Sugar - it’s a sticky mess. We’re told we should lay off the golden syrup, but that maple syrup’s fine, that we should steer clear of chocolate, except the dark stuff, or the ones sweetened with xylitol, and that our kids will explode if they eat too many jellies, but they can mainline dates and they’ll be just grand. So what to do. Today, in a world filled with more questions than answers, we’re going to try and remove a few doubts. But first….
You’re an INDIVIDUAL. Yes, you’re a bright and shining example of the human race, but you’re a unique snowflake, and in the context of sugar that’s a really key point to keep in mind. So no matter what studies you read, what articles get published, what your mate does, or even what your parents did or do, how your body responds to sugar (and everything else in this world) in all its glorious forms cannot be templated from the experiences of others, and as is the case with all things related to personal development and individual wellness, there will be some self experimentation necessarily involved.
The beauty of engaging in this self study is that you get to understand more about how YOUR body really works, not just how it should according to some remote and distant lab technician and his test tubes. So if you feel your 3 o’clock slump regardless of whether your on a HFLC diet or you fasted or you had 4 Twix’s and cup of tea for breakfast...or even if you had the ubiquitous healthy option of poached egg and avocados then only one truth remains - YOU had a slump. YOU need to change things up.
So when it comes to sugar we have our two major sources to consider - fructose and glucose...well also galactose, milk sugar, but that’s a debate for another day. Basically every source of sugar we consume is some combination of those first ones, and they come at least partially bound together in a form called sucrose (which is a 1:1 combination of the two). Whether it’s plain old Siucra white sugar out of a bag, or if it’s organic dark agave syrup, or even just a kiwi straight up with no meddling - what our bodies receive is some glucose, some fructose, and then the other bits of food, which is actually what makes the difference - but we’ll come to that in a bit.
We think we know it all eh, we have names for most of the bits in the universe, right down to the subatomic level, but get this - we don’t even really know how fructose absorbs!! Hilarious! We have some ideas, and they involve GLUT transporters, lots of them, but still there are contradictions in how fructose can travel against a concentration gradient that belies our lack of nutritional nouse. But that level of nitpickery does us no favours here - we’re in the demistification of sugar myths business, so let’s get back to that.
Basically the fructose and the glucose and the sucrose that gets broken down (into the two former molecules), all get through our gut wall, into our bloodstream and one of the following things happen:
If you’ve been starving yourself and you’re in a state of caloric deficit, then glucose gets used to fuel immediate energy needs, first in the brain, then in descending order through our other vital organs and then through to skeletal muscle, and if there’s any leftovers that your body doesn’t need they go into storage as glycogen in the liver and also into muscle stores for later use.
However if, like most of the western world you have a situation of caloric excess, the opposite of starvation, where we’re basically chronically overfed, eating on average 6 “meals” per day, the metabolic direction of your sugar intake may be vastly different…
When the body is already replete with energy - and that doesn’t mean that you feel like you could lift a small car while reciting the alphabet backwards, more that your cells just have enough stored energy - then there’s no need for further sugar supplies to hit your bloodstream, and the storage thing happens again. When the storage tanks fill up with glycogen it’s just like filling a sink, there’s an overflow outlet to deal with excess storage too. And that puts extra sugars back into the bloodstream, along with triglycerides (fats), and this is when things go seriously downhill.
So till this point we’ve been dealing with glucose and fructose as though they’re the same thing, and they’re not far off. But one key difference exists - when we take in fructose (especially without fibre attached) it goes straight to our liver for processing. And this sounds okay on paper, but the problem is that isolated fructose or fructose/glucose syrup or high fructose corn syrup - these are now the default sweeteners of the food manufacturing industry. Which means our liver is now having to deal with a load that nature never taught it to handle, which may join the dots with the growing epidemic of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Or at least that’s the theory. Because like all things nutritional science, there’s a counter argument. But what we can’t deny is the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes and the correlation with increased free (not bound to fibre) fructose consumption.
