I love sweets! Since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed baking all kinds of goodies for my family. I was “famous” for decadent pound cake, creamy cheesecake and all kinds of cookies. There were years when I got too busy with life and work to bake on a regular basis. I began to rely on prepackaged baked goods, cake mixes, canned frostings and cut and bake cookies instead of homemade. All were tasty, but I couldn’t help notice that my waistline was increasing! Three years ago, as I started to examine my eating habits, I knew that my love of dessert was something I’d have to tackle. Giving it up all together was just not an option.
So, I started in my own pantry, just as I did last month on my quest for healthier carbs. This time, I reviewed the sugar types, content, and amounts found in my prepackaged foods and ingredients. I found sugar in the logical places: cookies, cereal and ice cream. But, I also found it in unexpected places, like salad dressing, breads and pasta sauce. It seemed that every label I looked at contained some type of sweetener. This surprised me and raised a few questions. How do sugar and other sweeteners affect the body? How much is too much for me? Are there differences between the various kinds of sweeteners? And, what are the viable alternatives?
I started with the basics. The body processes sugar into energy by breaking it down into 2 core types: glucose and fructose. There are others, such as lactose (found in dairy), but for these purposes, let’s stick to the main ones. Glucose is burned quickly and efficiently as energy for all cells, muscles and even the brain, and so only a fraction of it needs to be processed by the liver. In addition to it being a main energy source, glucose also signals the brain to stop eating.
Fructose, in contrast, is more difficult for the body to utilize as energy. It is fully processed by the liver, which creates toxins, waste products and ultimately fat. Fructose does not signal the body to stop eating, which can lead to overconsumption. But, when fructose is combined with fiber, as in fruits and vegetables, it isn’t as taxing. The fiber slows absorption and signals satisfaction, helping to avoid overconsumption and weight gain.
As the body processes sugar into energy, blood sugar levels spike. After a period of time, levels drop, creating the desire to replenish the energy. The body can only utilize so much sugar as energy and will convert the remainder into fat. The body pulls from this fat reserve when energy levels run low. But, if the body never experiences a “shortage” it will never pull from the reserves. Studies have demonstrated that excess sugar adds up quickly and can lead to obesity, heart disease and Diabetes. Regardless of the type, sugar has been found to trigger the pleasure center of the brain. This triggers the release of Dopamine, producing a “happy” feeling.
Next, I researched a few of the more common sweeteners. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is the #1 sweetener used in prepackaged foods due to its extreme sweetness, low cost and ability to increase shelf life. HFCS is mainly fructose, which makes it difficult for the body to utilize and creates toxic bi-products. “Sugar” is the next most frequently used sweetener. Commonly made from either sugar cane or GMO sugar beets, “sugar” is pure Sucrose (glucose & fructose) and is quickly and easily utilized as energy. Both HFCS and “sugar” contain no nutritional value and are essentially empty calories. Organic cane sugar and raw sugar affect the body in much the same way; they are just not quite as processed. Honey is a natural sweetener made up of fructose and glucose. Minimally processed honey contains trace elements and minerals that are beneficial to the body and promote balanced blood sugar levels.
Two other popular sweeteners are Agave Nectar and Stevia. Agave Nectar is a plant-based sweetener that is about 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. It consists primarily of fructose, which is taxing to the body, just as HFCS. Stevia is a South American herb that is 30 times sweeter than sugar. It can leave behind an aftertaste, especially when used in its more unprocessed form. To reduce the aftertaste, Stevia goes through a process similar to refined sugar. The process creates a fine white powder which can then be mixed with sugar-free alcohol to create a more pleasing flavor.
Artificial sweeteners are sugar-free, have zero calories and are much sweeter than sugar. The sweetness triggers the same pleasure center as sugar, but, without the calories, the body continues to seek an energy source. This can lead to overeating, weight gain, heart disease and Diabetes. The primary artificial sweetener used in prepackaged “diet” foods is Aspartame. It is about 200 times sweeter than sugar, cannot be properly metabolized by the body and has been linked to obesity and cancer in recent studies. Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than sugar and contains chlorine, which the body cannot process. Chlorine can kill gut bacteria and affect the whole digestive system. Saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar and is able to move through the system without affecting blood sugar levels. For this reason, it has been widely marketed to Diabetics.
I came to the conclusion that various kinds of sweeteners do affect the body differently. Some are more efficient fuel sources than others and are less toxic. The quantity of sweetener is also important. Eating a moderate amount can keep blood sugar levels balanced and enable the body to maintain a healthy weight. Current American Heart Association guidelines suggest a maximum of 6 teaspoons of sugar a day for women and 9 for men. However, research suggests that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. Three years ago I was consuming about 20!
In order to make the transition from high-sugar processed foods to lower-sugar homemade foods, I began to read Nutrition Facts labels for EVERYTHING! Remember, all prepackaged food contains some type of sweetener, not just traditional dessert foods. I reviewed brands side-by-side and purchased the better choice. 1) Artificial sweeteners, HFCS and Agave Nectar are banned from my diet. 2) I look for low amounts of all natural sweeteners like Organic cane sugar, coconut sugar or raw honey. 3) I opt for high fiber foods containing Organic whole grains instead of white flour. Fiber enables the body to utilize the sweetener at a more balanced rate. 4) I go full fat Organic when I eat dairy (yogurt and cheese). Many reduced-fat products contain added sugars that don’t have to be labeled. 5) Any amount of sweetener will add up throughout the day, so I always keep in mind portion control.
I am happy to say that I am down to 4 teaspoons of sugar a day at the present time! In the last year, I have moved (almost) completely away from prepackaged foods. I made it a priority to spend more time preparing wholesome, low-sugar, high-fiber foods and baked goods for my family. I’ve also increased my intake of fruits and vegetables as a way to boost energy levels, while keeping my blood sugar balanced. These better choices have enabled me to maintain a healthy weight, lower my blood sugar level and feel balanced all day. After cutting out a majority of the sugar from my diet, I no longer crave the level of sweetness I once did. This is difficult for some people to understand, but it’s true. Without all of the sugar, my life is actually sweeter!
Patti Hatzistavrakis is a freelance writer residing in Puna. Patti’s wellness journey started with small steps which have made a profound effect of the quality of her health and happiness. If you are interested in joining the conversation, please reach out to Patti at: PattiHABC@gmail.com