Is Sugar Toxic?

This article, in the New York Times Magazine, started off with a red flag for me:

And by “sugar,” Lustig means not only the white granulated stuff that we put in coffee and sprinkle on cereal — technically known as sucrose — but also high-fructose corn syrup…

Oh dear, I thought, by lumping these two together he’s making a real mess of things. But the article clarifies quite thoroughly. The two sweeteners are more similar than we thought, and that fact condemns rather than vindicates both.

Both have a nearly identical ratio of glucose and fructose. Sucrose has the two molecules bonded together. In HFCS, they remain separate. They’re separate in honey, too. In maple syrup, they’re bonded together.

The article says that the end physiological results are the same for sugar and HFCS, because both end up as glucose and fructose in the body; a little googling as well as what comes next in the article makes me think there is a difference — that it might matter that the free (unbonded) fructose and glucose are absorbed more quickly.

All cells metabolize glucose. The liver metabolizes most of the fructose — so more fructose means more work for the liver. The faster the fructose gets there — in a liquid, for example — the more work for the liver, too.

When the liver gets enough fructose fast enough, it converts to fat, which leads to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, which seem to underlie many problems such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers — diseases that seem mostly limited to the Western lifestyle and food culture.

How much, and how fast, is too much and too fast? More research is needed, particularly seriously long-term studies.

Also interesting is how far back the roots of this and other aspects of the alternative hypothesis go — at least to the 20s. And how many of the relevant studies laid the blame on fat when the evidence could equally convict sugar.

How beautifully ironic that the Google Ad on the page was for “SweetSurprise.com,” an effort by the corn refiners to make HFCS look innocent.

I’m curious about how maple syrup and honey would fare in these studies. While looking around a little (here, for example), I learned that maple syrup has some fat and is mainly sucrose. Honey has some fiber and protein, and is mainly free fructose and glucose. Both have some vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. Honey, when raw, also has some enzymes.

I’d like to know how to read a maple syrup label to know whether it was produced healthily; apparently some producers (most?) use lead-soldered buckets and / or formaldehyde plugs in the trees. I also need to ask again about the production of the honey I’ve been buying at the farmers market.

———

Remember when I wrote about sugar=poison before?

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7 thoughts on “Is Sugar Toxic?

  1. I haven’t taken the time to read the article yet, but… I think some sugar, preferably in a as whole a form as you can get it. Obviously the more refined it is the less nutritional value it has. I believe part of the problem there is with sugars right now is that with demonizing fat came the increased use of carbs for flavor, energy, etc. I don’t think one food group in particular should be pinpointed.

    Mainly I wanted to let you know that formaldehyde in maple syrup production has been illegal for many years. Some may still use it but they’re not supposed to. 🙂

    • Guessing you meant “I think some sugar is okay” — and I agree; just how much is too much is the question. I *think* I use sweeteners in moderation, compared to the typical American diet — but maybe what I use is still too much. Maybe maple syrup (rather liberally) four or five times a week on breakfast, honey in my bread, occasional treats.

      You’re also right about not pinpointing any particular food, food group, macronutrient, ingredient, etc; I don’t want to eliminate carbs but I do want to rethink how I use them.

      I discovered that illegality after some more googling, but it would still be nice to know what the rate of compliance is — maple syrup is tough on the budget even without buying certified organic.

      • Yes, thank you! I was in a hurry and my fingers don’t always move as fast as my brain. Not that my brain moves that fast… 😉

        I have heard that some will still use formaldehyde which is unfortunate. And the prices for organic – yikes! We got some in the store last year that was nearly $50 for a quart. Ahh! I use maple syrup liberally as well and there’s no way I could do that. So far I’ve decided choosing a local maple syrup produced by a small farmer is usually a safe choice. Not much of a surprise there! Ha!

  2. Which market, and which vendor, have you been getting your honey from? I know a couple other beekeepers, but not all. Steve, our mentor when we were getting started in bees and the vendor at Culver’s market (I won’t sell honey there and compete with him – he’s been too helpful to us in too many ways)sells raw, strained honey, which is what we produce. Has all of the enzymes in tact. Filtered honey (which many people mistakenly label strained honey, because it goes through a filter) has to be heated to enable it to be pumped at high enough pressures to go through the filters. That heat destroys the enzymes.

    • Chad, I have mostly been buying honey from Hiatt’s, because the other stall where I used to get it hasn’t been showing up on Thursdays. I forget the name of the other vendor, but they did tell me their honey was only heated enough to liquefy it — I don’t know if that still counts as raw or not. And I don’t know at all about Hiatt’s — I asked them about their hens and their bacon today, and being in a bit of a hurry didn’t ask them more about their honey. Interestingly, Mr. Hiatt and his crew insisted that you can’t make bacon without nitrite. The guy at Sawyer’s on the other hand (Mr. Sawyer, I presume) says his natural bacon has no nitrites because it’s smoked over real wood. It’s delicious, too. He offers cherrywood and applewood bacon.

      How much do you charge for your honey, and when will you have some available?

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