Sugar has the greatest impact on your blood glucose levels. But when I mention sugar, do you really know what that means or does the word only conjure up images of the white crystals that you potentially add to your morning coffee or the substance that you bake your children’s birthday cake with?
Let’s start with clarifying a few things. Sugar means both sucrose– that is, cane sugar as we know it in its white and treacle/ brown granular form- and it includes high fructose corn syrup. This is a critical point because in the early 1980’s high- fructose corn syrup replaced sugar in carbonated drinks and other products as a healthy alternative to refined sugar cane which had received a reputation for being noxious. It was also, coincidentally, cheaper which didn’t hurt commercial prospects. The tides are turning however and sugar is now making a comeback- with ‘organic sugar’ being touted as ‘a healthier alternative’ to normal sugar and being positioned as way better than high fructose corn- syrup.
The truth is however that both of these sweetening agents are identical in their biological effects on our bodies. Researcher Robert Lustig, who recorded a lecture in 2009 called “Sugar, the bitter truth” (posted on YouTube) notes, “refined sugar (that is, sucrose) is made up of a molecule of the carbohydrate glucose, bonded to a molecule of the carbohydrate fructose — a 50-50 mixture of the two. The fructose, which is almost twice as sweet as glucose, is what distinguishes sugar from other carbohydrate-rich foods like bread or potatoes that break down upon digestion to glucose alone. The more fructose in a substance, the sweeter it will be. High-fructose corn syrup, as it is most commonly consumed, is 55 percent fructose, and the remaining 45 percent is nearly all glucose… because each of these sugars ends up as glucose and fructose in our guts, our bodies react the same way to both, and the physiological effects are identical.”
Sugar has unique characteristics in the way that it is metabolised by the human body. The fructose component of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup is metabolised primarily by the liver, while the glucose from sugar and starches is metabollised by every cell in the body. Consuming sugar (fructose and glucose) means the liver has to work much harder than if you consumed the same caloric content of starch (glucose) which would have a greater ‘load spread’ over the body. To add to this, consuming sugar in liquid form such as in fruit juice or when you drink a tonic water (which has a higher sugar content than a coke!), means the fructose and glucose will hit the liver even faster than if you consumed them in an apple for example.
As we know from our blog on ‘Biohack Your Glucose’, when sugars hit our livers in sufficient quantities and speed, the liver will convert the excess sugar load to fat. This is the primary cause of the often-referenced condition of insulin resistance. Insulin is secreted in response to the foods we consume- specifically carbohydrates- to ensure that our blood sugar is controlled post eating. When our cells become resistant to insulin, our pancreas responds to this rising blood sugar by pumping out more insulin. With continual carbohydrate (sugar) loading, the pancreas eventually cannot keep up with the demand and soon leads to ‘pancreatic exhaustion’ which means that your blood sugar will rise out of control. Welcome to diabetes. Whilst not everyone with insulin resistance becomes diabetic, some people continue to secrete insulin to overcome their cell’s resistance to the hormone resulting in chronically elevated insulin levels which can evidence itself in raised blood pressure and cholesterol challenges. Essentially, this is metabolic syndrome. If this isn’t enough, cancer researchers have now shown that insulin resistance leads us to secrete more insulin which promotes tumor growth– a potential cause for the rapid rise in rates of cancer.
Whilst the argument used to be that ‘sugar is just an empty calorie’- the concern is actually far greater than just calories. Lustig notes, sugar is ‘a poison by itself.’
How to biohack your sugar toxicity
“I don’t take sugar in my tea” I hear you say… and that’s fantastic, but are you truly aware of what foods that pass your lips, actually contain sugar? How about that tin of tomato and onion mix that you make your favourite bolognaise with? Or your standard slice of wholegrain brown bread? It is easy for manufacturers to claim ‘no added sugars’ when in fact the product may be laden with sugars. Manufacturers may just be the end point ‘assembly’ plant of various food ingredients so sugars initially added at the ‘raw material’ start of the process, are not accounted for in the final product listing. Clever for the manufacturers and marketers. Scary for us.
Equip yourself to be sugar vigilant.
If it isn’t a whole food, always take responsibility to read the food lables of everything!
- First port of call, look for sugar on the ingredients list. Food labels list ingredients in order of weight so scan to look for any type of sugar:
- Dextrose (another name for glucose)
- Fructose (fruit sugar)
- Lactose (milk sugar)
- Maltose (malt sugar)
- Demerara sugar
- Turbinado sugar
- ‘Hidden sugars’ will appear in the nutritional information panel and will be listed as carbohydrates (which usually include both starches and sugars) and will use the phrase ‘of which sugars’ to show how much sugars there are per 100g/100ml
- A ‘low carbohydrate’ reference is less than 5g/100g or less than 2.5g per 100ml
- Be mindful that even though these are fruits, there are high sugar volumes in dates, grapes, beetroot and pear– sugar or fruit juice references