Living Better: What’s the Harm in Sugar and Sweeteners?

by March 21, 2014 03/21/14
Diner Table photo by Pete
5 of 6 in the series Living Better

We live in exciting times. Our world is evolving in so many ways that we’re redefining what it means to be human. For the vast majority of our species existence we’ve been meat eating, vegetable gathering “locavors.” It’s only been since the crude oil boom that eating things from other parts of the world on a regular basis has become normal. It’s only in the last few decades that food has changed from being grown to being manufactured.

Marketing has pulled a veil over the heads of the general public and the names of additives on a label look as though they were written in Klingon. The truth is that we really don’t know what we’re consuming on a daily basis. Quantity is another major issue facing us as consumers. Products advertising low-fat are extremely high in sugar and products advertising low-sugar are high in fat. There are also substances that we can barely pronounce, let alone understand.

It’s all smoke and mirrors geared for a profit margin. Even the word “organic” has been trademarked, packaged and sold under false pretenses. The word “free range” only had meaning for a year or so as well. Whatever word we use to describe natural and healthy food becomes abused and misused immediately because it’s profitable. They get away with it because due to the fact it tastes so good, all we need as consumers is an excuse to eat it. It’s the clever marketing that gives us that excuse.

The purpose of this article is to expose the truth behind sugar and artificial sweeteners. This is one of those areas where knowledge is much more than just power, it’s actually a tool that could extend your life and the lives of your children. Let’s start off with a few statistics.

Quantity

Maximum amount of sugar recommended daily:

  • Men – 37.5g
  • Woman – 25g
Rethink Your Drink

What we actually consume:

  • Coca-Cola
    • 12 oz. (355 ml) Can: 39g Sugar
    • 20 oz. (590 ml) Bottle: 65g Sugar
    • 1 Liter (34 oz) Bottle: 108g Sugar
  • Rockstar Energy Drink 16 oz. (480 ml) Can: 62g Sugar
  • Arizona Lemon Iced Tea 24 oz. Can: 72g Sugar
  • Minute Maid Iced Tea
    • 20 oz. (590 ml) Bottle: 67g Sugar
  • Orange Juice (Minute Maid) 16 oz. Bottle: 48g Sugar
  • Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino
    • 16 oz. (Grande) drink, with whipped cream: 47g Sugar
  • Jamba Juice Sunrise Banana Berry 16 oz. drink: 59g Sugar
  • 7-Eleven Slurpee, Coca-Cola 40 oz. cup: 90g Sugar
  • Dairy Queen Butterfinger Blizzard 16 oz. (medium): 86g Sugar
  • McDonald’s Oreo McFlurry 12 oz. cup: 73g Sugar

Snacks

  • Power Bar, Chocolate Peanut Butter 1 bar (65g): 23g Sugar
  • Clif Bar, Banana Nut Bread 1 bar (68g): 21g Sugar
  • 2 Twinkies (1 package): 37g Sugar
  • Yoplait Yogurt, Strawberry 6 oz. Container: 27g Sugar
  • Honey Roasted Peanuts Large Bag (168g): 24g Sugar
  • Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Cherry Garcia 1 pint (416g): 84g Sugar
  • Jell-O Gelatin, Cherry 1 serving (1/2 cup/21g): 19g Sugar
  • Snickers 1 Regular Size bar (59g) : 30g Sugar
  • Skittles 1 bag (2.6 oz.): 47g Sugar
  • Starburst Fruit Chews 1 package (58.7g) : 34g Sugar
  • Pop Tarts, Frosted Cherry 2 Pastries: 34g Sugar
  • Frosted Flakes Gold Cereal 1 Bowl (75g): 25g Sugar
  • Health Valley Cereal Bar, Strawberry 1 Bar (37g): 4g Sugar

Sauces

  • Ketchup 1 serving (1 Tbs/17g): 4g Sugar
  • Honey BBQ Sauce 1 serving (2 Tbs/36g): 13g Sugar
  • Prego Marinara Spaghetti Sauce 1 serving (1 cup): 14g Sugar
  • Sweet Pickle Relish (1 Tbs/15g): 4g Sugar

When our country was founded over 200 years ago, the average person consumed about 2 pounds of sugar every year. By the 1970’s that number was up to a staggering 123 pounds. Presently, the average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar every single year. Almost hard to believe isn’t it?

