Sugar is everywhere—and I mean everywhere.
This sneaky critter is in our favourite foods and drinks, even the ones labeled as “healthy,” and has over 60 different aliases to try and trick us into consuming it.
The research into the side effects of sugar overconsumption is nothing short of mind blowing.
In the 1700s, the average person consumed 4 pounds of sugar per year. In 2016, the average American consumes 130 pounds per year (1). One in three children are overweight or suffer from obesity (2) and 422 million people have diabetes, a number that has doubled since the 1980s (3).
According to the American Diabetes Association, the economic costs of diabetes is currently at $322 billion dollars per year and is still on the rise (4). In order to take control of our health and keep our body from being insulin resistant, the American Heart Association recommends to keep our daily sugar consumption to just six teaspoons a day for women and nine for men (5)—that’s a pretty tricky task when the a 20oz serving of coca cola contains just over 16 teaspoons (6).
With life threatening ailments such as cancer and heart disease on the rise, something has to change.
And that something is our addiction to sugar.
The History of Sugar
For us to truly understand our dangerous relationship with the white stuff, we must go back 10,000 years.
In 8,000 BC the people of New Guinea were the first to discover the sugar cane. Eating it raw and straight out of the cane, they saw it as an elixir that could cure any ailment (7). The first country to discover how to crystallize sugar was India around 350 AD. The Greeks and the Romans imported sugar, not as food but as a medicine. They believed it helped with bladder and kidney disorders (8). Christopher Columbus carried the first sugar cane seedlings on his second voyage in 1493. Over 12,500,000 slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americans to work in the sugar plantations. Around 25 percent of them died during the sailing.
It was difficult to extract sugar from the sugarcane, which meant only the wealthy could afford it. In his incredible book Suckered, Jeffrey Eisenberg writes that Queen Elizabeth I was a huge fan of sugar, and the reason she never smiled in photographs was because her teeth were so rotten (9). Rotting teeth was a sign of wealth during these times. It took about another 150–200 years for sugar to be accessible to most.
In the 1880s, a pharmacist from Atlanta, Georgia named John Pemberton was injured during the war and became a morphine addict. He created a magical potion using cocaine, cola nuts and sugar and called it Coca Cola. Think about that—Coca Cola was created as a pain reliever for a morphine addict, and by 1900 it was the most popular beverage in the U.S.A. Eisenberg says it was so addictive, it was nicknamed “dope” in the Southern states.
In the 1970s, John Yudkin, a British physiologist and nutritionist tried to warn us about the dangers of sugar. He wrote a book called Pure, White and Deadly, which demonstrated the dangers of too much sugar consumption including dental problems, diabetes, obesity and heart attacks. His book could have changed so many of the health problems we are faced with today, however Yudkin was ridiculed and laughed at. The food industry and nutritionists destroyed his reputation and the book was banned (10 + 11).
Since the dawn of time there have been red flags regarding sugar. We didn’t ignore them—sadly, we were misinformed and deceived. In 2010, Harvard University did a study on sugary drinks contributing to the obesity epidemic. They found that preschoolers viewed an average of 213 advertisements for sugary drinks and energy drinks per year, whilst children and teenagers watched from 277 to 406 advertisements per year (12).
Like I said, the nasty stuff is everywhere, and unless we live in a hole in the ground, we can’t escape it.
The Dangers of Sugar
Sugar is a carbohydrate. There are simple sugars such as glucose, fructose and galactose. And there are more complex sugars such as sucrose, maltose and lactose. Glucose is a byproduct of photosynthesis and naturally occurs in plants. Once in the body it can be burned as energy. Fructose is the sugar found in fruit. Sucrose is the sugar found in the stems of sugar cane plants and found naturally with glucose in fruits. Lactose is the sugar found in milk.
The sugar we put in our coffee or cakes comes from processing sugar cane or sugar beets. Going back to the new world, the slaves on the plantations would eat the whole unprocessed sugar cane as they worked so they would get the fibre and any other nutrients that came with the plant. The wealthier folks would only eat the refined sugar and suffered the chronic diseases and rotten teeth that came with it (13).
