It’s February, and in America that means we’re celebrating both American Heart Month (take care of your heart!) and Valentine’s Day (so much excess sugar!). Ironic, no? We’re going to return to travel posts from our winter trip to Europe shortly, but in every single one of my recent corporate presentations, I’ve been asked about sugar. Therefore, I think it’s time that your trusted team over here at FQF HQ answer some questions about this ubiquitous yet widely misunderstood ingredient – one that we absolutely need to survive but that is also making us very, very sick.
Oh my goodness! So very many sugars! All in my own cupboard!
We’re going to start with the basics, and we’re going to break this post into three parts because it’s that lengthy and it’s that important. (Also, I don’t want you to tune out due to boredom.) I’d argue that no other single ingredient in our collective Western diet right now is as significant as this one, so let’s get a few things straight.
- sugar: any of the class of soluble, crystalline, typically sweet-tasting carbohydrates found in living tissues and exemplified by glucose and sucrose; present in sorghum, maple sap, honey, etc.; used extensively as an ingredient and flavoring of certain foods and as a fermenting agent in the manufacture of certain alcoholic beverages
Let’s break that definition down a bit further: almost every single food we eat – fruit, vegetables, dairy – contains some quantity of naturally occurring sugar. It’s a carbohydrate, and it exists in simple and complex forms, and we need it to survive. But it’s not so much the naturally occurring sugars that are killing us, it’s the added sugars in just about everything.
In this first section, we’re going to talk about commonly available sugars: the ones we might find in our grocery store or pantry, the ones we use every day in our own coffee and tea and cookies and other things we make at home. And in the second section, we’re going to talk about industrial sugars: the ones that are added in for us, the ones we’re totally addicted to and the ones we eat way too much of. Finally, we’re going to discuss how the sugar industry has conspired for decades to convince us that butter and cream and eggs and bacon are the true villains, not sugar, even though they’ve long known otherwise.
All white or brown sugar, unless labeled specifically as ‘cane,’ comes from GMO sugar beets.
If you are cooking or baking at home, or sweetening your own drinks, you’re probably using either beet or cane sugar. Anything simply labeled “white sugar” is manufactured from sugar beets. Molasses can come from either sugar cane or sugar beets; the dark, sticky liquid is the byproduct of collecting the sugar crystals. Just know this: unless that label specifically reads cane sugar or organic, it’s beet sugar, and it’s all GMO. If you’re trying to avoid GMOs, buy cane sugar, which comes from Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii, the Caribbean or other tropical places and isn’t GMO (yet). Beet sugar is far cheaper, so be prepared to pay more for non-GMO cane sugar.
Seriously, this is not HFCS.
If you’re making pecan pie, or caramels, or any other candy, you might be using light corn syrup (it’s not light in calories, just in color). Please note that this is not high-fructose corn syrup, which is an industrial ingredient and not something you can readily buy in your standard grocery store. Corn syrup is, as you might have guessed, a sweetener made from corn, and it helps counteract cane and beet sugar’s natural inclination to crystallize, thus making it a perfect partner for caramels and other applications where crystallization might be undesirable.
All of these are guilty of health halos. They’re still sugar.
If you’re not using cane or beet sugar or corn syrup, you’re probably using honey, maple syrup, or some of the newer sweeteners on the market, including brown rice syrup, agave nectar, coconut sugar, or cassava sweetener. Don’t be fooled: your body treats these the same way it would regular cane or beet sugar, and with the exception of true honey and maple syrup, all are heavily refined. Plus, some have a massive environmental toll and are basically high fructose corn syrup with a different name.
These are totally fake and your body does not know what to do with them.
And then there are these impostors: stevia, saccharine, aspartame, sucralose and other artificial sweeteners. Even stevia, which advertises itself as “from a plant,” has to include all sorts of non-natural additives, like erythritol and dextrose, in order to survive on the shelf. They’re all manufactured in a lab, they’re all fake and they’re all much, much sweeter than sugar, which means they up our satiety point so we want things sweeter and sweeter and sweeter. And that’s how we got to where we are right now: two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese, and one-third of children are, too.
Not sick to your stomach yet? Stay tuned, friends; in our second installment, we’re going to discuss industrial sugars and how they’re snuck into just about every food we eat.