Once upon a time, a very lovely, very sweet sugarcane lived happily with his family in a field in Brazil. There he grew stronger and sweeter as the days went by. When he was very strong and very sweet, the sugarcane was harvested and shipped with his family to the United States. There he was processed into what we know as granulated sugar.
Unfortunately, this is where the sweet story goes sour. Once the strong, sweet sugarcane was processed, he was no longer loved and admired, but instead, feared and shunned from many a kitchen table, as many people believed he was "bad." The strong, sweet sugarcane was unable to live out his purpose in life: to make all he touches, and all that touch him, sweeter.
Twenty years ago the public first began hearing the "facts" about how sugar was responsible for numerous health issues: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hyperactivity and dental caries. "Several myths relating to sugar intake and disease have arisen from confusion over actual sugar consumption," says Dr. G. Harvey Anderson, chairman of the Department of Nutritional Sciences Faculty of Medicine in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. "During the 1970s, many stories in the media linked sugar to practically every modern-day illness – real or perceived – everything from dental caries and hypoglycemia to hyperactivity, criminal behavior and obesity. In contrast, major scientific reviews by independent academic scientists, government committees, professional associations and industry groups have concluded that what was once thought to be fact is now only fear."
The fear caused Shirley Kawa-Jump from Fort Wayne, Ind., to eliminate sugar from her diet. "I gave up sugar after doing some research about the effects of sugar on weight gain and headaches," she says. "I had talked to a nutritionist who said a lot of migraines and headaches can come from too much sugar and sweets. I knew it contributed to weight gain, too, and since I was trying to lose weight, I decided to eliminate it."
But is sugar really as bad for us as once thought? The truth will surprise you.
The Role of Sugar
"The role of sugar in determining nutrition and behavior factors continues to be misrepresented in the press and by many professionals," says Dr. Anderson. "The public's perception of the role of sugar in the diet continues to be at odds with scientific facts. The most current information available offers details on the relationship between sugar consumption and nutritional health and dispels a number of myths, including the myth that sugar has an adverse effect on behavior."
The presence of "sugar" diabetes is, of course, blamed on the consumption of sugar – or the over-consumption. "Many reports indicate that consumption of excess sugar is a major reason for obesity and thus diabetes," says Dr. C. Richard Mabray from Victoria, Texas. "Studies have been done showing that decreasing sugar in the diet of a diabetic will drastically decrease their condition and stabilize blood sugar levels."
Differing opinions – and studies – offer a different explanation altogether. "The once-believed theories regarding sugar and diabetes are not true," says Dr. Anderson. "Sugar affects people with diabetes no more dramatically than do other forms of carbohydrates such as rice and potatoes. The rise in blood sugar after meals depends on total carbohydrates eaten, not on the types."
According to the USDA, approximately 68 percent of Americans are considered overweight, with 3 percent of these considered to be morbidly obese. But is sugar the reason that the United States leads the world in overweight population?
"Sugar is not the real problem," says Dr. Mabray. "The real problem is the obscene amount of sugar consumed. One of the leading causes of obesity – especially in the United States – is the consumption of excess sugar."
Dr. Anderson says that yet another misconception related to the intake of sugar is its responsibility or role in the presence of obesity. "The intake of added sugars in the diet is not associated with being overweight," Dr. Anderson says. "Sugars, as well as other carbohydrates, are recognized by the body's appetite regulatory system and help produce satiety. Carbohydrates, such as sugar, are preferentially metabolized by the body for energy and, therefore, are converted to body fat less efficiently than dietary fat. Added sugar can also help increase consumption of fiber and other nutrients by enhancing the taste of starchy foods. Many people who avoid sugary foods compensate by eating foods high in fat."
Many adults may be getting the message that sugar can be viewed as a positive component of a healthful, balanced diet. Nevertheless, one myth that remains hard to destroy is the notion that sugar causes "hyperactivity" in children.
"Many parents continued to argue that a single serving of sugar causes adverse behavior in their children," says Dr. Anderson. "The overwhelming conclusion of the scientific evaluation is that sugar does not cause hyperactivity. Indeed, it may have a calming effect on children if external circumstances allow the internal effects of sugar to be expressed. Of course, if children are at a birthday party or out 'trick or treating,' the external cues will override the internal cues in influencing behavior. It is perhaps circumstances such as these that have led to sugar's guilt by association."
On any given day, but especially around Halloween and Easter, you can hear numerous parents inform their children how too much candy will "rot their teeth." Regardless of how old this myth is, it is just as fictitious as the Great Pumpkin and Peter Cottontail.
"There is no evidence that sugar intake at current consumption levels plays a role in the development of disease," says Dr. Anderson. "Even dental disease is not unique to sugar. Sugar does not cause cavities any more than other fermentable carbohydrates – such as soft bread and raisins – that stay on the teeth and react with bacteria in plaque."
There is now considerable evidence that the concern about sugar consumption as reflected by the media and medial profession in the 1970s was misplaced. "I think we've misled people by saying sugar is bad," says Dr. Anderson. "America's sweet tooth may be essential for its health. The myths surrounding sugar and health are slow to disappear. Because these myths are misleading and harmful, nutrition educators need to continue to place sugar in the diet in perspective – the proper perspective."