By Larry Cook
Refined sugar: so seductive, so sweet-and so insidious, whether it's found in candy, soda or baked products or liberally laced in more conventional foods. It has been called a poison; it's been blamed for addiction. Heavily processed, it lacks nutritional value-its digestion in the body saps minerals. And it's linked to health problems that go well beyond obesity. My advice: Avoid it. And try some of the healthier options for sweetening your food and beverages (see below).
The Addiction Risk
Many holistic healers and other natural-living advocates insist that refined sugar is addictive (1); it's a view that the mainstream scientific community considered this summer when Princeton University researchers induced lab rats to binge on large amounts of sugar and then abruptly excluded it from the animals' diets. The rats experienced withdrawal-like symptoms: their teeth chattered, they became anxious and the usual state of neurochemicals in the parts of their brains' pertaining to motive was turned upside-down.(2)
Natural-health advocates who allege sugar functions as a poison are largely following in the footsteps of William Coda Martin, a doctor who, in a 1957 article published in the Michigan Organic News, expressed early support for this view. Medically, he wrote, poison denoted "[a]ny substance applied to the body, ingested or developed within the body, which causes or may cause disease." Physically, poison was defined as "[a]ny substance which inhibits the activity of a catalysts which is a minor substance, chemical or enzyme that activates a reaction."(3) Sugar, after undergoing a refining process, is transformed into "pure, refined carbohydrates," Martin wrote. "The body cannot utilize this refined starch and carbohydrate unless the depleted proteins, vitamins and minerals are present. Nature supplies these elements in each plant in quantities sufficient to metabolize the carbohydrate in that particular plant. There is no excess for other added carbohydrates. Incomplete carbohydrate metabolism results in the formation of 'toxic metabolite' such as pyruvic acid and abnormal sugars containing five carbon atoms. Pyruvic acid accumulates in the brain and nervous system and the abnormal sugars in the red blood cells. These toxic metabolites interfere with the respiration of the cells. They cannot get sufficient oxygen to survive and function normally. In time, some of the cells die. This interferes with the function of a part of the body and is the beginning of degenerative disease."(3)
B Vitamin Depletion
So, when you eat refined sugar (raw, in candy or in other foods such as breakfast cereals and pastries), you're ingesting a substance that not only lacks nutritional value but also robs your body of minerals (such as chromium, manganese, cobalt, copper, zinc and magnesium), enzymes and vitamins (especially the B vitamins). B vitamins are required to metabolize sugar. Constant sugar consumption can lead to a vitamin B deficiency, which translates into poor metabolism, low energy and mental/nervous disorders. Many B vitamins (responsible for proper nerve and brain function) are manufactured by symbiotic bacteria living in our intestines. Too much refined sugar kills these friendly bacteria, resulting in an even greater B vitamin deficiency, which can cause sleepiness, mental fatigue and host of other symptoms. Furthermore, a significant drop of friendly bacteria in the gut allows entry of unfriendly bacteria, which cause a host of other problems.
Daily intake of refined sugar forms an acid condition that quickly consumes the body's minerals-especially calcium to alkalinize the system-causing a general weakening of the body. The parasympathetic nervous system, which governs our digestive system, is adversely affected, and so the digestive system is weakened and food cannot be digested or assimilated properly. This leads to a blood-sugar imbalance and an intensified craving for sugar.
Refined sugar passes quickly into the bloodstream in large amounts, giving the pancreas and stomach a shock. The pancreas goes into overdrive to make enough insulin (a hormone that carries sugar to the cells to be metabolized or stored) to normalize the blood sugar by taking excess sugar out of the bloodstream and turning it into glycogen for energy or moving it into fat storage. This can cause a sudden drop in blood sugar, which then signals the adrenal glands to release high levels of cortisol (the fight or flight hormone), which puts the body in high-stress mode. The result is a quick burst of energy that lasts about two hours, followed by an equally fast drop in energy.
The Hypoglycemia & Diabetes Connection
Hypoglycemia and adult-onset diabetes are directly linked to sugar consumption-there are estimates that 98 percent of all adult-onset diabetes is diet-induced. Hypoglycemia occurs when refined sugars, as well as other refined foods such as white flour, are consumed on a regular basis. Hypoglycemia is low blood sugar due to an over-reactive pancreas that sends out too much insulin to compensate for the excess processed sugar. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include fatigue, lack of concentration, anxiety, mood swings and irritability.
Adult-onset diabetes usually follows hypoglycemia when insulin receptors in the cells no longer respond to the insulin being produced by the pancreas, causing high blood sugar; and/or insulin production has dropped or stopped. These degenerative diseases are virtually always diet related and completely avoidable (and reversible!).
Immune System is Suppressed
Refined sugar also slowly destroys the immune system by undermining the germ-killing ability of white blood cells for up to five hours after ingestion; reducing the production of antibodies; interfering with the transport of vitamin C (an important immune builder); causing severe mineral imbalances; and neutralizing the action of essential fatty acids. Since regular consumption of refined sugar (whether raw, in candy or in processed foods) slowly but surely destroys the immune system, virtually every known ailment and degenerative disease can be and is caused by refined sugar (along with multiple other factors, which cannot be ignored).
