Sugar: A Sweet Deception
By Vicki Pepper, M.S., R.D., Kaiser Permanente, San Diego California
When Emperor Darius invaded India in 510 B.C. he called it, “the reed which gives honey without bees.” The Crusaders called it sweet salt when they brought it to the European continent, and white gold is what the British called it in 1750 when it became the most valuable crop produced in all of Europe. Today we call it sugar and it is considered a basic food staple of the American diet. Sugar even rates a spot on the government food pyramids. Most Americans rarely go a day without consuming one form of sugar or another. We add it to just about everything—even ketchup, medicines, and baby food.
The truth is that sugar is relatively new to the food chain. Unlike nuts, seeds, fruits, meats, and wild grains which have been found in the guts of primitive man and have been part of our consumption since our earliest history, sugar was discovered a mere 8,000 years ago and, until the last 40 years, people consumed very little of it.
The harvesting and the making of sugar originated in New Guinea and then quickly spread to Polynesia, Indonesia, and eventually Northern India where it stayed until the seventh century. When Arabic peoples invaded India they quickly recognized sugar as valuable crop and carried the harvesting techniques to their conquered territories throughout the Arabian Peninsula where the technology stayed until the 11th century. It was the Crusaders who carried what they called sweet salt to Europe and later Columbus carried it across the seas to the Americas.
Despite being of a substance of great desire, sugar was hard to come by, very expensive, and was something reserved for nobility and the very rich. So difficult were the conditions of harvesting it, that sugar is credited with the birth of African slavery as slaves were imported throughout the world to harvest sugar cane.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that sugar was produced in enough quantities to become something the general public could afford and not until the early part of the 21st century that it was affordable enough to become a daily staple. In 1930, Americans consumed roughly five pounds of sugar a year, or the equivalent of ¾ tsp. a day. After World War II the demand for sugar rose so dramatically that by 1970 consumption had increased to 109 pounds per person, per year.
In the late 70s, President Nixon imposed tariffs and quotas on imported sugar which caused the domestic price of sugar to soar. Food industries began looking for less costly options to satisfy America’s sweet tooth and a technology developed a decade earlier in Japan seemed like a good solution. Japan had developed a method for converting corn—a crop in surplus in the United States—into high fructose corn syrup, a compound even sweeter than sugar. This seemed like an easy, inexpensive way to sweeten foods.
Once introduced to food manufacturers, it took less than a decade for high fructose corn syrup to become the predominant sweetener used in soda pop, baked goods, fruit juices, breakfast cereals, etc. This alternative sweetener source drove the demand and the price of sugar down. Now for the first time in human history, satisfying cravings for sweetness became easy and affordable for just about everybody.
Sugar and high fructose corn syrup was added to everything, and in larger and larger portions. Sodas were no longer sold in standard 6 oz bottles—now 32 oz. Super Gulps could be had at every corner gas station. In the next 30 years the soft drink industry grew by over 350%. Americans started drinking 18 billion gallons of soda pop a year. People even gave it to their toddlers in baby bottles. Daily consumption of sugar had increased so dramatically that by 2010, the average daily sugar intake was no longer ¾ tsp. per day as it was in 1930, but 26 tsp. or half a pound a day. That is 170 pounds of sugars per person a year!
Imagine adding in 170 pounds of a foreign substance into your diet over a 40 year period. The health consequences have been profound. If the problem with sugar was simply empty calories, weight gain, and dental caries it wouldn’t be so deadly. However, over the last decade an increasing number of biochemists have made a case that sugar is actually a toxin and in enough quantities, it is lethal. The most outspoken of these biochemists is Robert Lustig M.D., a pediatric hormone disorders specialist and the leading expert in childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. Dr. Lustig writes, “…white table sugar and high fructose corn syrup have unique characteristics; specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in them, that makes them particularly harmful. When sugar is consumed in sufficient quantities, or in liquid form—soda or fruit juices — the fructose and glucose will hit the liver quickly. If fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantities and with sufficient speed the liver will convert much of it to fat. This extra fat stored in the liver induces a condition known as insulin resistance or insulin resistant diabetes.”
Dr. Lustig theorizes that sugar (a term he uses to include white sugar [sucrose] and high fructose corn syrup) is the primary reason that obesity and diabetes have risen in this country in alarming rates over the last 30 years. He further asserts that sugar is the likely cause of other chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and many common cancers. In the 70s, type 2 diabetes was called adult on-set diabetes because it only occurred in adults and typically in middle-aged adults. In the last 30 years the occurrence of type 2 diabetes—or what is now called insulin-resistant diabetes—has increased dramatically. Most concerning is the rapid increase of children now diagnosed with insulin resistant diabetes, even in children as young as six months old. Dr. Lustig credits the high concentration of sugar and high fructose corn syrups in snack, fruit juices, soda, and baby formula with the fact that insulin resistance diabetes is now endemic in children. Animal studies clearly demonstrate the connection between sugar, insulin resistance, and obesity. At Stanford University, Dr. Reaven, who is credited with much of the pioneering work on insulin resistances and type 2 diabetes writes, “If you want to cause insulin resistance in laboratory rats, feeding them diets that are mostly fructose is an easy way to do it. The more you feed them the faster you can achieve fatty liver, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome. Smaller amounts take longer for the condition to occur, but either way it is a predictable outcome.”
Sugar intake has been linked to other chronic health conditions besides diabetes. The 2007 report published by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research concluded “…the western diet high in refined sugars manifests itself through obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, and metabolic syndrome. This increase in insulin resistance leads to the secretion of more insulin which acts like a growth factor for cancer cells and promotes tumor growth.”
The Food and Drug Administration recommends that sugar should be avoided and that intake be limited to less than 40 pounds per person a year or less than 10% of caloric intake. However, taking sugar out of our food chain may prove difficult. In the 2009 Journal of Nutrition, a study documented the effects of sugar on neurochemistry changes in the brain. They found that sugar activates beta endorphin receptor sites in the brain the same way as heroin and morphine. In laboratory rats, dependency on sugar was achieved in as little as 10 days. Cycles of sugar binges caused sensitization of brain dopamine and opiod receptors which caused withdrawal symptoms similar to withdrawal from drugs and alcohol. Sugar may look a lot like cocaine, but it acts more like heroin when it hits the brain.
All indications point to sugar being addictive and dangerous to your health. It may be very difficult to give up sugar, but the benefits in improved physical and emotional health are well worth the effort. If you don’t want to give up sugar entirely, then consider giving up liquid forms of sugar. In liquid form, sugars saturate the liver very quickly causing more harm than eating highly sweetened foods. Those who feel like they are addicted to sugar may want to look into the 12-step food/sugar addiction recovery groups available in the community; Over- Eaters Anonymous or Food Addicts In Recovery Anonymous. These groups are free and some of them offer a structured food plan.
The Positive Choice Wellness Center offers a three month program called Solution-Recovery from Food Addiction. This intensive program offers education, support, and treatment for food/sugar addictions. The Positive Choice medically managed weight management programs may be another option for someone who wants to lose weight, reverse type-2 diabetes, and avoid sugar. The multi-disciplinary program uses nutritional supplements made by OPTIFAST® supplements that help people lose weight. These supplements contain no sugar and when used properly provide the correction of many chronic health conditions including insulin resistance. You can find out more information about these programs on our Web site or call us.