Refined sugar has zero nutritional value. Zero.
When sugar enters the body two things can happen; you can burn it and use it for energy or you can convert it into fat cells. When your pancreas detects a rush of sugar, it releases the hormone insulin to help manage the excess sugar. Once the insulin has done its job, you will experience a blood sugar drop, which can leave you feeling tired, sluggish, grumpy and irritated. How do you get out of this slump? By eating more sugar.
And so the vicious cycle begins.
When you are overweight or obese, your cells can become resistant to the normal effects of insulin and struggle to absorb glucose from the blood to use as energy. The cells don’t respond and accept the glucose, which means the excess sugar will be stuck and floating around in your bloodstream.
One-third of American adults are clinically obese and the American Heart Association believes that this is the last generation that will have a longer life expectancy than their children (14). And it’s all thanks to the white stuff. But it’s not your fault, truly. Your brain responds to sugar the same way it responds to cocaine and heroin. The brain gets flooded with the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin. It remembers the good times and that incredible high just by looking at the packaging.
A study was done at Princeton University on sugar and its addictive properties. 43 cocaine-addicted rats were given the option of cocaine or sugar water over a 15-day period. The results? 40 out of the 43 rats chose the sugar water. When the sugar was taken away, the rats showed signs of addiction such as craving, binging and withdrawal. Princeton psychology professor Bart Hoebel explains, “Our evidence from an animal model suggests that bingeing on sugar can act in the brain in ways very similar to drugs of abuse.” (15) Sugar is more addictive than cocaine.
Where it’s Found
There are a few things the sugar industry doesn’t want you to know; the first is how addictive sugar is, the second is what it does to our health and the third is how much is stuffed into the food we eat.
According to research conducted by the University of Sao Paolo, nearly 60 percent of the average American daily diet comes from “ultra-processed” food. They also discovered that nearly 90 percent of the average source of added sugars comes from processed food, and overall these foods contain eight times more sugar than unprocessed food (16).
For more than 20 years, the nutritional labels on foods haven’t changed. If you’ve ever been curious and read nutritional information on the sugar contents, you’ll know it’s almost impossible to understand, which is ideal for the food industry. It doesn’t list the amount of sugar that’s been added or how much of these sugars are recommended daily.
Enter Michelle Obama and some kick*ss scientists.
It’s taken more than two years for the FDA to approve Obama’s new food nutrition label. Mainly because food companies tried everything they could to stop this from happening, but they lost. The new labels now show the amount of sugar in the product and what the percentage of daily intake is recommended. This is going to make it so much easier for people to make healthier choices for their families and for themselves (17).
When it comes to nutrition—check your labels. I can’t stress this enough! If it is an ingredient your grandparents wouldn’t know or something you wouldn’t keep in your kitchen, don’t put it in your body.
This is particularly slippery when it comes to sugar because it has over 60 different names. Here are the most popular:
Agave nectar, Barbados sugar, Barley malt, Barley malt syrup, Beet sugar, Brown sugar, Buttered syrup, Cane juice, Cane juice crystals, Cane sugar, Caramel, Carob syrup, Castor sugar, Coconut palm sugar, Coconut sugar, Confectioner’s sugar, Corn sweetener, Corn syrup, Corn syrup solids, Date sugar, Dehydrated cane juice, Demerara sugar, Dextrin, Dextrose, Evaporated cane juice, Free-flowing brown sugars, Fructose, Fruit juice, Fruit juice concentrate, Glucose, Glucose solids, Golden sugar, Golden syrup, Grape sugar, HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup), Honey, Icing sugar, Invert sugar, Malt syrup, Maltodextrin, Maltol, Maltose, Mannose, Maple syrup, Molasses, Muscovado, Palm sugar, Panocha, Powdered sugar, Raw sugar, Refiner’s syrup, Rice syrup, Saccharose, Sorghum Syrup, Sucrose, Sugar (granulated), Sweet Sorghum, Syrup, Treacle, Turbinado sugar, Yellow sugar.
