December 2022; Christmas is approaching. As is New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and leftover pies, cakes, and candies to follow. It wouldn’t be a big deal during holiday time if you threw caution to the wind and ate whatever you damn well pleased. The sugar would make an appearance, have its impact for better or worse, and off you’d go happily into 2023. Rather, the insidious issue we’re here to address is when you find yourself dipping your hand in the “cookie jar,” day after day, week after week, and month after month. This sweet habit can create consequences that lead to unnecessary suffering.
Written by Carter Trent
Edited by Nicki Steinberger, Ph.D.
It’s common knowledge that soft drinks, cookies, and other sugary foods are not good for your health. Yet sugar consumption has tripled around the world in the last fifty years.
Americans typically consume 34 teaspoons of sugar per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s over five times more than the American Heart Association’s recommended six teaspoons of added sugar for women, and nearly four times more than the nine teaspoons for men.
The massive quantities of sugar you may consume is at odds with the knowledge that it’s unhealthy, but a lack of personal self-control isn’t what put you in this predicament. Processed food manufacturers, the makers of all kinds of edible goods from breakfast cereal to yogurt, created a situation that made it incredibly easy to go hog-wild on your sugar intake without even realizing it.
But why cut down on your temporary slice of heaven?
“In general, sugar is bad for the teeth (because it contributes to cavities). More specifically, diets high in sugar may predispose some people, especially women, to yeast infections, may aggravate some kinds of arthritis and asthma and may raise triglyceride levels. In people genetically programmed to develop insulin resistance, high-sugar diets may drive obesity and high blood pressure and increase risks of developing type 2 diabetes.
Although conventional medical studies haven’t shown that sugar causes hyperactivity in children, many parents are convinced that sugar does have that effect and that limiting sugar intake improves kids’ behavior and attention. Recent research also indicates that sugar, rather than saturated fat, is the real culprit in America’s high rates of cardiovascular disease.”
The Sweet Stuff Is Everywhere
Sugar permeates a vast swath of our food. One research study found in the Lancet: Diabetes & Endocrinology, found that 74% of U.S. food contained added sugar, which is a term describing sugar inserted as part of the manufacturing process rather than naturally occurring. Sugar is added to far more than the obvious candy and soda. It’s in a range of foods from spaghetti sauce to bread.
There’s a reason why sugar, and its 61 alternative forms such as dextrose and high-fructose corn syrup, appear in many foods—it’s highly addictive.
When your brain recognizes sugar on the tongue, it sparks the production of feel-good chemicals in your body, such as dopamine, a neurotransmitter that produces a pleasurable sensation, and this reaction makes you want to eat more. That’s because sugar is converted into glucose, the main source of energy for the cells in your body, including the brain, which can’t function normally without it.
Processed Foods Are Blissful and Then They’re Not
The processed food industry has latched onto your body’s reaction to sugar as a means to impel you to purchase more of their products. Food manufacturers have become highly sophisticated in exploiting sugar in this way, developing a concept called the “bliss point” to keep you craving their goods.
The bliss point marks the appropriate level of sugar required in a food product, such as soda, to maximize its appeal while being careful not to go too far with the sugar content lest it turn you off. The term was coined by Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher and psychophysicist working for the processed food industry.
This industry employs a number of chemists, physicists, and neuroscientists to perform research needed to find the bliss point in products. They leverage a number of scientific methods, from taste tests to brain scans, including how the mouth is constructed, to determine the combination of sugar, salt, fats, and chemicals that produce the ideal potency to make their food products irresistible.
The bliss point is only one factor used in the development of processed foods. The industry’s scientists also consider qualities such as “mouth feel,” “maximum bite force,” and “sensory-specific satiety,” which measures the rate at which the product loses its appeal during consumption.
The goal of these factors is to maximize the time you spend eating processed foods. The manufacturers of these products want you to gobble up their snacks nonstop until you run out, causing you to buy more. To that end, they don’t want you getting full too fast because fullness is considered “a serious enemy of a product,” according to food industry consultant, Thornton Mustard.
