First, a qualifier: I’m not anywhere close to being as knowledgeable as a candy technologist. Believe me, chemistry was definitely a challenge for me in high school. My — may he rest in peace — chemistry teacher Mr. Malinski could confirm that. That said, I thought I somewhat had a handle on nutritional science.
Take the issue of sugar. For some, it’s become the devil incarnate for this decade’s health hall monitors; the bad boy of all ingredients. And yet, according to some, sugar, in the form of glucose, is the body’s preferred and most efficient fuel source. Moreover, its taste and functionality has allowed this industry to create some incredible confections.
But during recent years, sugar has been taken to task, demonized by some, definitely discouraged by many. The sugar saboteurs range from public and private organizations to respected and otherwise just raucous professionals.
Hence, I thought it might be wise to do some research on this white/ brown poison, updating my knowledge on what scientists have discovered in recent years. It’s a way of trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, the science from the sensational. I did this knowing that I may be even more confused after trying to bone up on the subject then when I started. So be it; well worth the risk.
And that’s when I came across an article by Anahad O’Connor in the New York Times, “Is Sugar Really Bad for You? It Depends.” Seems someone has done the work for me. Now, this was something I could sink my teeth into — maybe.
O’Connor’s basis for writing the article stems from the FDA’s new nutritional labeling update, which requires that added sugar be listed in foods. The government’s decision to let consumers know about added sugar stems from “…years of urging by many nutritional experts, who say that excess sugar is a primary cause of obesity and heart disease, the leading killer of Americans,” O’Connor writes.
Given that one of government’s roles is to serve and protect its citizenry, sounds fair. The problem comes in determining whether naturally occurring sugar in foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and sugar added in treats, such as caramels, are different and/or act differently once consumed.
As O’Connor discovered, scientists waffle on this. Sucrose, which can be naturally occurring or added, is essentially broken down into glucose and fructose in the stomach. The difference is that glucose can be “metabolized by any cell in the body. But fructose is handled almost exclusively by the liver.”
This can be a bad thing, as O’Connor explains, citing Dr. Mark Herman, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard. You see, the liver converts that sugar into droplets of fat called triglycerides. Too many triglycerides reduce HDL, the good cholesterol. The two combined don’t do your heart any good over time.
So I was thinking, this is where we can get to the gist of the matter. How much sugar, naturally occurring or added, is too much? As O’Connor points out, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that adults ingesting more than 15 percent of their diet from added sugar had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Now you can see where the push for added sugar labeling comes.
So, is there a threshold we can watch for? Hey, you didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you? It all depends on everyone’s internal makeup and metabolism, scientists say. So will the added sugars labeling help, or will it confuse?
Let me throw out a hypothetical situation. For example, in the production of caramel, the sugar that’s used as an ingredient is an added sugar. The naturally occurring sugar in milk/dairy products, however, counts as a total sugar. Thus, when I label a taffy apple, I actually have a combination of naturally occurring sugars (milk/dairy and the apple) as well as an added sugar (corn syrup and/or beet or cane sugar). Got that! (And thank you to Laura Shumow from the NCA for your help).
My point is that anyone who paints the role of sugar in brown-and-white language is being simplistic. Sugar isn’t simplistic; neither is nutritional science. Consequently, let’s channel the discussion that way.