Amazing we got this far through a blog on sugar and we haven’t even mentioned insulin! Well here it goes. So insulin is a fairly well understood but also fairly misaligned hormone that forms part of your body’s arsenal for dealing with “caloric excess”...or that second helping of dessert. But it doesn’t have to mean sugar, it could be protein or fats too, insulin is the storage trigger when your body senses that the batteries are full, but for some reason they’re still plugged in and charging...insulin triggers your cells to mop up the excess, to store more energy, and the unfortunate end game, which we’re all fairly aware of with current societal issues around food, is reduced insulin sensitivity, hence more sugars floating around our blood, and in time the production of wicked little things called AGE’s -
Advanced Glycation End products AGE’s are the reason that eyesight deteriorates earlier in those with diabetes (diabetic retinopathy) and why, in extreme cases diabetics can suffer complete necrosis of lower limbs requiring amputation. But like I said, EXTREME CASES. Not common. And the beauty of knowing about them, is also in knowing how simple it is to prevent their production. Onwards.
If we want to deal with mild blood sugar issues (which we all have AKA the 3 o’clock slump), then we need to put some simple food rules in place. First up -
Protein - consumption in moderation with every meal. This has been scientifically proven to assist in the uptake of glucose into our cells for storage, and reduce post-prandial (after meal) circulating blood glucose. A good thing. Most folk who try this have a fairly immediate positive response, especially if they’ve been challenged to maintain energy levels or been suffering from sleep issues. Blood sugars and sleep problems go hand in hand folks. Don’t believe us? Try it out before dropping a fortune on expensive supplements. You may be amazed.
The simplest example of this is the “porridge for breakfast addict” - yes they’re doing a healthg thing for their body in so so many ways. But the unfortunate fact is that there is very little protein in oats and so their breakfast, while keeping their gut moving, doesn’t do a lot to keep them going until lunch. Brief caveat here: there are plenty of you carb fiends out there who do just fine on porridge for breakfast, but this is for the other guys, the ones struggling to keep themselves upright in a 4pm board meeting. They might have benefited profoundly from adding just a handful of nuts to that porridge, instead of the generous drizzle of honey. Or if you want to get even more adventurous, maybe dilisk and miso...yes there’s a whole savoury porridge movement out there, and more power to them for sticking our favourite ferment in their breakfast bowl.
Fibre - the other most interesting and paradoxically boring of facts is that fibre, yes good ol’ prunes, delay the uptake of sugar from the gut. And that’s a really good thing. The slower the sugars reach your bloodstream the easier a time your body has in managing them. So the unfortunate fact about this is that the food industry has spent about the past 70 years removing all traces of fibre from our pre-packaged and snack foods, and they’ve done a really good job of this. So to get the fibre back in, it’s the super simple but ultimately boring message of getting back to cooking wholefoods - kale, sweet potatoes, whatever it is, find your fibrous friend and stick to him like glue.
Really good quality dark chocolate, when it’s carefully produced, might contain around 40gm of sugar per 100gm, but it also contains wicked amounts of magnesium, iron, polyphenols and theobromine. So the health properties are dictated by the sugar content, but by the standard of production - look for a “bean to bar” craft chocolate - this means the roasting process will have been slower, preserving nutrients, it also means that in all likelihood, the producer has paid top dollar to get stand out beans from a farmer who cares for his crop, paying maximum care and attention to the processing to preserve the flavour and character of his beans...and that nearly inevitably leads to a more nutrient dense food. And that’s the trick, for us at least, calories, sugar and fat content in foods, it really isn’t the ultimate focus when we’re talking about health. We want to eat, and help you guys eat, a plate that’s full up with nutrients. Because that and only that, is what lights up your cells and starts to make your body and brain work like they’re on the same side, instead of constantly fighting with each other like they’re in a bad marriage.
