required. If someone cannot produce this enzyme then lactose cannot be broken down in the body (lactose intolerance). The enzyme lactase is usually present during childhood but diminishes as we progress into adulthood.
Maltose is found in malt (converted barley) and comprises two glucose molecules (100% glucose). It requires maltase to break it into its component parts.
Finally we have the complex sugars, the polysaccharides such as starch and glycogen. These comprise a string of simpler mono or disaccharides and require repetitive breaking down by the various enzymes before they can be used.
To summarize, you have different levels of sugars increasing in complexity, starting with the simple building blocks the monosaccharides, moving onto the disaccharides and finally the polysaccharides, the most complex sugars.
For the purpose of this discussion, we are going to concentrate on two of the building blocks - glucose and fructose and compare how the body processes them. This will give us an insight into which is healthy and which is less healthy and under what circumstances.
Glucose is the ideal sugar. It can be compared to clean burning fuel in a car. It does its job without leaving any "clinkers" or mess behind it. The normal human body is designed to use glucose as its main source of energy. The body does have mechanisms to process the other kinds of sugars but not as efficiently as glucose, resulting in various unwanted or even detrimental byproducts or phenomena.
Glucose is most easily absorbed by the body, leaves less "debris" behind it after processing and the other body systems are most in tune with it. All organs in the body can metabolize glucose directly, it is the universal sugar. When glucose is metabolized the brain stimulates the secretion of a hormone leptin which tells the body "I'm full, stop eating." Glucose is therefore in sync with the body.
The only time when glucose is not the best sugar is if you are diabetic. The rapid absorption of glucose is exactly what diabetics do not want, but in healthy metabolism it is the sugar source of choice.
When glucose is absorbed, 80% is used directly by the organs (all the organs in the body can metabolize glucose directly) and only the remaining 20% enters the liver where some is converted to energy, some to glycogen and the remainder to fat. This means that, relatively speaking, less sugar is available to produce fat.
Fructose on the other hand has a completely different method of processing. All the organs except for the liver cannot directly metabolize fructose. This means that 100% of the fructose enters the liver to be metabolized into energy, glycogen and fat, as opposed to only 20% of glucose entering the liver, thus more is available to produce fat.
Fructose does not stimulate the production of the hormone leptin. So although you are consuming calories, your brain does not realize it and tell you to stop. As far as your brain is concerned, you are still starving, so it tells you "eat more, eat more!" Because you eat more, your pancreas goes into overdrive and has to secrete more insulin to deal with the excess sugar. By doing this repeatedly you can change the natural balance of pancreas function and cause the onset of diabetes.
Since more fructose is available in the liver and the body's energy requirements are reasonably fixed, more fat is formed, usually fat of the bad kind (VLDL) which contributes to heart disease.
The only time fructose is the preferred sugar is when there is an urgent need for energy and the glycogen levels are depleted, like when running a marathon. In this case fructose is a "quick fix" replenishing the missing sugar in the body. For this reason many "sports drinks" contain fructose.
We can see from the above discussion that fructose is not the sugar of choice (unless you are passing the 32nd kilometer in a marathon).
The problem is that EVERYTHING contains fructose. The worst culprit is HFCS or High Fructose Corn Syrup. This is a cheap sweetener, much cheaper than sugar, which is fast becoming the commercial sweetener of choice. It has found its way into almost everything we eat, foods and especially beverages, even infant formulas. Add to this the copious amounts of sucrose all around us (which is 50% fructose) and it is easy to see that we are being deluged from every direction by fructose.
A deluge of any kind is no good, even with glucose, but fructose has the added drawbacks I have described above, the main one being the lack of synchronization with the brain and the hormone leptin. We are eating and not feeling satisfied, our brains are telling us eat more, more free calories are available to be converted into fat and we are shocking our pancreas beyond its normal capacity.
It is not surprising therefore that we are seeing an epidemic rise in obesity and diabetes. It is not necessarily that we are eating more sugar per se, but that we are eating more of the wrong kind of sugar.
When it was discovered that saturated fats contribute to heart disease, doctors recommended we go on a low fat diet. A low fat diet means a high carbohydrate diet, which means more fructose. This paradoxically results in more fat being produced and instead of alleviating heart disease it exacerbates it.
"Now hang on a minute", you are saying, "fruit contains fructose and fruit is good for you, right?" That is the hype the food industry is using - "Fructose, that's a natural sugar found in fruit!" The answer is yes. Fructose eaten as part of fruit is less damaging because it is coupled together with a high concentration of fiber that regulates its absorption. Most commercial foods that contain HFCS are low in fiber and hence lack this defense mechanism.
This is the problem. Fructose is ubiquitous because it is economical, it is big business. The damage that fructose causes is chronic, not acute. You will not get a heart attack after one meal, but you might after a thousand. The FDA does not regulate substances that cause chronic harm, only acute harm, so they are not touching it. The USDA will not get involved with this because food export is one of America's main sources of revenue. Nobody is tackling the problem and instigating regulation, so the industry is going wild with no checks and balances.
So what can you do to minimize the damage caused by the omnipresent fructose? The first thing is to get rid of all sweetened beverages, even "healthy" fruit juice (fructose without the fiber). Start drinking water and milk (for kids). Add lots of fiber to your diet to counteract and regulate the absorption of fructose into your system. Look for and buy products that have no HFCS (like Saidels Bakery). Finally, exercise regularly, not necessarily because exercise burns more calories, it does - but to work off one chocolate chip cookie you will have to will have to jog for 20 minutes. It is not the calorie burning that makes exercise so beneficial (although it does help some), it is the other positive side effects of exercise that really do the trick. It reduces stress and appetite, it improves muscle insulin sensitivity and it increases metabolism preventing fat buildup.
Now that you know these facts I hope you will have a completely different outlook on what you eat and what you feed your kids.
That's what I call a sweet deal!
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