The devil of the food world wears many disguises.
Sugar, corn syrup and honey. There’s actually more that unites this team of temptations than divides it. Like the devil itself, sugar in any form hides out, sneaks up and tricks the weak.
So how can something that tastes so good be so bad for you?
Table sugar, or crystalline sucrose, is a preservative and flavor-enhancer that retains moisture and provides texture at just 4 calories per gram. This disaccharide is made up of equal parts fructose and glucose.
Give glucose molecules a slight edge, and you could be eating honey. Tip the balance toward fructose, and you could be describing agave or even corn syrup.
Chemically, there’s not much difference between the three, but when we talk of “bad-for-you” sugar, often it’s white, granulated, refined and nestled among other sweetening agents.
But white, granulated table sugar does not deserve to shoulder all the blame.
Sugar, corn syrup and honey are equally sweet and metabolized at about the same rate, but it is the devil within the details of that metabolism that stirs debate among biochemists and naturopaths, dietitians and the health conscious. Many will tell you that, when it comes to all things sweet, it’s pretty much the same.
“One thing is for sure, sugar, in any form, certainly does not make you healthier,” said registered dietitian Marissa Kleinsmith of Paint Your Plate Nutrition Consulting. “Sure, some sweeteners have a slight edge over others ... but for the most part, sugar is sugar is sugar.”
Some will argue that honey is better for you because it is natural, unprocessed and untainted by pesticides. Others cite a preference for trendy blue agave or even trendier stevia because they are produced outside the realm of transnational, corporate, agribusiness cartels.
But all sweeteners are processed to some degree, and all may be subject to pesticides, depending on the conditions in which the sugar beets, sugar cane, corn, cactus and pollen-producing trees and flowers grow.
Most nutritionists will tell you that while less-processed sweeteners may be better, eating a boatload of anything – especially sweets – will wreak havoc on your body.
Dr. Kristen Lum of Rivergate Natural Health Care estimates that the average person consumes his or her weight in white sugar and takes in more than 20 pounds of corn syrup each year.
White sugar is not a food, Lum said, but a chemical extracted from beets. During the refining process, 64 food elements are destroyed, the sugar is bleached, and what is left is nutritionally useless. Worse, sugar becomes acidic when it reaches the body, causing inflammation.
To metabolize white sugar, the body must borrow vital nutrients from healthy cells. Metabolizing sugar, when required nutrients are already taxed, leaves the body unable to rid itself of toxins and invites disease to take hold, Lum said.
Lum, a naturopathic physician, does see redeeming value in honey, however.
“Raw, unprocessed honey is considered a superfood and contains antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, carbohydrates and phytonutrients,” she said.
If sugar is the root of all evil, then high-fructose corn syrup must be the Prince of Darkness.
Lum joins the chorus of nutritionists and naturopaths who condemn HFCS. They blame HFCS for a host of problems including mineral depletion, liver inflammation, hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance leading to diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
And while labeling can indicate which foods have sugar or HFCS, consumers must be diligent in reading those labels.
Kleinsmith said the biggest problem is that sugar –whether it is glucose, fructose or sucrose – is hidden throughout the processed food supply in places you’d least expect. For example, very healthy-looking flavored yogurts enhanced with probiotics and omega-3 often also contain 24 to 32 grams of sugar per serving, she said.
“(It is in) canned tomatoes, dressings, crackers, marinara and breads. We can’t take any packaged food at face value. It’s essential to be a food detective when shopping for packaged foods,” Kleinsmith said.
Biochemist Christine Smith of You & Food Nutritional Research and Consulting agrees.
Smith said the problem is not only that sugar and HFCS have infiltrated the aisles of packaged and canned goods at the local grocery store. It’s that we’re getting the bulk of our calories from bad carbs and not enough whole foods.
“I don’t think high-fructose corn syrup is bad in itself. It’s the foods it is in. If you’re eating it, that means you’re eating not as healthfully as you could with whole foods,” Smith said.
Smith talks enthusiastically about the enzymes and phytonutrients in honey and the high levels of calcium in molasses, but she’s quick to say that our fascination with all things sweet is the real problem.
“We’ve become so easily addicted. What’s bad about sugar is that it lights up the pleasure center of our brain like an opiate or cocaine,” she said.
Sugar, in all its forms, is habit-forming. It elicits a physiological response, Smith said.
“It’s tricky business. We want that sweet taste, but we can’t let it become a craving. Sometimes, you just have to get it out of your life,” she said.
Smith said that some have a tougher time than others walking away from the sweets cycle, but being committed to eating a balance of whole foods is a good start.
“A mouth can be like a 3-year-old. You have to train it with consistency, rules and some structure,” she said.
Getting away from the addictive behavior associated with sweets might mean eating a little more fat for energy and the right amount of protein, but a diet heavy in starches is another face of the same problem, Smith said.
Starches such as rice, bread and pasta are “just sugars linked together,” she said, meaning that complex carbohydrates, when metabolized affect the body not much differently than table sugar.
“You have to decide when these foods have become a problem in your life. You need to be mindful when eating,” Smith said.
Kleinsmith agrees, noting that sugar has been able to sneak under the nutritional radar for years because fat has taken the brunt of the criticism.
“The taste buds and the brain like sweetness, but whole, nutrient-dense foods like sweet potatoes, jicama and carrots are actually quite sweet. We just have to recondition our taste buds and rewire the brain to appreciate these subtleties. The only way to kill the sugar monster is to starve it,” Kleinsmith said.