My vegan friends should be especially careful. Sugar can be found in lots of dairy-free products. Check your dairy-free cheeses, milks, chips, meat substitutes, yoghurts, bread and those delicious coffee creamers.
Avoid any product labeled “zero sugar” or “fat free”—that usually means the company has pumped sugar or artificial sweeteners into the product to make it taste better.
Never ever avoid fats. Fats are imperative for good health, but we’ll get into that on another day.
Last year the Global Energy Balance Network (GERN), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, promoted the idea that it isn’t sodas and unhealthy food choices that cause obesity, it’s being inactive and not exercising. A reporter looked into who funded their research and it was, in fact, Coca Cola (18). Earlier this year, Bristol University released a study in the International Journal of Obesity that was backed by ILSI Europe. It stated that diet sodas actually help you lose weight and may be more beneficial than water. This research was funded by the American Beverage Association (19).
It’s time for us to realize that the food companies don’t care about our health. They care about making money. How do they do this? They lie to us, they put bright colours on their packages, they flood our televisions with commercials, they make nutritional labels difficult to understand, they show healthy young people or celebrities consuming their products, and they get us hooked by giving us deals that are too good to resist.
My Top Tips
1. I recommend starting your day with a sugar free breakfast. The moment the sugar touches your tongue, you’ll be a sugar addict for the rest of your day, craving it without even knowing. So focus on filling your body with proteins, good fats and vegetables. Switch from cereals to oatmeal. Cereals have one of the highest contents of sugar of any other food group (20). So instead, make some oatmeal for the colder mornings and add hemp seeds, chia seeds or a banana. For the summer, add oats to plain yoghurt with frozen berries and a splash of maple syrup if you want some sweetness. This will not only fill you up longer than cereal, but you’ll have a more consistent energy.
2. Check your coffee creamer. If it’s a vanilla flavoured creamer, that’s a sure sign that sugar has snuck in. If you have soy, almond or coconut milk, go unsweetened. I recently gave up my favourite dairy-free vanilla coffee creamer after finally being able to decipher the nutritional label. And after a few days I realized it wasn’t the coffee I was craving first thing in the morning, it was all the hidden sugar in the creamer.
3. Make your own salad dressing. Sugar and sweeteners can be found in most salad dressings, and some even contain a tablespoon of sugar in a quarter cup of dressing. I suggest making your own out of olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon, some black pepper and a dash of sea salt. If you’re feeling wild, fry up chopped garlic with coconut oil, let it cool on a piece of kitchen towel and then sprinkle on top.
4. If you feel a sugar craving, reach for fruit. Apples, blueberries, a banana and grapes are awesome. They will fill you up and provide you with natural energy. Graze regularly throughout the day. If you leave big spaces between your meals, your energy will drop and your body will crave that sugar high.
5. Make your meals from scratch. Avoid all microwavable food, anything processed or from a can. Sacrifice an hour a day to make your lunch and dinner. Take control of what you put in your body during the day and keep it clean and green. There are so many amazing cookbooks that focus on being healthy and time efficient.
6. Honey and maple syrup have nutritional benefits such as being antioxidants, but they are still sugars. I believe they are the best two sugars out there, but still keep a close eye on your intake. Your body will treat them the way they treat all sugars. Agave nectar has the highest fructose content of any sweetener on the market—90 percent fructose to be exact. Fructose is the sugar that’s found naturally in fruit, however apples only contain 7 percent and come with a bunch of other nutritional benefits such as fibre and vitamins. Excess fructose can damage the liver and lead to insulin resistance and cause diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Cancer cells thrive in a fructose heavy environment (21). Agave is a high-fructose corn syrup in disguise.
7. Avoid sweeteners like the plague. Saccharin, Neotame, Acesulfame Potassium, Aspartame, and Sucralose are all dangerous sweeteners still being sold in stores. Aspartame often highlights that it has zero calories with the taste of sugar, however it fails to mention that it is a chemical poison. Countless studies has shown it’s link to alzheimer disease, cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and many more—and yet they are still FDA approved (22 + 23). Unfortunately, these chemicals can be found in a lot of products such as diet beverages, yoghurt, bread, desserts and chewing gum. Read your labels! Stevia is a relatively new sweetener to hit the shelves. It is a natural sugar extracted from the stevia rebaudiana plant in Brazil and Paraguay. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar with zero calories. So even though it is from a plant, chemicals have to be added to maintain its shelf life (24). My advice would be to just ween yourself off sugar all together.