Food industry scientists consider how quickly the snack dissolves in your mouth to trick the brain into thinking no calories were ingested, a concept called “vanishing caloric density.” They even look at subtle elements of the food, such as ensuring chocolate avoids sharp edges to make it feel comforting, and the importance of having the right crunch sound, which Unilever scientists discovered was a key factor to making food more appealing.
Synthetic Food Is a Problem For Your Health
Bruce Bradley, a former food industry executive who worked at corporations such as General Mills, explains that these companies create food products that “are designed to keep you coming back to eat more and more and more. They’re trying to increase their share of your stomach.”
He describes the end result of these companies’ food processing systems, designed not only to mass produce products, but also to sit in warehouses and on store shelves for weeks without spoiling, as no longer food.
“We’re not talking about food actually being real anymore,” he said. “It’s synthetic, completely contrived and created, and there’s so many problems about that because our bodies are tricked, and when our bodies are tricked repeatedly, dramatic things can happen, like weight gain.”
This reality is evidenced by widespread obesity and diabetes in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity affects over 40% of U.S. adults today, up from 30% in 2000.
With obesity rates rising, it’s no surprise over 37 million Americans suffer from diabetes. The CDC also reports nearly 40% of U.S. adults have prediabetes, where blood sugar levels are dangerously higher than normal. On top of that, research by the University of California, Los Angeles found that consuming too much fructose, a specific form of sugar added to many foods, leads to the aging of cells.
Now, for the first time in human history, non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, are killing more people than infectious diseases, even in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. A United Nations report attributed 41 million deaths per year to non-communicable diseases.
Sugar As a Commodity
The problem isn’t sugar itself, but the pervasiveness of it in all manner of food, combined with the fact humans distill it into a highly potent form. For instance, food manufacturers extract fructose from corn, sugarcane, and other natural sources, creating a concentrated form to insert into their products. Research has found excessive consumption of fructose can damage your liver, akin to drinking too much alcohol.
Sugar’s outsized impact on your health wasn’t always the case. Humans evolved to be attracted to sugar when it existed naturally in food. In ancient times, the sugar content of a carrot would be considered sweet.
But once humans learned to cultivate and distill sugar into crystals millennia ago, its popularity exploded. British colonists called sugar “White Gold,” spurring the slave trade in the United States as a means of providing the workforce needed to cultivate sugar crops. To this day, sugar remains a valuable commodity, considering the billions of dollars in government subsidies the U.S. sugar industry receives.
Sugar’s Beeline to Your Brain
Due to frequent consumption of sugar, your body is increasingly hardwired to crave it. As a result, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, suggested sugar is addictive, and should be regulated like tobacco. This would not only help to reduce its widespread use, but also curtail advertising sugary food towards children.
The idea that sugar is addictive in the same way as heroin or cocaine is controversial, but scientific studies have proven sugar to be addictive in rodents. At minimum, sugar has a powerful effect on your brain, one that processed food manufacturers exploit to sell their wares.
For example, eating sugar affects the brain twenty times faster than nicotine. That speed is key for food manufacturers because the faster a substance hits your brain, the higher likelihood you give in to the impulse to keep eating. Even worse, over time, the brain releases less dopamine as tolerance builds, requiring you to eat more sugar to achieve the same pleasure effect.
“Food” mood connection: Going “full steam ahead” for the sugar, as in “get out of my way; I’m digging in now,” can change your emotion in an instant. It’s a mighty substance, with a strong, addictive quality that has the power to affect how you treat people, including those close to you. Just one doughnut can alter everything…
Low-Carb? What About Sugar Alcohols?
Remember In 2010, when the “gluten-free-boom” hit the market and was all the rage? How long did it take you to run out to the store, grab your gluten-free muffins, and do a happy dance? If this was your experience, you certainly weren’t alone. Market value is estimated to reach $7.5 billion by 2027.
Whether gluten-free eating works for you or not isn’t the point. The emphasis is to show the same kind of song and dance when it comes to low-carb snack foods sweetened with sugar alcohols. These sweeteners, such as erythritol and xylitol, are naturally low in carbohydrates, don’t spike blood sugar, and are derived from plants.