Picking Through Your Sugar Options -
Who gave us the right to tell the good sugars from the bad? Are there really any bad sugars out there or are they all just slightly evil, with some of them wearing more convincing costumes than others. Well that’s a tough one to be any way definitive on, but for my money, the lower cost the sugar, the less nutrients it provides, and in our store at least, the focus is on nutrient density. Even if it’s a pizza, or a bar of chocolate, yes the sugar counts for something, no denying it, but the quality of the food...let’s take chocolate bar for example -
So with all that said, here’s our list of Marvel Superheroes from the sugar world - because we can’t resist an old fire and brimstone good and evil fairytale…
When you get a good one (and that can be a bit challenging as there’s many an imitation maple syrup hiding out on the shelves of your local supermarket), maple is so rich in minerals as to sometimes contain as much zinc as you need in a day! It’s also rich in manganese, and has some magnesium and calcium as well as B2 and trace amounts of other nutrients. BUT...it’s still sugar, so we use it sparingly, and when you come across recipes that include it, try taking the sugar level down by 10% - I bet you won’t even notice the difference. There’s a whole new grading system, which makes identifying good from bad maple syrup. Basically the darker the better when it comes to mineral content.
Once the doyenne of the healthfood sweetener world, agave has got a bad rap over the last few years due to its high fructose content, which is an issue. And then folks started messing around with it, selling it as raw when it was cooked, etc. But in this case, we love agave because the good ones are FULL of fibre, which as we now all know is one of our best friends to help slow the spike of the sugar rush. And the great thing about naturally occurring fructose is that it TASTES 1.7x sweeter than glucose or sucrose gram for gram, so you can use less and still get the sweet hit.
Dammit this stuff is soooo good. And due to its high mineral content and spooky low GL (see link below) as pure sugar goes, we’re big fans. It’s great as a 1:1 alternative for baking instead of regular granulated sugar, as it dissolves really well too.
Okay, so we’re not sugar nazi’s, we’ve clearly established that, but if you have more significant issues either in pure sweet toothed-ness or with breaking down sugars in a more serious manner, then trying one of these polyols could provide a real solution. Somewhat like agave, the ‘polyols’ as they’re known have got a bit of a reputation for causing digestive distress, and hence their rise has stalled of late, but if taken in small amounts, they offer a truly low GL, making them suitable even for borderline diabetics. But be really careful before using that information as a green light to go mainlining xylitol in your coffee.
Why oh why is stevia so low on our list you ask?? Well 2 reasons really. Firstly, because most of the stevia-based products are produced by a couple of companies that are owned by Coke and Pepsi, which means that they’re being put on your plate by corporations that want to get you hooked on their product...alarm bells ringing? Us too, so even though the potential for stevia to be a saviour for our sugar addicted nations exists, there’s just too much crap being put in to dilute the goodness. Have a look at the pack next time you pass one in the supermarket and you’ll see what we mean, and check the ACTUAL percentage of stevia going into these products, it’s a bit underwhelming.
The second is that stevia has a bit of a funky, grassy and minty aftertaste, which means it really affects the flavour of whatever food you’re trying to make with it. That said there are a couple of great brands around - we carry Natvia, which has maltitol in it to dilute the ridiculous sweetness of the stevia (in its whole state it’s roughly 9x sweeter than table sugar), instead of silicon dioxide or the other nasty rubbish being cut into the ones being sold in many supermarkets.
So there you have it. Just cut down the total intake, take fibre and protein alongside your sugar, focus on nutrient density, and you should soon see a difference in your energy levels throughout the day. And the next time you have the chance to see a young kid being given something sweet for the first time and bouncing off the walls for a couple of hours afterwards, reflect a bit on what his body is doing, and what ours was born to do, but might have forgotten how to along the sugar laden path of life, it’s to get off our bums and burn the stuff off!
References - Here’s a great table that breaks down Glycaemic index and load for a bunch of sweeteners
Here’s a wicked talk by Robert Lustig on the dangers of free fructose and what our body does with sugars. He’s a real firebrand biochemist - those two words shouldn’t co-exist easily but you’ll get what we mean when you watch