Sugar!

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This is first in a food series I’m starting about the food choices we’ve been making as a family. I’ve already posted about our decision to cut out highly processed foods, but in these I’ll go into more detail about the science behind this choice. My hubby is joining me in this blog series by contributing to each post in his own words. The first topic we’ll cover here is SUGAR!

I have a sweet tooth.
Most people do.
Most people also know that sugar is bad for them. But what is sugar and why do we feel guilty after we overindulge in it?

What it is

Ordinary table sugar is scientifically called sucrose. It is made up of both fructose and glucose. Fructose is the same sugar that is in fruit.

High fructose corn syrup is a highly refined sweetener and appears in most processed foods. We’ve avoided HFCS for years, mostly because it signifies a cheap, low-quality food product and it has no nutritional value. But it’s important to understand that while avoiding HFCS is a good thing, the body handles both these sugars the same way: both will spike your blood sugar, both will give you a jolt of energy followed by a “sugar crash,” and both will leave you wanting more. More recently, we’ve made an attempt to reduce all refined sugar from our diet.

Why it’s bad

Aside from the sugar crash, sugar is addicting, bad for teeth, weakens the immune system, and excessive consumption can lead to obesity and diabetes. Every time we drastically spike our blood sugar, our body has to work hard to create insulin to regulate it. It’s all about balance.

And sugar is highly addictive. The more you eat, the more you want…but the reverse is also true: the less you eat, the less you miss it! There’s a lot of conflicting advice about food, from carbs to cholesterol to chemicals. But despite all the drama and debate, everyone seems to agree that lots of sugar is lots of bad. You don’t hear about scientific studies linking high sugar intake to high longevity. You don’t hear nutritionists promoting some new research about a traditional culture from the 1300’s that thrived on kilograms of honey and sugarcane. You don’t hear alternative bloggers touting their innovative six-packs-of-a-soda-a-day diet that revitalized their lives and made them feel 25 again. I (Josh) think it’s pretty interesting that people who disagree about so much agree about this.

Unlike trans fat (which we’ll look at next), sugar doesn’t seem to be so bad that it should be completely avoided. I (Josh) thoroughly enjoyed three pieces of pumpkin pie last month. Thankfully, consuming less sugar doesn’t have to be painful; cutting out most of the refined sugars that come in so many processed foods leaves lots of room for the natural sugars that come in so many delicious, nutrient-packed fruits. Even though we’re not really worried about obesity or tooth decay, the more we learn about more people saying more things about sugar, the more limiting our intake just makes sense.

It’s everywhere

Again, our problem with sugar isn’t that we wish to avoid it entirely…we believe it’s fine in moderation. Our problem is that it’s in everything! How can we consume it in moderation when added to every beverage, snack, cereal, condiment, and dressing out there? This has led us to make many things at home, like bread, tortillas, and yogurt. It’s more work, but to me (Emily) it’s worth it. I’d rather avoid sugar in the non-desserts so I can have it occasionally (in something chocolate) and truly enjoy it!

Sugar alternatives

There are some more nutritious alternatives to sugar, and I love baking with them!
  • Pure maple syrup and honey – These are natural, unrefined, straight from nature. Get the best you can afford. While they are still processed the same in your body (all sweet things are), they are the same sweet things our ancestors found in trees and enjoyed on rare occasions.
  • Coconut sugar – This is a lovely invention! It’s the evaporated sap of the coconut palm (also called palm sugar). It tastes like brown sugar, but has nutritious vitamins and antioxidants from the plant still intact due to its minimal processing. It also has healthy amino acids from the coconut. The best part is it’s cheaper than maple syrup and honey, and it’s a 1:1 substitute for sugar in baking!
  • Stevia – I don’t use stevia personally because I think the aftertaste is a little funky, but lots of people enjoy this all-natural, super sweet, no calorie alternative to sugar. I would stick with the liquid or the 100% pure powder, as some have additives to make it less concentrated (it’s many times sweeter than sugar and should be used a drop at a time!)
  • Fruit – Some fruit is very sugary. This sugar is fructose. I use it to my advantage. In the form of fruit (not juice, but the fruit itself) fructose is accompanied by vitamins, minerals, potassium, and fiber. Most recipes taste great sweetened with fruit alone. Oatmeal is fantastic with just some raisins or fresh blueberries as sweetener! Many desserts taste great with just a banana or handful of dates instead of sugar. Or try plain yogurt with frozen berries or mangoes mixed in as an ice cream alternative! Even when doing a week with strictly no added sugar, we allow fruits in our diet.
Those are some of the good sugar alternatives, but there’s also a lot of bad ones out there. I’m not a fan of agave nectar. Even though it’s from a plant, it has to be processed and heavily refined to make the syrup. The jury’s out on whether this is really unhealthy, but I still chose to avoid it.
Most importantly, please avoid all artificial sweeteners! The words “sugar-free” on anything probably mean there is a man-made zero-calorie chemical instead of sugar: aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose to name a few. These chemicals are not natural, and in my opinion, are even worse than sugar. (Maybe we haven’t discovered anything bad about most of them yet, but they haven’t been around long enough, either – unlike the honey and fruits that have thousands of years of experience behind them.) Please avoid, and if you need low-calorie, use stevia.

How to read a label

Unfortunately, the nutrition labels on processed foods don’t make it easy to tell the difference between refined sugar and natural sugar. So ignore that column that lists grams of sugar and go right to the ingredient list. There you can easily see if there is any ADDED sugar in the product. Applesauce is a great example, as apples are high in natural sugar. The label may say 23 grams of sugar in a serving. It sounds like a lot, but if the only ingredients are apples, water, and cinnamon, than it’s all naturally occurring fructose. If the second ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, put it down and walk away slowly.

How to break the sugar habit

It’s hard to start, but easy to maintain a lower-sugar lifestyle. I (Emily) started by cutting sugar out of my coffee and tea. That was a big step, but the less you eat sweets, the less you crave them, and the more special they are when you do have them (made from scratch, with natural sugar substitutes!) I’ve found my threshold for sweet is much lower now, and I enjoy other flavors more as they are allowed to take center stage.If you’re trying to cut out added sugar, we’re here to support you!

Stay tuned! The next post is about fat!

Sources and further reading:
What to Eat – Marion Nestle
Skinny Chicks Eat Real Food – Christine Avanti
Salt, Sugar Fat: how the food giants hooked us – Michael Moss
In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan

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8 Comments

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  1. What is your opinion on sucanat?

    • I would rate it just a little lower than coconut sugar. While it is a great substitute for refined sugar as far as processing goes, coconut sugar has those amino acids and antioxidants.

      • I have never tried/ used coconut sugar :)… I use only raw honey/sucanat (and just ordered some organic grade B maple syrup!), what is it like to bake with? taste? and major differences compared to sucanat or honey? 🙂

      • Coconut sugar is very similar in taste to brown sugar, and it melts in your mouth. I rarely use it all by itself, but it is great in baking! (It’s that time of year!) I get it at Trader Joe’s, where I work, for $3.99 / lb.

  2. I’m glad that you put sources at the bottom, but a note in the post, as well as specific parts of where you found various things is always helpful for people who want the same information, or to dispute yours 🙂

  3. Awesome! I may have to try it!

  4. Ugh. This is going to be so hard for me! I LOVE sugar. I really do..and though I am very conscious of other things I eat, I rarely give a rip about my sugar intake! I know I need to decrease, but I’m going to have to do it verrrry slowly. Thanks for the info 🙂

    • I was the same way till not that long ago! You can do it! Honestly, there’s so many delicious things without sugar, you won’t miss it as much as you think you will! Good luck with your food goals!!

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