Sugar - it’s a sticky mess. We are told to lay off golden syrup, but maple syrup is fine. Steer clear of chocolate except the dark stuff OR do we permit the ones sweetened with xylitol? We are told our kids will explode if they eat too many jellies, but they can mainline dates and they’ll be just grand. What to do? Today in this world filled with more questions than answers, we’re going to try and remove a few doubts. But first….
You are an INDIVIDUAL. Yes, you are a bright and shining example of the human race, but you are a unique snowflake and in the context of sugar that’s a key point to be mindful of. No matter what studies you read or abstract articles get published, how you might compare yourself to your mates or even what your parents did or in fact didn’t do; the fact is the way your body responds to sugar (and everything else in this world) in all its glorious forms cannot be mirrored from the experiences of others. As with all things developmental and related to personal wellness, there will be some self- experimentation involved.
When it comes to sugar, we have two major sources to consider - fructose and glucose. There is also galactose, a milk sugar, but that’s a debate for another day. Every source of sugar we consume is some combination of the two. And they come at least partially bound together in a form called sucrose (which is a 1:1 combination of fructose and glucose). Whether it’s plain old white sugar out of a bag Sucra, organic dark agave syrup or 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 which involve GLUT transporters, there are however still contradictions on 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 demystification of the sugar myth business, so let’s get back to that.
Basically, sucrose gets broken down into fructose and glucose which then penetrate through our gut wall, into our bloodstream and one of the following things happen:
- You have been starving yourself and you are in a state of caloric deficit. The glucose gets used to fuel immediate energy needs, first by the brain, then in descending order through our other vital organs and lastly through to skeletal muscle. If there is any leftover that your body doesn’t need it goes into storage within the liver as glycogen and into muscle stores for later use.
- In most of the western world however, we have a situation of caloric excess; the opposite of starvation, where we are basically chronically overfed, eating on average 6 “meals” per day. And the metabolic direction of your sugar intake is 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 - your cells have enough stored energy and there’s no further need for sugar supplies to the bloodstream. This is where the ‘storage thing’ happens again. When the storage tanks i.e. our liver, fill up with glycogen it’s just like filling a sink. That is, there’s an overflow outlet to deal with excess storage too. And this puts extra sugar back into the bloodstream, along with triglycerides (fats).
Up to this point we have been dealing with glucose and fructose as though they are the same thing, and they are not that far apart from each other. But one key difference exists - when we take in fructose (especially without the fibre attached) it goes straight to our liver for processing. This sounds okay on paper BUT the problem is with the isolated fructose, fructose/glucose syrup, high fructose corn syrup - the now default sweeteners of the food manufacturing industry – it 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 non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Or at least that’s the theory but like all thing’s in 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 without even a mention of insulin! Well here it goes. 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 be 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 reduced insulin sensitivity. Hence more sugars floating around our blood which eventually leads to with time - the production of wicked little things called AGE’s.
Advanced Glycation End products (AGE) 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 (AKA the 3 o’clock slump) then we need to put some simple food rules in place.
Protein - consumption in moderation with every meal. This has been scientifically proven to assist in the uptake of glucose to our cells for storage and reduce post-prandial (after meal) circulating blood glucose. A good thing. Most folk who try this have an immediate positive response, especially if they have been challenged to maintain energy levels or have 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 will be amazed.
The simplest example of this is the “porridge for breakfast addict” - yes, they are doing the healthy thing for their body in so many ways. But the unfortunate fact is there is little protein in oats. Which means that while keeping their gut moving, it doesn’t do a lot to keep them going until lunch. Brief caveat here: there are plenty of 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 benefit profoundly from adding a handful of nuts to their porridge, instead of the generous drizzle of honey. Or if you want to get even more adventurous perhaps try dilisk and/or 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. The unfortunate fact about this is the food industry has done a really good job over the last 70 years removing all traces of fibre from our pre-packaged and snack foods. To get the fibre back in, it’s a 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 it like glue.
Nutrient Density - Really good quality dark chocolate carefully produced might contain around 40mg of sugar per 100gm, but also contains wicked amounts of magnesium, iron, polyphenols and theobromine. Look for a “bean to bar” craft chocolate – which means the roasting process will have been slower, preserving nutrients and in all likelihood, means the producer has paid top dollar to get stand out beans from a farmer who cares for his crop. This all leads to a more nutrient dense food. Which is the trick, to not focus insomuch at calories, sugar and fat content but ultimately, 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.
Are all sugars just plain evil with some of them wearing more convincing costumes than others? That is a tough one, but I would wage the lower the cost, the less nutrients it provides. Whether it’s pizza or a chocolate bar the sugar counts for something. No denying it. With all that said, here is our list of Marvel Superheroes from the Sugar World - because we can’t resist an old fire and brimstone good vs evil fairy-tale…
A good one which can be challenging as there are so many imitation maple syrups hiding out there. Maple syrup is so rich in minerals as to sometimes contain as much zinc as you need in a day! Also rich in manganese with some magnesium and calcium as well as B2 and trace amounts of other nutrients. BUT still a sugar. Use sparingly and when you come across it as a recipe ingredient, try taking it down by 10% - I bet you won’t even notice the difference. Also, there is a whole new grading system, which helps to identify the good from the bad. Rule of thumb; the darker the better when it comes to mineral content.
2 - Agave Syrup
Once the doyenne of the health food 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 for our purposes, 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.
3 - Coconut Sugar
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 are big fans. It’s great as a 1:1 alternative for baking instead of regular granulated sugar, as it dissolves well too.
4 – Maltitol or Xylitol
Somewhat like Agave, the ‘polyols’ as they are known have gained a reputation for causing digestive distress, 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 careful before using that information as a green light to go mainlining xylitol in your coffee.
5 - Stevia
Why is Stevia so low on our list?? Well for two reasons. 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 are being put on your plate by corporations that want to get you hooked on their product...alarm bells ringing? So even though the potential for stevia to be a saviour for our sugar addicted nation exists, there is just too much crap being put in to dilute the goodness. Have a look at the label next time you come across one in the supermarket and you will see what we men. Be sure, 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 contains maltitol to dilute the ridiculous sweetness of the stevia where in its whole state is roughly nine times sweeter than table sugar. This is a better alternative to the nasty rubbish e.g. Silicon Dioxide being cut into the ones being sold in many supermarkets.
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. 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! We might have forgotten ‘how to’ along the sugar laden path of life but it’s time to get off our bums and burn the stuff off!
If you are looking for little treats without the trick this All Hallows' Eve, have a look at our Biona Organic Tutti-Frutti Wine Gums or Biona Organic Pomegranate Heart Jellies. If chocolate is your thing, check out Ombar Buttons, made with high percent raw cocoa keeping all the nutrients in place.
A great chart that highlights the Glycaemic Index for a load of sweeteners from Sisana Agave Sweeteners
This 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.