For the health conscious person, trying to eat healthy seems like a continuous game of whack-a-mole. Is it fat, salt, sugar, eggs, air??? Sugar, prevalent in so many of our beloved foods and a hidden ingredient in so many others, comes with a lot of baggage these days. Is it warranted? Here are 10 surprising secrets about added sugar that you probably didn’t know but should.
#1 – We Eat 152 lbs of Sugar Per Person Annually
Two hundred years ago, people only consumed 2 lbs of sugar of year on average. Today, we clock in at 152 lbs of sugar a year or roughly 3 lbs a WEEK. That’s quite an increase. The U.S. government has been keeping records of sugar consumption for more than a little while as these stats from the Department of Health and Human Services point out.
#2 – Today’s Sugar Consumption Was Technically Impossible Until 150 Years Ago
Sugar cane and other natural sugars have been around for millennia but the way we process sugar and its widespread availability hasn’t. Until the mid-1800s, we weren’t manufacturing sugar at scale and it remained a relatively expensive “fine spice” until then. The industrial revolution, slave trade and sugar’s economic clout changed that. Today’s technology makes all kinds of refined and processed sugars possible at extremely affordable costs, and with them a host of processed foods as technology improved in the 1900s. High fructose corn syrup, ubiquitous now, wasn’t invented until 1957 and is probably the most familiar of the new generation of sugar products (2).
#3 – There Are At Least 61 Different Names and Types of Processed Sugar
Added sugar comes in so many forms, from white table sugar to beet sugar and everything in between. The modern food industry is also continually developing new ways of processing sugar and each form has its own name. There are at least 61 and counting names for sugar and they crop up everywhere, especially in our processed foods. You may be familiar with dextrose but what about maltodextrin or ethyl maltol? Next time you read that ingredient label on your food, you might be surprised at the added sugar hiding in it in one or more of these 61 names.
#4 – Sugar Is A Preservative and Additive
While we all know sugar’s sweetening properties, sugar is often used as a preservative. It became popular in the mid-1800s in the West to preserve fruit with sugar and later became a staple in the food processing industry, along with its ability to give texture, color and crunch to various products that can’t be easily replicated with other ingredients. This, along with its taste enhancer, is why it is so common in the food industry. That and Secret #5.
#5 – Sugar is Addictive
Another reason sugar is in many foods is that it sells by hooking us. Ever wonder why you don’t want to give up sugar despite knowing all its harmful health effects? It’s not just because it tastes good. Sugar is psychoactive, meaning it hits our pleasure sensors in the brain. And it does so much like any narcotic. Take away sugar and we go into withdrawal. We don’t want to give up sugar and have problems quitting it because of its addictive properties – like any drug. That’s why you can give up broccoli or peppermint but not sugar. For a good read on sugar and the food industry, pick up Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss.
#6 – Sugar Sold Cigarettes and Started the Lung Cancer Epidemic
Back in the 1800s, American tobacco companies invented the modern rolled cigarette by adding sugar to tobacco leaves. This flavor enhancer not only was pleasant for users but also made inhalation possible in such a way that the tar and other ingredients in tobacco would go to the lungs and, you guessed it, enable lung cancer. Without the sugar, rolled cigarettes would never have caught on and inhalation would have been much more difficult into the lungs. Sugar made it chemically possible. For a fascinating read on this and more, pick up The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes.
#7 – The Sugar Industry Has Concealed Sugar’s Health Risks Since the 1960s
Archives of sugar companies have exposed files, communications and reports on sugar’s relationship to many modern health problems – showing that the sugar industry was well aware of the effect sugar had on the populace for over 50 years as reported on by The New York Times in 2016. In the 1960s, companies regularly paid off researchers, ghost wrote studies, and secretly funded research to divert attention from sugar to fat as the cause of heart disease, the growing obesity and diabetes epidemics, liver disease and even cancer. They actively enlisted renowned doctors to talk up sugar as good for us and discredit research that showed the opposite to be true, rivaling Big Tobacco for the title of Sleaziest Industry of the Century.
#8 – Sugar In Your Bloodstream is One of the Greatest Metabolic Risks to Your Health
Glucose, which is the name given to sugar when it’s in your bloodstream, is actually essential to your body and your cells. The health problems occur when you get too much glucose. Anytime your blood sugar spikes above 120 mg/dL, your pancreas over-releases the hormone insulin. When this happens, your body shifts into fat-storing mode. So, the more blood sugar spikes you have the more fat you store. Not just that, but over time, this leads to insulin resistance as the body loses the ability to regulate your blood sugar levels. High blood sugar can lead to an onslaught of health challenges, including obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes (3). Interestingly, Alzheimer’s, often called type 3 diabetes, is also being found more and more linked to metabolic disorders related to insulin resistance due to elevated blood sugar levels.
#9 – Blood Sugar Levels Also Correlate to Cancer Risk
Current studies have shown a high correlation between insulin intolerance, high blood sugar levels and rates of cancer. The more sugar you eat, the greater your blood sugar spikes, increasing your insulin resistance and your risk for cancer. Researchers have now found insulin resistance to be is associated with various types of cancer such as colorectal cancer,1 pancreatic cancer,2 endometrial cancer,3 and breast cancer.4
#10 – Sugar Harms Your Gut Biome
Sugar can keep good microbes from colonizing your gut. These health-friendly bacteria aid in anything from digestion to immune and nervous system health. Sugar, a huge part our processed food-heavy diet in the West, is at ground zero in destabilizing our microbiome. This has been linked to autoimmune issues and even to depression, among many of health problems. Our gut bacteria do so much for our health. Feeding them sugar, though, isn’t the way to thank them.
Sugar in the Spotlight
These are just a few of the fascinating secrets about sugar. Most worrying are the impacts sugar has on our health. Beyond cavities, sugar’s role in spiking our blood sugar to lead to a host of severe maladies is one of the most harmful side effects of over-consumption. As the facts show, we are gorging on sugar and with the rise in consumption has come a corresponding rise in modern diet-related disease like diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. That’s just for starters.
Some of the confusion around sugar stems from trying to understand the role of sugar found naturally in foods, glucose as the product of carbohydrates in digestion, blood sugar, and added sugar itself. They all share the term sugar but are not the same thing. The bottom line is more about what will be spiking your blood sugar, as this has implications for so many health issues. Added sugar, which we are consuming at the rate of 152 lbs per year, plays an out-sized roll alongside other bloods sugar-spiking foods like refined carbohydrates.
The skinny on sugar and health – it’s bad for us and we’re consuming too much. How much is reasonable? Well, I guess that depends on how much you’re spiking your blood sugar levels and hampering your insulin production. That’s at least a good place to start investigating given our exploding rates of obesity, diabetes, and pre-diabetes. It’s probably a little different for everyone but it doesn’t take much to put you over the magical threshold of 120 mg/dL and switch on fat storage and start down the road to insulin resistance. Keep that in mind the next time you slurp your soda or grab that office donut.
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