So What Next?
We have become a nation of sugar addicts. Some countries are beginning to make small shifts.
At the beginning of 2016, the U.K. government announced a sugar tax that will be added according to the quantity of the sugar-sweetened drinks they either produce or import.
There will be two different classes of taxation; one for total sugar content above 5g per 100ml and a second for sugar content higher than 8g per 100ml. The taxation will begin in two years, which will give the beverage companies time to change their ingredients and make their products a lot healthier. It is estimated that it will raise $675 million which will be put toward elementary school sports (25). The U.K. have also banned sugar advertising to children. This shows us that these changes can be made.
In 2014, a study conducted by the University of San Francisco published its findings in the American Journal of Public Health. The team found that people who consume 20oz of a sweetened beverage per day will accelerate their aging process by five years. That is the same acceleration as smoking.
Telomeres are protective caps on the end of our chromosomes that protect our DNA. The study discovered that the caps were shorter in people who consumed more sweetened drinks. Things that shorten our telomeres (stress, inflammation and sugar) shorten our life span (26).
Sugar is killing us, painfully, slowly and one soda at a time. Don’t become a victim to the sugar industry. Eat real food, check your labels, make your meals from scratch and be skeptical of anything packaged.
If you’re interested in this topic, some readings I highly recommend are Suckered: The history of sugar, our toxic addiction, our power to change by Jeffrey Eisenberg and Sandra Canosa, Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink and The End of Illness by David B. Agus.
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2. Overweight in children study. 2016.
4. The cost of diabetes. 2015.
7. Cohen, R. Sugar love (a not so sweet story) 2013.
8. Wikipedia contributors. History of sugar. 2016.
9. Eisenberg, J., Canosa, S. Suckered: The history of sugar, our toxic addiction, our power to change. 2015, Lawless Publishing.
10. Llewellyn Smith, Julia. John Yudkin: the man who tried to warn us about sugar. 2014.
11. Leslie, I. The sugar conspiracy. 2016.
12. Harris J, Schwartz MB, Brownell KD, et al. 2011. Sugary Drink FACTS: Evaluating Sugary Drink Nutrition and Marketing to Youth. New Haven, CT: Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity; 2011.
13. Eisenberg, J., Canosa, S. Suckered: The history of sugar, our toxic addiction, our power to change 2015 Lawless Publishing
14. Overweight in children study 2016 http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/ HealthyLiving/HealthyKids/ ChildhoodObesity/Overweight- in-Children_UCM_304054_ Article.jsp#.V4f0byMrIy4
15. Bennett, C. The Rats Who Preferred Sugar Over Cocaine. 2011.
16. Park, A. You won’t believe how much processed food American’s eat. 2015.
17. A. Ferdman, Roberto. Why the sugar industry hates the FDA’s new Nutrition Facts label. 2016
18. Nestle, M. Coca-Cola says its drinks don’t cause obesity. Science says otherwise. 2015.
20. Gander, K. These are the most sugar packed cereals aimed at your children. 2015.
21. Bowen, J. The truth about agave nectar: It’s all hype. 2010.
22. FDA. Reported Aspartame Toxicity Effects.
23. Group, E. The two most dangerous artificial sweeteners. 2015 .
24. Bratskeir, K. 7 things you didn’t know about Stevia. 2014.
25. Telegraph Food. Sugar tax: what does it mean, which drinks will be affected, and will it work? 2016.
26. Cindy W. Leung, Barbara A. Laraia, Belinda L. Needham, David H. Rehkopf, Nancy E. Adler, Jue Lin, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, and Elissa S. Epel. Soda and Cell Aging: Associations Between Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Healthy Adults From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. 2014. American Journal of Public Health Vol. 104, No. 12, pp. 2425-2431.
Author: Melanie Jayne Beech
Editor: Emily Bartran