What’s the Harm in Sugar?

Refined sugar comes from sucrose extracted from raw sugar cane or sugar beets. If you’re thinking that brown sugar is not refined, you’re wrong. Unless you’re getting your sugar from eating raw foods then you’re probably eating refined sugar. Consuming too much of it will cause serious problems with your health over time.

Obesity

Sugar is composed of simple carbohydrates which, when eaten, is converted into glucose for energy. Our bodies have a natural instinct geared towards the survival of our species. Part of our success over the vast period of humanity is our resiliency to the environment and our ability to adapt. One mechanism that’s been especially useful is our ability to store excess glucose in the form of fat. This helps with insulation and lengthens the amount of time that the body will stay alive without food; it’s especially helpful in the wintertime.

Keep in mind that this mechanism is in place because we’re designed to be hunters and gatherers, not couch potatoes. Obesity is a byproduct of civilization. Our bodies are not meant to live this way so we find ourselves constantly battling our natural state. According to the numbers above, consuming the first 11 ounces of a 12 ounce Coca-Cola is our maximum daily allowance of sugar. Every ounce after that is converted to storage. People become obese because their bodies are essentially preparing for a winter that will never come.

Tooth Decay

Most people are not aware of this, but when sugar is met by the natural bacteria inside your mouth, it produces acid. This acid byproduct is what actually destroys your tooth enamel and will eventually lead to tooth decay.

Hypoglycemia

Your pancreas creates insulin to control blood sugar levels. The insulin transports glucose to the cells and the excess to the liver for storage. When too much sugar is consumed, the body creates an excess of insulin that removes too much sugar from the blood. The result is low blood sugar, which can manifest itself by causing depression or lead to increased agitation.

Diabetes Mellitus

This is similar to the above problem only in reverse. The pancreas does not produce enough insulin; this is a direct result of over-consuming.

Depression

Too much sugar requires your body to use B-vitamins, calcium and magnesium for digestion. When someone experiences vitamin and mineral depletion, the results are never good. In this case the result is fatigue, depression, anxiety and a lack of energy. Not exactly a mental state that will make it easy to get to the gym. It’s a vicious cycle.

Memory and Learning

The University of California Los Angeles conducted six week-long studies involving rats, a maze and a fructose solution that was similar to soda. Through the duration of the test, it became clear that the sample that consumed a high-fructose diet began to lose their way much quicker then the rats that ate a nutritious diet. This is because a high-sugar diet causes insulin resistance that damages the brain cell’s ability to communicate with each other.

Types of Sweeteners

Sugar Packets by Steve Snodgrass

Photo © Steve Snodgrass

Sucrose and HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)

These are both extremely high in fructose, between 50%-55%. The problem with this amount of fructose is that it can only be metabolized by the liver. This is bad because more calories, about 3 times and much as glucose, are being converted into VLDL (very-low-density lipoprotein) and fat. VLDL is the bad kind of cholesterol. I’m sure that many of you are considering the practical uses for drinks and snacks that are high in fructose. HFCS increases your glycogen supply quickly which is fantastic for the athlete or endurance racer. If your lifestyle doesn’t involve intense aerobic or anaerobic activity then there’s little place for it in a healthy diet.

Artificial Sweeteners (saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose)

This portion will be kept brief because there’s little reason to discuss artificial sweeteners as a good alternative to sugar. According to a study done by Harvard Health, these sweeteners have been approved by the FDA because the studies showed no connection to causing cancer and it’s considered to be a good way to fight obesity. The article also tells us that those studies were done using smaller amounts of diet soda, less than any person would actually consume in a bottle bought from the convenience store. No one really knows what’s going to come from extended use of artificial sweeteners. If you don’t mind being a guinea pig, then by all means continue using them. Just know the situation.

