Is sugar killing us? So asks Gary Taubes in a Wall Street Journal article, December 9, 2016. Global production of sugar for 2016/17 is an estimated 171 million metric tons with a projected value of $97 Billion dollars. Consequently, the answer to Mr. Taubes’ question could have significant economic repercussions.
In a series of articles, Bold Business considers both sides of the sugar argument.
Firstly, the positive.
Our bodies need sugar. Sugars are natural components of a variety of foods essential to a healthy diet, including fruit, dairy products, and vegetables. These foods contain the sugars glucose, lactose, or fructose.
Metabolic processes throughout the body break down digestible carbohydrates in fruits and vegetables and the lactose in dairy products into glucose. All cells in the body use this glucose. The brain and other organs use the glucose as fuel to provide energy. Because glucose is an essential nutrient for cellular function, most glucose is consumed within hours of ingestion.
In addition to the glucose used to power our cells, the body stores glucose in the liver to be used to regulate our blood sugar levels. Because glucose is metabolized throughout the body, the liver only has to break down about 20 percent of the body’s glucose requirements.
A healthy weight adult needs about 200 grams of glucose per day. About two-thirds (130 grams) is needed by the brain. The brain requires a continuous supply of glucose to maintain normal brain functions—among these are movement, breathing, speaking, heartbeat, digestion, memory, and thinking. Without sufficient glucose to the brain, a person can become confused, forgetful, or lapse into a coma.
Besides providing energy to keep us going, sugar is desirable for another excellent reason—it makes many foods and beverages taste better. When food tastes better, the brain releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones. Who doesn’t like to feel good?
So if sugar is essential to body and brain function and makes us feel good, why ask the question, is sugar killing us?
Secondly, the negative.
Yes, our bodies need sugar, but not all sugar is created equal.
Our body needs glucose in regulated doses. Over 50 years of research, including the most recent studies tell us what our bodies don’t need—sucrose and refined fructose (high-fructose corn syrup). Besides the obvious link to tooth decay, recent studies link these refined sugars to type II diabetes, heart disease, obesity, dementia, macular degeneration, and cancer.
Refined sugar, referred to as sucrose, is composed of 50% fructose. Even moderate consumption of fructose is believed to cause hepatic insulin resistance in humans and has been shown to increase circulating free fatty acids. After ingesting fructose, the liver then has 100% of the metabolic burden. The fructose is converted into bad cholesterol and triglycerides and stored as fat. Over time, the body develops insulin resistance.
When the body is working as it should, blood glucose levels are tightly regulated. Glucose is stored in the liver as glycogen. When blood sugar levels drop the glycogen is converted back to glucose and released into the bloodstream. Blood sugar levels are balanced by the pancreas. The pancreas releases glucagon, a hormone that causes the liver to convert stored glycogen into glucose which is released into the bloodstream. Elevated levels of blood glucose in turn cause the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin suppresses the liver’s release of glucose and helps glucose enter the cells.
However, an insulin resistant liver doesn’t recognize the signal that enough glucose has been released. The liver continues to release glucose. This glucose is stored in the liver and body as fat. Other tissues can become insulin resistant and fail to absorb the extra insulin, exacerbating the problem. Added sugars promote overeating (food tastes too good to stop), and both overeating and fructose overfeeding can induce metabolic syndrome which contributes to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
estimates that “excess weight contributes to as many as 1 out of 5 of all cancer-related deaths.” A recent study from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center links diets high in sugar to particular types of cancers, especially breast cancer. Researchers identified fructose in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup as the facilitators for cancer. When fructose is burned as fuel (versus fat), free radicals are generated. These free radicals cause mitochondrial and DNA and other cellular damage. This cellular damage is believed to be a key mechanism for producing cancer.
Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, is a bold voice sounding the alarm about the hazards of sugar. “We need to wean ourselves off. We need to de-sweeten our lives. We need to make sugar a treat, not a diet staple.”
So, is sugar killing us? It appears that certain sugars may well be.