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Nowadays, sugar has a bad reputation when it comes to health.
Sugar intake has drastically increased over the last century. During the 1800s, the average quantity of added sugar an adult ate in about 5 days is the amount of sugar found in one of today's 12-ounce sodas. Indeed, the average American adult consumes about 34 teaspoons of added sugar per day. This equates to more than 100 lb (45 kg) of sugar per person each year.
Health problems can occur when we consume too much added sugar. That is sugar that food manufacturers add to products to increase flavor or extend shelf life.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has replaced sucrose (sugar) in many of the food products that we can find in grocery stores today. HFCS is a mixture of two simple sugars: glucose and fructose, which is similar to the composition of sucrose. This sweetener is mostly present in processed foods. Some scientists contend that HFCS can contribute to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
These sugars contain only empty calories, which means they provide no other nutrients like protein, vitamins or minerals. When sugar calories replace more nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, your whole diet and health may be at risk.
Usually, the top sources of added sugar are soft drinks, fruit juices, flavored yogurts, cereals, cookies, cakes, candy, and most processed foods. But added sugar can also be present in items that you may not think of as sweetened, like soups, bread, cured meats, or ketchup. This results in an excessive added sugar intake.
This is why it is very important to read the label of every product we buy. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to identify added sugar on a food label. Food companies use more than 50 other names for added sugar, which makes it more difficult to spot. Here are some of the most common:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Cane sugar or juice
- Invert sugar
- Rice syrup
WHAT IS REFINED SUGAR AND HOW IT IS MADE?
Refined sugar was practically nonexistent in the human diet until recent times. Today, the overconsumption of sugar might be one of the leading causes of the obesity epidemic.
Refined sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, which are processed to extract the sugar. It is typically found as sucrose, which is the combination of glucose and fructose. We usually use white and brown sugars to sweeten our cakes, cookies, coffee, cereals, etc. As for them, food manufacturers might add chemically processed sugar, typically high-fructose corn syrup, to food and beverages. This includes crackers, flavored yogurts, tomato sauces and salad dressings. Low-fat food is sometimes even worse, as manufacturers use sugar to add flavor.
The sugar manufacturing process consists of washing the sugar canes or beets, slicing them, and soaking them in hot water, which allows their sugary juice to be extracted. The juice is then filtered and reduced into a syrup that is further processed into sugar crystals that are washed, dried, cooled, and packaged into the table sugar found in grocery stores.
WHY IS REFINED SUGAR BAD FOR YOU?
There is a debate raging about the role of sugar in today's diet and its relationship to disease.
The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) has launched SugarScience, which is designed as an authoritative source for the scientific evidence about sugar and its impact on health. Developed by a team of health scientists from UCSF, the website reflects an exhaustive review of more than 8,000 scientific papers that have been published to date. Researchers from UCSF wrote that refined sugar is most likely to be a toxin that causes all sorts of illnesses, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.
Some scientists also argue that sugar might be addictive.
So, can sugar really be addictive? The FDA defines addiction as craving for and continued use of a substance that is hazardous to your well-being. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that sugary foods might cause a chemical effect similar to addictive drugs like cocaine in the brains of animals. Whether this response constitutes addiction in the technical sense is still debated.
However, it is well known that people have a hard time giving up sweets. That may be caused by a combination of nostalgia (the memory of family members baking treats), habits (always having something sweet for dessert), and chemical attraction (the release of hormones in our brain that makes us feel good).
Dr. Frank Hu is a Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is also Co-director of the Program in Obesity Epidemiology and Prevention at Harvard, and serves as Director of Boston Nutrition and Obesity Research Center (BNORC) Epidemiology and Genetics Core.
Here is what Dr. Hu says:
"People who overconsume sugar or sweetened beverages have an increased risk of heart disease. Those who consume at least one serving per day of sugary beverages are more likely to die from cardiovascular disease. [...] Overconsumption of sugary beverages not only contributes to obesity, diabetes, but also heart disease."
In addition, a study from SugarScience underlines how the body metabolizes sugar: "sugar metabolism".
Sugar metabolism is the process by which the energy contained in the food we eat is synthesized as fuel for the body. For energy, the body’s cells can use glucose directly and most of them can also use fatty acids.
Glucose in the blood stimulates the pancreas to release insulin. If sugar is consumed in excess, it gets stored in the liver as glycogen or fat depots. And with the help of insulin, glucose can also be converted into fatty acids that circulate in the body and get stored as adipose tissue (commonly known as body fat) in the muscles.
Sugar overconsumption can lead to a greater accumulation of fat over time, which may turn into fatty liver disease, increasing risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Other negative health consequences include: weight gain, acne, blood sugar problems, premature aging, depression and even cancer.
Thankfully, there are many ways to limit our refined sugar intake by replacing it with natural sweeteners.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Consuming too much added sugar can have various negative health consequences.
For these reasons, added sugar should be kept to a minimum. A healthy diet based on whole foods is a great starting point.
Small daily choices compound to big wins over time, and before you know it your sugar habit will be a thing of the past.
For more information and our recommended alternative natural sweeteners, check out our detailed article "13 Ways To Reduce Your Added Sugar Intake".
The information provided in this article is not nutritional or medical advice. Please read our disclaimer.