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SUGAR – How sweet it isn’t.

by Thais Harris, NC
Nutrition Education Program Manager, Ceres Community Project

One of the main issues with our food system today is that there are too many added sugars in processed foods and drinks.

Do you know just how much sugar is in the prepared foods you consume?
sugary beverages
Sugary drinks
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Sugary drinks are the major culprit behind obesity and diabetes today, especially among young people. When we ingest large quantities of sugar—especially without any fiber or fat to slow its delivery--we get a spike in blood sugar. The hormone insulin kicks in to put sugar into the cells and remove it from the blood stream.

Insulin is a like a key that attaches to the cell to “open the door” for glucose (sugar) to go in. When we call upon insulin to do this job in high volume, again and again, we exhaust our body’s ability to perform this function well. The glucose in our blood stays high, creating a number of unhealthy consequences. What can happen then is insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and ultimately, diabetes type 2.

High blood sugar can manifest as these symptoms: extreme thirst, frequent urination, nausea, blurred vision and dry skin. It takes an incredible amount of vitamins and minerals to try and “process” this sugar, and when these nutrients get used up to perform this duty, we get depleted and don’t have enough nutrients to perform vital duties such as building and repairing tissue, supporting our immune system, performing cellular energy production, and so on. So whether we are properly processing our sugar intake or not, we will at a minimum lose some precious nutrients that should have been used for more important tasks.

It is also important to note that excess sugar turns into fat in the body. When insulin does its job and the cells get “stuffed” with too much sugar, they become fat cells.

Low blood sugar is another consequence of poor blood sugar regulation. If we ingest too much sugar and insulin kicks in quickly to remove the sugar from the blood stream, it can overreact and remove all sugar from our blood, causing a dip in blood sugar, or low blood sugar. Symptoms includedizziness, feeling shaky before eating, weakness, light-headedness, fainting.

HFCSHere are some names for sugar you will find on ingredient labels:
• Sugar (cane, evaporated cane, beet)
• High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
• Dextrose • Maltose • Glucose
• Fructose • Corn sweetener • Honey
• Corn syrup • Sucrose • Sorghum syrup • Sorbitol • Brown sugar
• Molasses • Fruit juice concentrate

How much is too much?

Today, the average American consumes about 156 lbs of sugar each year. In 1822, this amount was only 7.24 lbs. Even as recently as 1975 (before high-fructose corn syrup hit the market), the consumption of sugar was 63 lbs a year. This means that in the past 4 decades, sugar consumption increased 3 times as fast as it did in the 15 decades before.

Even though the American Heart Association’s recommendation is of no more than 6 teaspoons per day of sugar for women and 9 teaspoons for men, current consumption is at 22 teaspoons a day for adults and a whopping 32 teaspoons a day for children. This is why we are seeing kids as young as 5 years old with type 2 diabetes.

Added sugars account for nearly 500 calories a day in the average American’s diet. Added sugar is refined sugar (mostly fructose) from corn syrup (and especially high fructose corn syrup), beet sugar, cane sugar, and other sugars which get added to most products you will find on a supermarket shelf. From breads, to sauces, to drinks, to yogurt, cereals, salad dressings, crackers, deli meats, and so on.

Refined sugar consumption is linked to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression, cardiovascular disease, headaches, fatigue, inflammation, and other health issues. sugar cubes

Sugar has an especially bad effect when it’s consumed with sodium (hypertension is even more pronounced in adults who consume the two together in sodas and other processed products).

Are all sugars created equal?

To some the answer is simple: yes. All sweeteners, including table sugar (beet or cane), HFCS, honey, maple syrup, agave, and fruit juice are composed of sucrose: which is half fructose and half glucose. The glucose we can use to make energy, the fructose needs to be processed in the liver and can generate fat instead of energy.

However, we like to take a more moderate approach to sugar at Ceres. We look at quantity and quality. The worst kinds of sugar are high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn syrup, inverted sugar, beet sugar (mostly GMO), cane sugar, concentrated fruit sugars (as in juices from concentrate), fructose (sometimes listed as such in ingredient lists), and agave – which we do not use in our kitchen.

Even though raw honey, maple syrup, and coconut sugar all have fructose, they also carry important nutrients such as minerals, enzymes, some short chain fatty acids, and antioxidants. When properly combined with fiber and healthy fat, these sweeteners do not have the same impact on blood sugar as refined sugars (they have a lower glycemic index), and are less harmful to health.

Our weekly meal delivery always includes a small serving of a dessert lightly sweetened with one of these unrefined sugars. Moderation is key because the fructose in these sugars still needs to be converted by the liver.

Another way to satisfy your sweet tooth is with whole, fresh fruit, which has fiber and other minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants to slow the sugar delivery to your system. Enjoying your fruit with a healthy fat (say having your apple with some almonds, or nut butter) slows the sugar delivery even further, and also helps us to better assimilate fat-soluble vitamins. Aiming for 3 servings a day of fruit maximum can be a helpful guideline. And remember to always have more vegetables than fruit! Smoothies are particularly great because we use the whole fruit, without removing the fiber, and can add greens and other ingredients so we are not drinking just the fruit.


Sugar has proved to be a major contributor to our growing rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, dental caries, inflammation, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome--to name a few. Sugar is considered to be a toxic substance with adverse effects similar to those of alcohol. Fructose, though it is a somewhat harmless substance as found in nature, ie. as part of a fruit, can become our number one enemy when extracted from its original form.

This is not to say you should never have anything sweet. Use your best judgment, and make sure that when you do consume something sweet, it has some fiber and healthy fat to go with it, and that you look for the best sources possible, such as dates, whole fruits, maple syrup, raw honey, and coconut sugar.

As Doctor Robert H. Lustig puts it:
“When God made the poison, it was packaged with the antidote--like fruit--which is fiber and juice. Wherever there's fructose in nature, there's way more fiber. The only exception is honey, and that's guarded by bees! God made it hard to get "fructose sugar" without eating the fiber.”


Sources and Resources:

Doctor Robert H. Lustig’s lecture “Sugar the Bitter Truth”

Forbes: "How Much Sugar Are Americans Eating?"

New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services: "How Much Sugar Are You Eating?"

Science Daily: Sugar-sweetened drinks associated with higher blood pressure

Sonoma County begins campaign against sugary drinks

The Healthy Librarian's article Dr. Lustig's research around sugar.


Image Credits:

Sugary drinks:

Sugar cubes: rockindave1/Creative Commons via Flickr

Label: I'm Kind of a Big Deal/Creative Commons via Flickr