Monday, December 06, 2010

Sugar... Oh, Honey-Honey...

In the past year, but especially after reading The Kind Diet, I’ve become more concerned about sugar. You may have guessed that by my last post. I’m reconsidering my intake of refined white sugar (sucrose/saccharose) in particular.

It seems like it would be a major hassle to rework all my recipes to substitute something else for the refined white sugar. (I won’t get into the differences between beet sugar and cane sugar, because once refined, it acts pretty much the same on the body, despite some mild differences in baking results.) But even if I did that, which sweetener should I use? People have long been recommending agave nectar as a sweetener. I thought it looked great. After all, it sounded like sap extracted from the agave plant and concentrated, a bit like maple syrup. But it turns out that’s bullsh*t, according to Food Renegade. Agave nectar is not actually nectar, nor is it natural. It has more fructose in it than high-fructose corn syrup and it is highly refined. So that would put it in the “bad sugars” category.

I’m going to get a little scientific right now. Sucrose (again, like refined white sugar) is made up of fructose and glucose, in refined form. Now, let me quote from that Food Renegade article I just mentioned. “Refined fructose is processed in the body through the liver, rather than digested in the intestine. Levulose [the sugar naturally occurring in fruits and containing enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin] is digested in the intestine.” The problem is that “fructose inhibits leptin levels — the hormone your body uses to tell you that you’re full. In other words, fructose makes you want to eat more. Besides contributing to weight gain, it also makes you gain the most dangerous kind of fat.” One can gain weight with glucose, fructose or any other sweetener, of course, but the weight gained with fructose is mostly visceral fat – it worsens “blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity.” It increases “small, dense LDL particles and oxidized LDL, both factors that associate strongly with the risk of heart attack and may in fact contribute to it.” It changes one’s metabolism. Again, that would put it in the “bad sugars” category.

So, let’s talk about high-fructose corn syrup. Sure, it’s made from corn, and in small quantities, it’s probably no more harmful than refined white sugar – or so we think. I found an article on The Kitchn that refers to the Princeton study that proved, once and for all, that high-fructose corn syrup really is bad. In a nutshell: the rat subjects eating high-fructose corn syrup gained MORE weight than those eating regular table sugar, even though the total caloric intake was the same. Over the long term, the fat was also distributed differently in the body: there were more visceral fat deposits in subjects eating high-fructose corn syrup than in those eating a regular diet, and their metabolism had changed (they gained 48% more weight, which is enormous). One of the graduate students who worked on the Princeton study says that “in humans, these same characteristics are known risk factors for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes." This is worrisome particularly because of how prevalent high-fructose corn syrup is in prepared foods – the rats in the study only had half the concentration of high-fructose corn syrup that is found in sodas! (I should point out, though, that regular corn syrup on the market is not high-fructose corn syrup, which nowadays tends to be used in processed foods rather than sold in stores as an ingredient.) As a marketing strategy, high-fructose corn syrup will now be called corn sugar; the fact remains that many processed foods contain too much sugar, period. To help those of you reading labels, here’s a list of synonyms for “sugar”.

While I wrote this article mainly to discuss sugar as a kitchen ingredient, I feel I inevitably have to discuss artificial sweeteners. Just because something contains little to no calories does not make it an adequate substitute. I’ve talked about artificial sweeteners before; I dislike them and believe they are not healthy, and it has been proven that they are linked to weight gain and can influence how your body metabolizes and craves food.

Allow me scientific jargon for one more paragraph. In Canada, aspartame can be used as a food additive since 1981, and sucralose (Splenda) has been approved more recently. In the United States, saccharin is still approved as a food additive, while in Canada, saccharin and other cyclamates cannot be used as such (though they can be sold as table sweeteners). The problem is that saccharin and cyclamates are suspected to have caused bladder cancer when ingested in high doses by some lab animals… Not that aspartame has been proven to be completely safe, though, and as is the case with other artificial sweeteners, it should be avoided during pregnancy. In 2007, Health Canada also authorized neotame, a new artificial sweetener that is apparently between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. Along with acesulfame potassium, this rounds up the four artificial sweetener approved as food additives in Canada, but of course each country has different rules and regulations. This link, in French, gives more information about artificial sweeteners in general. But all this is to say that I don’t trust artificial sweeteners, and I’m really trying to cut them out of my diet. (I still have the occasional “bad” soda, but even then most of those I buy now have natural sweeteners.)

So if I want to eliminate, or at least reduce, my intake of refined table sugar, corn sugar, non-natural brown sugar (because it is also sucrose), artificial sweeteners and natural-sounding sugars like agave nectar, what’s left? I had high hopes for stevia, which looked like a silver bullet, but since learning that it is banned in Europe, I can’t help but think it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I’m wondering the same thing about xylitol. Most scientists currently agree that natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and brown rice syrup are safe. I personally am now using vegan/organic raw cane sugar to bake; the crystals are bigger than those of refined white sugar, and it tastes a little less sweet, but everything I’ve baked with it so far has been great. It’s better for me than refined white sugar, as are natural brown sugars like demerara, turbinado and muscovado. But how much is too much?

I’m not sure how much success I would have cutting out sugar completely, as it is so addictive (Gwyneth Paltrow recently wrote Goop’s newsletter on the subject). The truth is that I have a major sweet tooth. To put it in perspective: this is my 400th post; of those, 272 are recipes, and at the very least 125 contain sugar in some form or other. I’ve started looking into macrobiotic desserts, particularly Éric Lechasseur’s book Love, Eric. Macrobiotics is centered on whole foods (as opposed to anything processed), legumes and vegetables, as well as eating what is in season, balancing the different kinds of food we eat and not overeating. Éric Lechasseur is a chef who happens to be French Canadian, like me. I haven’t made anything from the book yet, but only because I haven’t gotten around to it. I’m actually very much looking forward to trying out some of these recipes and plan to do so right after the holidays, if I can’t find the time before.

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