Exciting, right? Stop there and you might be tempted to think they’re healthy. While consuming sugar alcohols in small doses might work for you, it’s important to note they are highly processed and can have a negative impact on your gastrointestinal tract. In addiction, some people find them addicting, perpetuating cravings for sugar.
Dr. Jason Fung, M.D., is a nephrologist (kidney specialist), managing director of the non-profit, Public Health Collaboration, and author of The Obesity Code and The Diabetes Code. He has treated many patients with severe type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular, and kidney disease, and had this to say about sugar alcohols:
“While some say they are calorie-free, that doesn’t mean they are good for you. Let’s just cut straight to the point: natural sweeteners and sugar alcohols have been just as problematic as sugar and artificial sweeteners in over 80% of the 14,000 clients I’ve worked with over the last decade. It doesn’t matter how good their diet is, whether they’re men or women, or how active they are, natural sweeteners prove to be counterproductive towards my client’s achieving their health goals. Common examples you’ve likely heard of include stevia, xylitol, erythritol or Swerve.
Many people report the following when they choose to consume natural sweeteners and sugar alcohols on a regular basis:
- Trouble losing weight
- Inability to reduce glucose and A1c levels
- Struggle to fasting due to intense hunger pangs
- Stomach issues, such as abdominal pain and diarrhea”
Tips to Reduce Your Sugar Intake
These grim results may seem unavoidable given the widespread use of sugar in our food supply. Although it can be challenging to reduce sugar intake, it’s possible. Here are some tips to help.
First off… if you’re thinking of following the old paradigm “food pyramid, created in 1992,” reconsider. With 6 to 11 servings of grain products per day, that’s enough starch to send you into a high-glycemic, foggy-brain tailspin to the point of no return. Afterall, carbohydrates are simply units of sugar. Have you considered it may have been the government who made us “collectively fat?” It’s worth investigating.
- Bring mindfulness to food by focusing on the act of eating and drinking rather than mindlessly munching while distracted by other activities, such as watching television or looking at your smartphone. Eat slowly to appreciate every bite.
- Try to eliminate sugary drinks, even those with artificial sweeteners. A single can of soda contains so much added sugar that it exceeds the American Heart Association’s recommended daily sugar intake. Switch to water instead, and if the water tastes too plain, try squeezing lemon juice into your glass to add flavor.
- Don’t try to go cold turkey. Start gradually by cutting back the amount of sugary foods and drinks you’re consuming. And when available, switch to an unsweetened version to help with the transition. Otherwise, you may find the experience jarring, which increases chances of reverting back to old habits. This shift will take time as your taste buds adjust, so be patient and stick with it.
- Look at nutrition labels when shopping. Pay particular attention to the “added sugars” and try to avoid these products, or compare alternatives and choose those with the lowest amount.
- Some foods, such as fruit and milk, contain naturally-occurring sugar, which is okay to consume, depending on your tolerance. Be aware if you manage insulin-resistance, and make sure all dairy products are whole and organic.
- Fruit contains fiber and other nutrients that help your body digest sugar more slowly, so you can avoid the quick hit of refined carbohydrates. Replacing sugary snacks and drinks with organic fruit, preferably bought locally from the farmer’s market or natural grocer, can help with the transition away from snacks laden with added sugar.
- Try using unsweetened applesauce as an alternative to sugar in recipes. Use the same amount of applesauce as sugar, but reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by a quarter cup for every cup of applesauce.
- Avoid using sweets as a reward, especially for children. Help children develop healthy eating habits by having them eat and drink foods with little or no added sugar.
- There are many wholesome diets to choose from—keto, Mediterranean, paleo, Whole30 etc. It’s important to experiment to find what is right for you. It’s critical to eat whole foods vs. processed foods, so you can control the amount of sugar.
- The processed food manufacturers have worked hard to create addictive products, but you can break this cycle by choosing healthy food options, and staying away from food-like-products with added sugars.
The first step to making self-supporting changes is awareness. Knowing how pervasively sugar permeates the food you buy, enables you to make conscious choices to cut back on the junk, and prepare alternatives. After all, nothing is sweeter than your health.
If you’d like to contact A Voice For Choice Advocacy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.