“Pour some sugar on me, ooh, in the name of love
Pour some sugar on me, c’mon fire me up
Pour your sugar on me, I can’t get enough.”
– Def Leppard
There’s something about sweet.
Think about how many terms of endearment derive from it: sugar, honey, hon, sweetie, sweetheart.
The taste of sweet, in its most common manifestation as sugar, seems to elicit an emotional response in a way no other food component does. I mean, would you ever write to your love, “How I long for you, my fairest fiber”?
Our deep attraction to sweetness stretches all the way back to the beginning times. In Genesis, it was an apple, not a rib eye, which the snake used to tempt Eve. Turns out that Biblical tale highlighted more about our nature than just our inability to follow simple instructions (God: “Eat from any tree, just not that one.”) It presaged that our sweet tooth comes with a wicked bite.
A recent National Geographic cover story implicated sugar in just about every ill that has plagued the human race since its inception: war, slavery and, now, obesity. But there seems an inherent paradox here: why would we be wired with a desire that wreaks so much destruction on the species?
The Nat Geo article posits this explanation: in our ape predecessors, a genetic mutation emerged that provided for more efficient processing of the fructose contained in fruit. That meant a little fuel could go a long way. This would have been quite a coup in the hominid gene pool. While the other apes were lying around rubbing their empty bellies, our predecessors were swinging through the trees like Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit.
But what happens when the scarcity part of the equation is removed? We’re Cookie Monster in the Oreo factory. Nat Geo writer Rich Cohen traces sugar’s proliferation from its discovery in New Guinea 10,000 years ago, to the New World cane fields where slaves toiled, to the sugary sodas that have landed us in our current size-XXXL nightmare.
That winding and fraught journey started with a shorter one: from our brain to our liver.
An iTunes playlist for habits
The basal ganglia are a bundle of neurological tissues nestled deep in our brains that are believed to house every habit we’ve ever formed. Ever.
Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, wrote an entire book about this curious repository called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. While we think of habits in mostly negative terms, Duhigg uses the term to describe every series of actions we execute automatically, which is actually a big majority of what we do.
“Did you pause this morning to decide whether to tie your left or right shoe first? Did you have trouble figuring out if you should brush your teeth before or after you showered?” he asks in the book. Of course not. Because if you stopped to ponder every one of those decisions, you would be paralyzed, incapable of accomplishing anything.
Because habits allow our brain to function much more efficiently, saving power for the big decisions, the basal ganglia look for them everywhere, turning anything that ends with a reward into a habit. Any parent who has ever withheld a juice box from their child could have foretold the results of experiments in the ’80s by Cambridge professor Wolfram Schultz, whom Duhigg cites in his book.
In the experiments, a monkey named Julio with electrodes wired to his brain was given blackberry juice when he performed a series of tasks correctly. Scientists could literally watch the habit form in his brain. “When Julio saw the cue, he started anticipating a juice-fueled joy. But if the juice didn’t arrive, that joy became a craving that, if unsatisfied, drove Julio to anger or depression,” Duhigg wrote.
Reading this, I recalled the candy jar I used to visit at the front desk of The Durango Herald. Every day after our afternoon news meeting, I would stop by the bowl and get two chocolates before returning to my desk in the newsroom. Soon, I was feeling buoyed toward the end of the meeting, anticipating the chocolate (really, it wasn’t at all because Durango news failed to rivet). What started as a casual treat one day, turned into a grinding habit.
But the basal ganglia are at the primitive center of our brains so we can’t heap all the blame for the obesity epidemic on them. So where then?
The secret life of sucrose
High-fructose corn syrup has gotten a bad rap in recent years because of its association with processed foods. But how the body handles it as opposed to sucrose – common table sugar – is indistinguishable. The main problem is quantity.
Nowadays, the average American consumes around 22.7 teaspoons of sugar each day. This is more than double the American Heart Association’s recommended daily limit for men and more than triple the limit for women.
A major culprit is soda, which has around 8 teaspoons of sugar per can – the equivalent of about three apples. “If I could get rid of one thing, it would be the soda habit,” local nutritionist Mikel Love, a registered dietician, says.
For decades, the common wisdom was that sugar is bad because it adds empty calories, supplanting more healthful options. But lately an alternative view has become prevalent, espoused most vociferously by Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California. In what has to be one of the only academic PowerPoint presentations to ever go viral, he credits fructose with causing health’s terrible triumvirate: obesity, hypertension and diabetes. This is because the liver, when flooded with fructose, converts much of it to fat. This, he argues, induces insulin resistance, which wreaks the aforementioned havoc.
