It seems that sugar is everywhere in our food. But why? And why do we compare it to hard drugs?
I am currently in the middle of a full-on dieting process. Yes, I am preparing myself for the Christmas celebrations (that will undoubtedly make me gain a few little kilos due to the excesses related to these festivities!) therefore no more fats or sugar for a while. Moreover, lately I have gained some weight because I do not exercise enough my nutritionist would say! Therefore I am trying to get rid of it all. Well, what reassures me is that a lot of people are like me, slightly overweight to obese, so I am not the only one to have some trouble with my own weight. Actually I am not at all alone since almost 30% of the world population suffers from being overweight and from obesity. Unbelievable no?Especially when we know that on the other side, 30% of the world population suffers from malnutrition. So just like for the distribution of global wealth, the gap widens also at the level of weight; more and more extreme ‘big’ and more and more extreme ‘thin’. To top it all, the majority of people who suffer from being overweight or from obesity, suffers in fact from malnutrition linked to a lack of financial resources to purchase healthy food. Just as a reminder, under-nutrition just like the name suggests is a problem of lack of food, whereas malnutrition is linked to an excess of food without nutritional value but full of sugars and fats, junk food actually.
The “white” sugar; a very sweet poison
We know that junk food (hamburgers, frozen pizza, candy, chocolate bars etc.) is one of the reasons for obesity in developed countries due to its low price. In fact vegetables, fresh meat, fruits, yogurts etc. are often more expensive quantitatively than a full menu at McDonalds costing around 8 euros. But the question that arises is how is it possible that a full meal with meat, bread, cheese, potatoes, sauces, drink, costs less than a meal cooked at home? If you have watched the brilliant documentary Food Inc., the question is raised and the answer is scary, I have asked myself on several occasions if I should just simply boycott these restaurant food giants. Without going into the details of what the menus of big fast food chains comprise, or even any industrial food/junk food such as frozen pizza, cereal and any other already prepared/pre-packaged food, you must know that the sugar content in the above is much higher than in homemade food. So yes, there is sugar in virtually all foods in general, and even in Brussels sprouts! But the problem is the manner in which sugar is assimilated by the human body. In his book ‘ Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar’ Robert Lustig reveals that processed foods contain hundreds of grams of ‘hidden sugars’ harmful to our health, not just for reasons of weight or diabetes, but also because we know that a diet high in sugars increases the risk of Alzheimer’s or cancer. Be aware that all the foods that you consume which are manufactured industrially contain added sugars.
But why are there so many sugars in processed foods? What is the interest/benefit of companies such as Kraft, Nestlé or Danone? Well, the following:
- To give a better taste to the products
- To form colorful and aromatic compounds; the sugars interact with proteins to trigger the Maillard reaction, which makes braised ham and country-style pâté so tasty
- To compensate for the bitterness of the liver based products
- To prevent meat oxidation
- To support (together with nitrites which are also required) the pink color of hams and sausages (where they also block microbe development)
Sugar is as addictive as a hard drug. And yes, manufacturers are smart, by not only adding sugar to all their products (making them more attractive), but on top of that they inevitably make us consume more. Who hasn’t ever felt the almost irresistible urge to finish a just opened chocolate-chip cookies pack? Thanks to the addictive power of sugar, we become like drug addicts and the people who are on a diet, just like me at this moment, try to cut the cord. What explains this big challenge that we have in keeping a diet, is that around us we have the temptation to consume sugars and products with high carbohydrate content. Watch TV for 30 minutes and you will have at least 10 commercials that give you the urge to eat; go out in the city and you will encounter at least 2-3 fast food places on the way and your stomach (well, in fact, your brain) will beg you to purchase the cake in the shop window. It’s as if we were sending a heroin addict to Heroin Land with heroin at every corner of the street. For me diets are torture, since I am naturally attracted more by sugar than by salt.
I WANT SOME SUGAR!!! SUGAR!!!
We are naturally attracted by sugar. Our bodies need sugar – our DNA itself is made of a ‘sugar’ and because by default we find little of it in nature, our instinct pushes us to consume it as soon as it is available. As a matter of fact, ‘white’ sugar doesn’t exist in nature. It is true that sugar comes from foods found in nature: corn, beetroots, sugar canes, but the sugar found in these foods is transformed to become the so-called refined sugar. This sugar is not assimilated by our bodies the same way and it doesn’t itself have the same beneficial attributes like the non-hydrolysable carbohydrates (=commonly called sugars) comprised in fruit or other natural products. Refined sugars are addictive and only serve to increase our desire for more sugars. And industries have understood the situation perfectly. Take an apple and a biscuit for example. Towards which will you direct yourself naturally forgetting about nutritional properties instantly?
A small sugar fix?
But why is refined sugar used instead of natural sugar? And why is it that refined sugar is so addictive and we prefer it over natural sugar? To the first question, the answer is simple. Natural sugar is much more expensive to produce and it is less profitable. The food industry has quickly adopted a more economical solution and therefore a more chemical one. White sugar comes from beetroot or sugar cane transformed through chemical processes, utilizing substances such as calcium oxide, carbon dioxide and sulfuric dioxide (toxic) in order to transform the molasses coming from raw materials into a clean/uncluttered substance. And then a black substance (coming from animal bones) is used for the crystallization of the clean substance and finally the white color is obtained by using sodium and calcium oxide. Ok, right now all of this sounds much less appetizing! And yet this summary is far from putting together an exhaustive list of all the chemical compounds used! Then why do we prefer refined sugar over natural sugar? Well simply because of all these chemical compounds utilized to produce it. Just like cocaine, white sugar is a chemical compound coming from a naturally occurring compound whose transformation has made it addictive.
While doing research on the composition of our food, I have realized that almost ALL processed foods contain white sugar in varying amounts, nonetheless it’s present. For what purpose? To make us consume more, always more, at the expense of our health and that of the environment.
Because in addition to being detrimental to our health, sugar is also bad for the environment. Sugar comes from an agriculture rich in pesticides, either from sugar cane or beetroots, requiring huge water resources and contributing to deforestation and soil depletion. Processing it releases environmentally harmful waste similar to the one coming from burnt bagasse.
The sweet addict that I am will tell you that it’s out of the question that I will stop eating chocolate bars or cereal. But knowing the implications that this has on my health and on the planet, I will look twice from now on to the composition of processed food and I will turn to products containing natural sugar rather than refined sugar. Ah but it’s true that manufacturers are not obliged to specify this. Well this leaves me with little options besides cooking or buying products that mention the origin of their ingredients…until maybe a label appears or a miracle happens and the food industry changes its way of working? So next time that you go to the supermarket, have a look at the labels, it’s pretty amazing that even soy contains sugar. And then if you go to a restaurant or fast food places, ask yourselves what kind of food you are about to put in your body, because even though you are watching your weight or inquiring about the origin of your food, restaurant owners do not look at the labels of their suppliers but at the price tags instead.
Meanwhile, I return to face my addiction in SugarLand. This will not be a piece of cake…as it will not be for the 21% of people in the world suffering from being overweight and from obesity.