Misguided ‘war on sugar’ obscures role of real health culprit

Posted by
June 12, 2014

Cookies under a metallic locked cageBy BILL BONVIE and LINDA BONVIE

Remember the war on fat?  It was only a few years ago when any sort of fat was widely viewed as the enemy of good health, and people were encouraged by doctors, nutritionists and consumer watchdog groups (like the “Food Police”) to purge fat in any form from their diet.

One result, of course, was that millions of consumers switched to “low-fat” or “no-fat” products that were laced with various harmful additives, such as neurotoxic flavor enhancers, to compensate for their basic lack of taste.

Today, it’s becoming ever more apparent that this all-inclusive elimination of dietary fat (particularly saturated fat) was a huge mistake.  We now know that, like bacteria in our ‘inner ecosystem’, some types of fat are not only beneficial, but essential to maintaining a healthy metabolism (although that information has yet to be fully incorporated into nutritional policies and conveyed to many consumers). Old-fashioned butter, for example, has recently been exonerated as a heart-healthy fat after people were warned for decades to stay away from it, and even to substitute margarine, which actually contains artery-clogging trans fats.

Now, however, we seem to have substituted a new source of edible evil – sugar. Or, to be more precise, sugars. And, yes, there is a difference – although you’d never know it to listen to some media reports, politicians and dieticians.

“Sugar” is the common name for sucrose, derived from sugar cane or sugar beets, whereas “sugars” is the term used by the Food and Drug Administration to characterize all caloric sweeteners.  And while that may seem like splitting hairs, it’s contributed to a huge amount of confusion and misunderstanding, helping erroneously brand all such sweeteners as being identical – that is to say, equally harmful – and promoting the idea that we should shun them all just as we were once advised to avoid all fats.

This erroneous notion that “sugar is sugar,” which has been heavily promoted by the Corn Refiners Association in its attempts to make high fructose corn syrup seem just like another form of it, has been bandied about by various media and even in heavily hyped books. As a Huffington Post article on “Other names for sugar” proclaimed in 2012, “any sugar or full calorie sweetener affects the body in the same way. Some formulations (an apparent reference to HFCS) just have a worse reputation.”

Well, maybe not.

Just as all fats are not created equal, neither are all “sugars” (and please note that ‘s’ at the end). So let’s look a bit more closely at a few of the sweeteners that are now being simplistically lumped together and see whether these attempts to make them all seem equivalent hold water.

‘Sugars’ as healthy foods

Honey: (meaning real honey that still contains actual pollen, which you’re most likely to find at farmers markets). Often referred to as a “superfood,” honey has long been valued for the therapeutic benefits it offers, such as its ability to relieve coughs and colds naturally and as an antidote for allergies. Its attributes include being an antioxidant, as well as having antibacterial and antifungal properties which makes it an ideal natural salve to aid in the healing of wounds and burns.  In addition, fructose amounts can vary in honey, with some types, such as buckwheat honey, having less than others. It also has a low glycemic index, which means you won’t “crash” after eating it, and contains a number of essential “trace“ nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium, phosphorous, manganese and selenium.

Maple syrup: Researchers have discovered some remarkable health benefits of this traditional natural sweetener, which is derived from the sap of maple trees. A recent University of Rhode Island study, led by a prominent medicinal plant specialist, for example, found that pure maple syrup contains more than 20 compounds that play various roles in keeping us fit and warding off disease.  Another study in Quebec found that maple syrup may be better than broccoli, blueberries, tomatoes and carrots in helping to prevent brain, prostate, and lung cancer.

According to the Journal of Medicinal Food, its high levels of phytohormone and abscisic acid may actually help ward off (rather than cause) diabetes by promoting the release of insulin and improve the insulin sensitivity of fat cells.

(A typical example of how this issue is misrepresented is a web site called “Authority Nutrition, an evidence-based approach,” that claims we should avoid maple syrup, despite the fact that it contains essential minerals and antioxidants, such as zinc and manganese, because it also contains sugar, which it calls the leading cause of health problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. But the studies the author cites to back up this assertion both were on the effects of “sugar-sweetened beverages” – which, of course, aren’t sweetened with sugar at all, but HFCS.)

Sugar: Yes, it’s high in calories, and can contribute to weight gain if you overindulge (especially without working them off).  But sugar, or sucrose, is a natural substance that’s been produced and consumed for centuries. It consists of a ‘fixed 50-50 formula’ of glucose and fructose, chemically bonded together, that can be depended on to stay the same. Its least processed form, turbinado sugar, is easily available, and retains many of the essential minerals present in sugar cane, including potassium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous.

While many critics have been quick to blame sugar for the explosion of diabetes (the rate of which has risen substantially in the past few years), the fact remains that the consumption rate of actual sugar is even lower now than it was a century ago. So some other factor must be at work to cause the current “epidemic” of diabetes in this country – a development that corresponds with the introduction and proliferation of something else in our food supply, namely….

high fructose corn syrup. Interestingly enough, this synthetic sweetener that was invented in a laboratory  was declared by the FDA last year to not be sugar. (This was when the agency rejected the CRA’s petition to have its name officially changed to ‘corn sugar.”) Yet its identity continues to be confused with that of sugar. But the fact remains that, despite growing consumer resistance, it is still in countless processed food products, making the idea that it can be consumed “in moderation” laughable. Meanwhile, HFCS and excessive fructose have been linked in studies done by prestigious institutions and universities to both diabetes and obesity, as well as other health problems, including nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and an increased risk of heart disease.

When the real facts are examined, it becomes clear that neither “sugar” nor “sugars” are the cause of our current health problems that they’ve been made out to be, any more than “fat” was. The real culprit is rather a laboratory concoction that’s been masquerading as sugar – and up to now, has been getting away with sugar-coating its image.