There’s evidence that these additives are actually addictive as well. An animal study was conducted where rats were exposed to intravenous cocaine and oral saccharine. The majority of the rats actually chose the artificial sweetener over the cocaine.

Great, So Now What?

I’m sure that you’re thinking, “so everything I like is bad. Now what?” The best forms of glucose that you can get are from whole fruit because they’re nutrient-dense, high in fiber and low in glycemic load. If we can choose fruit to satisfy our sweet tooth and water with our meals instead of soda, the hard part is done. I highly recommend that we all start juicing as well. My wife and I started juicing a couple years ago after watching a great documentary called, “Fat Sick and Nearly Dead.” It’s about a man with an autoimmune deficiency who is able to stop taking medication after he begins taking in high quantities of vitamins and fiber through juicing. We immediately found that our digestion was better and our sweet tooth could be satisfied by drinking juice from whole food. Our energy levels also greatly improved and we experienced fewer peaks and valleys throughout the day.

Some Transparency – Please don’t think that I eat perfectly and live by the above 100% of the time. Personally, I believe that life is way to short to not enjoy some of the great tasting food around us. When I travel to new countries or different geographical regions within the United States, I always eat the local food regardless of my diet. I love to experience the lives of the people in the areas that I travel to; this goes for food, activity and the nightlife.

I also make sure to have a cheat day every 7-10 days. On this day I eat whatever I’ve been craving. This serves a couple of purposes, one is that you can actually see that the longer you go without certain things like soda, the less attractive the taste becomes. Also, by shocking the digestive system every so often one can avoid diet plateaus that come with a low-calorie diet. A hard core nutritionist may say that this means to double your healthy calories by eating more fruits and nuts, but I recommend eating what you’ve been craving, even if it’s pizza or ice cream. Life’s too short, so make sure to always enjoy what you eat, just control portions and make sure it’s only once a week. And any one who knows me well will tell you, I enjoy whiskey with coke from time to time.

A good man once told me that we should strive for perfection while celebrating progress along the way. This is a great approach to maintaing a healthy diet. When my family is falling into a slump or we return from traveling, we’ll take some time to watch a documentary on food. A great show is Extreme Makeover, Weight Loss Edition. Our practices come from the information we take in. If what we see all day are Doritos commercials then we’re at a disadvantage. If we fill our heads with information regarding diet and weight management then it’s always at the front of our minds, which makes it a part of our daily decision making process. Saturate yourselves with good knowledge, not the well-funded advertisements that have helped us become the most overweight country in the world.

Join me in striving for diet perfection, but be sure to not beat yourself up when you backslide. Take time to notice your progress and let that motivate you to get back on track. The members at ITS are diverse and qualified and I can’t wait to learn from you guys during the discussion that I hope this article sparks.

“Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food”. Hippocrates (460-370 bc)

References and Useful Info:

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Nick recently left the Navy after serving for 10 years as a Navy SEAL with multiple deployments, having been awarded the Bronze star for operations in austere environments. Nick’s been with us since the beginning here at ITS on our Advisory Board.

Title photo © Pete


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Matthew
Matthew

 I get the good intentions and they are well received. But I hate when people bash on HFCS(High Fructose Corn Syrup). There is no substantial case study on it because there isn't a useful test group whose diet allows for the its isolation. When they say HFCS is 50-55% the other is glucose. Glucose is a very basic sugar as is fructose, sucrose is more complex sugar. Sucrose is table sugar, its molecules are composed of a fructose and glucose molecule held together by an additional oxygen atom. That bond with the oxygen atom is broken within the stomach before the sugars are digested further. So table sugar is already 50% fructose. HFCS doesn't hold fructose and glucose together in a chemical bond but is merely a mixture of approximately similar proportions(normally about 52%). There is no study that can isolate HFCS intake because excessive caloric intake is present in any sample group with HFCS intake. HFCS can be blamed for being cheap, allowing manufactures to sweeten foods economically. 

