Redefining Sugar

Andrea Fabry

Andrea Fabry › Andrea is a former journalist, a radio host, and the mother of nine children. She is ...


You’re making your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. Or you’ve squeezed several fresh lemons into a pitcher of fresh water. Now it’s time to sweeten your creation. What do you choose?

Will it be refined white sugar? Agave? An unrefined sweetener like sucanat? Refined sugar has taken a bad rap in recent years, and understandably so. Sugar consumption has skyrocketed, and along with it, chronic disease. But is the answer simply a return to unrefined sugar?

Dr. Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, believes we are missing some critical information which impedes our efforts to vanquish our sugar addictions and achieve optimal health.

The issue surrounds the molecule fructose. Fructose is what gives food its sweet taste. It makes up 50% of the disaccharide sucrose, commonly known as table sugar. It appears naturally in fruits and even some vegetables. Our missing educational link, according to Lustig, concerns the metabolization process of fructose. Much like alcohol, fructose burdens the liver. In fact, fructose kicks the liver into fat storage mode, which can lead to insulin resistance and obesity. The resulting metabolic syndrome is perceived as a lack of discipline or willpower, when in fact the problem is biochemical.

The key, according to Lustig, is keeping sugar in its place. Historically, sugar has been considered a treat rather than an entitlement. Lustig recommends cutting way back on our sugar consumption while returning to food in its real form, fiber and all.

Naturally occurring fructose comes from sugarcane, fruits, some vegetables, and honey. The first three have way more fiber than fructose, and the last is protected by bees. Nature made sugar hard to get. Man made it easy to get.

We made it very easy to get when we invented high fructose corn syrup in the 1970s. HFCS is processed with chemicals such as caustic soda (which may or may not contain mercury), alpha-amylase, hydrochloric acid, and isomerase, using corn (likely to be genetically modified) as its substrate. The corn starts out with no fructose, but after the enzymatic process yields a substance that is 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Clearly, HFCS comes with a set of risks.

However, the fructose content is virtually the same as table sugar. Therefore, avoiding HFCS may be a good step, but not the solution.

Some of the highest concentrations of fructose occur in unexpected places. Fruit juice concentrate can go as high as 90%, depending on sugars added or the type of fruit used. Apple juice concentrate is about 70% fructose, while orange juice concentrate comes in at 50%.

Agave nectar is derived from the yucca family of plants and requires high amounts of processing to convert the root bulb into syrup. The process is not unlike the one used to convert cornstarch into HFCS. Depending on the process used, the fructose content can range from 55% to 90%.

The similarities between naturally occurring and manufactured sweeteners can be seen in the following graph:

What about artificial sweeteners? Sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose (Splenda) are 100% chemically derived and thus present a challenge to our already overburdened cells. These chemical compounds easily cross the blood-brain barrier, carrying with them the potential to do neurological damage.

Unrefined sugars include sucanat, rapadura, and turbinado. Rapadura and sucanat are similar dehydrated sugarcane juice products. Both retain the molasses. Turbinado adds the extra step of removing impurities and surface molasses with a centrifuge.

Sugar alcohols such as mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol are neither sugar nor alcohol, but do add sweetness. All three occur naturally in various fruits and vegetables; however, sorbitol is most often produced from corn syrup. These substances are not fully digested by the body and can therefore lead to abdominal pain, cramping, or gas.

Two options worth considering are stevia and lo han. Lo han is derived from the Chinese monk fruit, while stevia is an herb native to South America. Both can be found with varying degrees of processing, but do not carry the fructose burden common to other sweeteners.

Where does that leave us with our fresh glass of lemonade and chocolate chip cookie recipe? Consider using half the amount of sugar in your cookie recipe. Try adding raw cacao nibs in place of the chocolate chips. As for the lemonade, why not try some stevia? Better yet, let the sugar serve as a food for your drink rather than a toxin for your liver by creating a cultured beverage using a process similar to water kefir.

Cutting back on your sugar intake may necessitate some difficult changes, but may also lead to tremendous health benefits as your body responds and your taste buds do too. You may find yourself redefining sugar…and your health.

Have you cut out refined sugar from your diet? What alternative sweeteners have you started using?

Photo Credit: Andrea Fabry