Monday, March 8, 2010
Sugar - Know the Facts
Here we are, the third installment of the Sugar series of Know the Facts. Today I'm talking about good old table sugar. I began writing this series because I wanted to know the facts about the science of sugars, meaning glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and so forth. Table sugar has become the black sheep of the sugar family and I wanted to try to understand why people feel that other sweeteners are better. I'm starting to get it, although I have to say I don't necessarily agree. When I'm done with this series I will share with you my thoughts about sugars, but for now, onto the facts. In the meantime, you might find this post, and the linked article interesting.
Table sugar, made from either sugar cane or sugar beets is made up of sucrose which is a disaccharide - a combination of glucose and fructose. Originally, people chewed sugar cane raw to extract the sweetness. Around the year 350 AD, Indians discovered how to crystallize sugar by grinding or pounding the cane to extract the juice and boiling it down or drying it in the sun to yield sugary solids. Sugar in the beet root was not discovered until 1747. It wasn't until the 1400's that sugar made it's way into Europe and began to really gain popularity. By the 1700's sugar surpassed grain as the most valuable commodity in European trade. This is when Europeans began consuming jams, candies, tea, coffee, cocoa, processed foods and other sweets. So you see, it's only been about 300 years. Think about that...
Let's talk about the types of cane sugar that we have. Up until recently I only knew about white sugar and brown sugar (light or dark). Then, I learned that there are other, less refined forms. Here's what happens. The first crystallization of the sugar cane produces raw sugar, naturally brown sugar, free of dyes and chemicals. The brown color comes from the naturally occurring molasses. At this stage, sugar also contains all of its natural vitamins, minerals and mineral salts. This includes phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. Raw sugar should not be confused with Turbinado sugar, although some Turbinado sugar is being advertised as raw.
Turbinado sugar comes from the crushing of the cane to obtain the juice. The juice is then heated and evaporated to syrup and then crystallized. The crystals are then spun to remove excess juice.
Muscovado sugar is when the sugar cane extract is heated to thicken it and then pan evaporated in the sun and pounded to yield unprocessed, damp sugar that retains all natural minerals.
Demerara sugar is heated and then dehydrated to form crystals and still contains some molasses.
Evaporated Cane Juice is a more refined version of Turbinado sugar.
There are many forms of cane sugar and some are being sold as "healthier" than white sugar. White sugar is the most refined of them all, it is processed to the max including chemically washed to remove all of the color and stripped of any and all nutrients. Brown sugar (light or dark) that you typically find in the grocery store is just white sugar with molasses added back in. Don't be fooled into thinking it's a less refined product than white sugar. Turbinado, Muscovado, Demerara and ECJ are all less processed than white sugar but honestly, from what I've read, even if they do contain vitamins and minerals, they are only in trace amounts.
I'm finding a lot of conflicting information and opinions on sugars in general and it's quite frustrating. But the majority of my research leads me back to this: we shouldn't be eating added sugars. Whether refined or unrefined, it doesn't matter. We get more than enough natural sugar from the whole foods that we should be eating. Added sugar means all forms - white, brown, agave, syrups, honey, etc. An interesting little tidbit I came across really struck me and I think all of you autoimmune folks out there might find it interesting as well:
Sugar may temporarily deactivate white blood cells, lowering the body's ability to fight infectious diseases for approximately 24 hours. One may be more susceptible to colds and other infections after eating large amounts of sugar.
So if we're eating added sugar on a daily basis, that would mean that our immune systems are never functioning normally. Interesting? I think so. I also came across some research by Kathleen DesMaisons, noting that dependence on sugar followed the same track outlined in the DSM IV for other drugs of abuse. Sugar and the taste of sweet stimulate the brain by activating beta endorphin receptor sites. The same chemicals activated by heroin and morphine.
This post was quite difficult to write. I found a TON of information about sugar out there and almost all of it was conflicting. You also have to be careful of the sources because some research may be sponsored by sugar companies that want the information to be favorable. But the more I read about sugar, the less I like it. I am curious to know, if the entire country eliminated added sugars from their diets and changed NOTHING else, what would happen? I think it would show a major increase in health in all of us.
Having said that, baking cookies, or brownies, or cake once in a while is not going to kill you. But let's be honest here, we are eating this stuff all of the time. Myself included. And not only that, it's the packaged foods, the sauces, the drinks, the breads, the crackers, almost everything we eat contains added sugars. And I mean ALL forms of added sugars, honey, agave, evaporated cane juice, fruit juices and so on. It's something to seriously think about and pay attention to.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject, and where you think I should go next with this series?