TXCavScoutNG
TXCavScoutNG

I started limiting myself to a single 16oz soft drink once a week about six months back, with everything else being coffee, iced tea (home brewed) or water. I opted for Sundays to be my soda day, I didn't even notice when I forgot it one week, then I forgot it over and over. I bough a 16oz Pepsi a few weeks back and it took me close to a week to drink it.

48valentine
48valentine

I've been avoiding processed sugar lately, too, except for honey and fruits. It's been so rewarding! 
I realized sugar has such a big affect on me when I would get extremely grumpy after eating it. Then I weened off of it for 2 weeks, ate wayyy too much, and had The. Worst. Headache. Ever. Lesson learned!
So I would just say, be careful even when you cheat because sometimes it can really take a toll on your body :\

evanvdberg
evanvdberg

Some "artificial" sweeteners(xylitol, stevia, eretheritol) are generally considered to be fairly healthy. As for standard sugars, if we eat them in their more natural forms(honey, maple syrup) then we tend to eat less of them as well. The reason why we love sugars so much is because all carbohydrates, especially the "sugar" type ones are generally indicators of abundance, if our ancestors had access to sweet apples and fruit, our brain would tell them to eat as much of that as possible, as these are highly nutritious often, and they contain nutrients and substances that are harder to get than normal. 

Plus our brain just seems to have a preferences for carbohydrates over fats(even though there has been some recent research showing that ketogenesis, the fat burning state, is a better state to be in for the brain performance wise).

Kris_Q
Kris_Q

Thanks Nick!  Let's face it... drinking only water gets boring.  Other than the occasional alcoholic beverage, I will supplement with ice tea (without sugar or sweet, flavored syrups).  After a while, the other drinks became too sweet for me to drink.  I almost gagged when I ordered ice tea and was given Sprite.


The hardest part of changing your diet to include less sugar is that almost everything we eat and drink has sugar or artificial sweeteners.  I have become one of those people who will read labels in the aisle at the store.  I'm sorry, just go around.  And keep that dirty look to yourself.  I care about what goes in my body.

randypb
randypb

Thanks Nick! This is a great reminder of why sugar should be moderated. Still can't pass up a good cookie, but what I've learned from your great article, and my own experiences, is the importance of limiting sugar! The less I eat the better I feel. I really like your moderation message! It's good to be realistic, and not totally eliminate anything you like, but have it once and a while.


It was great to finally meet you at the ITS 5th Birthday event. You've got a great future ahead!

spenceman
spenceman

My wife and I have also drastically reduced our sugar and processed food intake, and the first couple of months are the hardest. One of the most helpful things for us was to look at this as a permanent lifestyle change and not just some fad diet. It's been great, and while it takes some time, the craving for all these other foods vanishes. Soda was one of the hardest things to kick, and that is more for the fizzy texture than anything else, but then we started making our own Kombucha and that filled that niche. Great article Nick, thanks for taking the time to write it.

HTEngineer
HTEngineer

Maybe this is the kick in the pants I need to kick the sugar habit. 

CENTCOM_Survivor
CENTCOM_Survivor

I've been totally sugar free (except fruits) for about two years. It was a big lifestyle change but it's been great. 

kellyblack
kellyblack

Thank you for the great article, Nick! I've always been a candy freak and about a month ago it was really bugging me how much I hit the fridge (where I kept my chocolate w/almonds stash) or the pantry every day for sweets. I realized my behavior really seemed like that of an addict, so I made myself drink some water with lemon or grab a clementine to snack on when I felt that urge to eat some candy. I'm happy to report I've made a huge dent in my sugar consumption, but I know there is still room for improvement. The sugar stacks link at the bottom of the article has given me even more incentive to work at reducing my sugar intake even more. 


The one thing that really shocked me from your article was seeing that one "cold pop" has more sugar than what anyone is supposed to consume in an entire day. Wow. Thanks, Food & Beverage Industry!

Kris_Q
Kris_Q

@kellyblack She said "cold pop"!  Abusive intake of processed sugar leads to diabetes... ain't nobody got time for that!

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