Joseph Mercola, DO, with Nancy Applegate, author of Lick the Sugar Habit, has compiled extraordinary list of 78 reasons to avoid sugar, gleaned from an array of scientific and medical literature. The list, with its carefully cited claims, is damning; it indicts sugar for a host of modern ailments: Varicose veins. Depression. An increased risk of Alzheimer's disease. Asthma. Arthritis. Cataracts. And so on, including the two health risks you already knew went hand in hand with sugar--tooth decay and excessive weight gain. For the complete list with citations, see http://www.mercola.com/article/sugar/dangers_of_sugar.htm.
The Art of Avoidance
Avoiding refined sugar can be tricky because it's in a plethora of foods and drinks. (The average American consumes 150 pounds of refined sweeteners each year (ii). You have to know the language of ingredients labels, because refined sugar goes by many names, depending on its source. Refined sugar, or sucrose is made from sugar cane or beet, as well as other sugar derivatives such as dextrose (from corn), fructose (from fruit) and maltose (from malt).
I'd like to stress that using artificial sweeteners, or buying products that contain them, is not the way to go. Many have been associated with a cornucopia of health problems-so why risk ingesting artificial sweeteners, especially when, as you'll see below, you have plenty of other options? When assessing the hazards of artificial sweeteners, consider aspartame, commonly sold under the trade names NutraSweet and Equal, which was approved by the FDA in the early 1980s amid controversy. Since its approval, some health organizations-even those that vouch for aspartame's safety-have acknowledged an extraordinary number of public complaints, recorded but largely dismissed by the FDA, about aspartame's alleged side effects.
Even aspartame advocates acknowledge that it should be avoided by those individuals with a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria, or PKU. But many naturopathic and holistic care providers, as well as some allopathic medical practitioners, have expressed broader concern about the impact of aspartame, particularly in instances of long-term use. H.J. Roberts, MD, joined the anti-aspartame crusade when he found what appeared to be troubling side-effects among his patients who consumed aspartame products-effects that dissipated after discontinued use. In a lecture presented at a meeting of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, Roberts suggested that aspartame may compromise ocular, neurological and metabolic health, in addition to precipitating other serious ailments such as Alzheimer's Disease. (http://www.nutrition4health.org/NOHAnews/NNW93Aspartame.htm)
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has expressed concern about the use of aspartame, observing that "several scientists believe that aspartame might cause altered brain function and behavior changes in consumers. And many people (though a minuscule fraction) have reported dizziness, headaches, epileptic-like seizures, and menstrual problems after ingesting aspartame. Avoid aspartame if you are pregnant, suffer from PKU, or think that you experience side affects from using it. If you consume more than a couple of servings a day consider cutting back. And, to be on the safe side, don't give aspartame to infants" (http://www.cspinet.org/reports/food.htm).
There are several sweetener alternatives that are much healthier than refined sugar. Pure maple syrup contains minerals and vitamins, as does black strap molasses, rice syrup and barely malt. All of these sweeteners can be found at the natural food stores. When you do have a "sweet tooth" and want to buy a prepackaged product, go to a natural food store and look for products that contain one of the above natural sweeteners, instead of refined sugars, or anything ending in "ose." At a natural food store, you can even find soda pop with less sugar (or "better" sweeteners as listed above) than their conventional counterparts. When eating foods with alternative sweeteners, a good rule of thumb to follow is this: If it tastes sweet, there's too much sugar in it (refined or not).
Another alternative sweetener that contains no calories, improves digestion and is considered about 300 times sweeter than sugar is the all-natural herb stevia. Unfortunately, the FDA has outlawed the ability of manufacturers of stevia products to label their products as an alternative sweetener, and so stevia is marketed as a supplement. Although a completely safe herb used for thousands of years, the FDA, citing a clack of conclusive studies on stevia's safety, banned the herbs sale in the United States in the early 1990s, until the natural food industry got it approved as a supplement.
Companies are eager to use stevia as a natural sweetener but can't afford the the price and hassle of ignoring the FDA`s stance. By 2001, stevia sales reached $10 million in the United States; however, no company that markets the herb has equaled the financial might of G.D. Searle, the pharmaceutical firm that pushed for FDA approval of aspartame (and was later bought by Monsanto Company, which in 2000 sold its sweetener business to J.W. Childs Associates, LP for $440 million-in cash).
In the late 1990s, Stevita, a Texas-based company that has produced and sold stevia for 15 years, was targeted by the FDA for allegedly marketing its products as sweeteners. FDA agents entered the company's warehouses, looking for "labeling violations," books and other material representing stevia as a conventional food product. After sifting through the minutia of various printed materials, the agency determined the company had violated the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1997. Stevita's president and vice presidents have said that the FDA ordered the destruction of stevia-related publications, a claim that the FDA denies. But the agency does not deny expending substantial effort and time (and, consequently, money) to carry out detailed inspections of Stevita's and other companies' warehouses, in addition to retail establishments-a shining example of your tax dollars at work.
Stevia is a threat to both the sugar industry and to the artificial sweetener industry, so it's no wonder that the FDA has done all it can to stop the sale of this remarkable herbal sweetener. But now you know, so next time you want to add some noncaloric sweetener to your baked goods or drink, try some stevia. Check out cookingwithstevia.com for more stevia facts and recipes, as well as a stevia-to-sugar conversion chart (unlike aspartame, which loses its sweetness at high temperatures, stevia can be used in cooking).
SOURCES used in this version of the article
II: "Get the Sugar Out," by Ann Louise Gittleman, page xiii
3. Martin, William Coda. Michigan Organic News. March 1957, p.3