And the miracle cure is …
None of the local nutritionists interviewed for this story argued for a fructose-free diet. “We need carbohydrates for energy; I mean, it fuels your cells,” says Michelina Paulek, a registered nurse and local health coach. The real devil is the added sugar packed into foods and beverages. The reason is simple: there is fructose in an apple but also vitamins and nutrients. And it takes three of them to equal the fructose in one soda. “Everything in moderation,” Paulek says.
Ah, the old adage. Certainly there must be something more cutting edge to thwart the sugar tsunami. Duhigg, whatcha got?
“To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine,” the habit book author wrote. Like eat an apple rather than a chocolate? That’s the same tough sell parents have been trying to make for centuries. Sorry guy, only chocolate delivers the reward of chocolate.
Lustig, who has a new book, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, has similar not-so-sexy advice.
“The single best thing you can do for yourself quality-of-life-wise, [is] exercise,” he said in a radio interview. “By far and away, nothing else comes close. The next thing that’s most important is when you’re eating, make sure you have some fiber.”
Got that? Next time you’re craving a venti mocha latte, just have a nice glass of Metamucil instead. Ri-i-i-i-ght.
First, let me dispel the delusion that there is a magic sweetener that you can substitute for sugar and eat to your heart’s content without consequence. Some sweeteners that purport to be healthier, like stevia, are actually highly processed. Many of the natural alternatives are high in fructose, the same component that is problematic in sugar. And low-calorie sweeteners actually are suspected of contributing to weight gain because they trigger cravings.
Honey: Like sugar, honey is composed of fructose and glucose, but it also contains some vitamins and minerals and is less processed than sugar commonly is. It’s sweeter than sugar, so you can use less, and most varieties don’t cause blood sugar to spike as severely as sugar.
Agave: This syrup is brought to us by the same plant that brings us tequila. It also is mostly fructose and glucose and also is sweeter than sugar. It’s said to be even easier on blood sugar than honey and has some trace minerals.
Stevia: The only versions of stevia approved by the Federal Drug Administration were developed by The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo and are highly processed. On its website, the FDA states: “FDA has not permitted the use of whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts because these substances have not been approved for use as a food additive.” It cites concerns about control of blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems. But others argue it’s safe and natural and blame industry for creating the cloud of suspicion.
Xylitol: This sugar alcohol is made from corncobs and hardwoods. Xylitol is less sweet than sugar and has few calories. It doesn’t cause high blood sugar but it can have laxative effects because it’s not fully absorbed in the digestive system.
Beet sugar: Regarding human health, beet sugar is almost identical to cane sugar. Non-GMO beet sugar is apparently hard to come by, according to NOW Foods supplement maker.
Dextrose: Another name for glucose, this is part of the blend that makes up sucrose, or regular sugar, but it believed to be slightly less toxic than fructose, the other part of sucrose, because it doesn’t harm the liver function as markedly. It is less sweet than fructose and is not widely, nor cheaply available.
Coconut sugar: Like honey and agave, this option is often less refined than cane sugar, but it still contains significant fructose and can cause the same metabolic problems when consumed in excess. And it’s definitely not cheap.
Molasses: Like sugar, molasses comes from cane and beets, but the vitamins and minerals have not been refined out. Because of this, it also imparts a strong flavor and color to foods.
Aspartame: This artificial sweetener is the primary component in NutraSweet and Equal. It apparantly was discovered accidentally by a chemist testing an anti-ulcer drug. It has been accused of causing everything from headaches to cancer, but the FDA maintains it is safe. It has almost no calories, but doesn’t taste or act like sugar, so its uses remain limited.
Saccharin: The oldest of all artificial sweeteners, saccharin also was discovered accidentally “in 1879 when Constantin Fahlberg, a Johns Hopkins University scientist working on coal-tar derivatives, noticed a substance on his hands and arms that tasted sweet,” a 2009 Time article stated. “No one knows why Fahlberg decided to lick an unknown substance off his body.” Those wacky scientists. The substance, hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, spent decades under a cloud of suspicion after studies showed it caused cancer in mice. Now the FDA says not to worry, because we’re not rats.
Sucralose: This substance, the key ingredient in Splenda, is chlorinated sugar. It was approved for use in 1998. Though it is exponentially sweeter than sugar, it does not break down when heated, so can be used as a sugar substitute in baking. The reason it is calorie free is because the body passes it through without digesting it. Like other artificial sweeteners, it doesn’t affect insulin levels.