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The Devil We Know


Keeping Sugar Off the Table

by Barbara Bamberger Scott

At a recent grandkid-birthday party, watching the little darlings consume a delicious dark chocolate cake prepared at the local whole foods store, I opined to my ex-husband and fellow grandparent that I was glad that the cake was more or less pure, that is, not made with high fructose corn syrup, because, I said, "High fructose corn syrup is the devil."  He laughed politely and then said, "Actually, sugar is sugar.  Fructose is the same as sucrose or glucose."  Since he is brilliant, thin, and almost never consumes sugar, I shut up.  However, a few days later, I chanced to listen to the Diane Rehm show on NPR.  Her guest that day was Dr. Robert Lustig, whose new book is called Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease.  

I was riveted by Dr. Lustig’s presentation.  It wasn’t just what he said, though that was compelling.  It was also the way he said it: with conviction, even, at times, a spark of righteous indignation. 

Among the statements he made, the repeated mantra was: all sugar is bad for you, all sugar is bad for you, all sugar is bad for you.  BUT fructose, as it occurs in “food products” (as distinct from “real foods”) is much, much worse, because of the way the body metabolizes it. So my ex was, per Dr. Lustig, both right and wrong, and so was I.  Fair enough. 

Trying to process what I heard Dr. Lustig say, I thought back to my early hippie years when I first figured out that white sugar was bad and brown sugar or honey was good.  Then my understanding grew to the point where I saw that brown sugar is just white sugar with more molasses, or sometimes, molasses flavoring and brown dye (the functional equivalent of mixing sugar and a dash of tasty shoe polish).  And later, I learned that bees make honey from—sugar!  Then came the fanatical phases in which I was determined that no sweet flavor should cross my lips (usually these were times when I wanted to lose weight, so as soon as the pounds left, the sweet stuff returned).  Later, I came to my view that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the devil, the devil we know and mistakenly trust, since it is has insinuated itself into so many things we like to eat, and don’t want to give up forever.  Check the label on any processed food you enjoy.  If you have not already discovered this, you may be dismayed to see how much HFCS is in meat, vegetables, even products advertising themselves as “healthy” and “whole.” 

And remember, the bottom line regarding HFCS as distinct from the sugar that naturally occurs in an apple or a glass of milk is that HFCS is a genetically engineered substance.  The sugar in an apple has not been genetically engineered, whereas the addition of HFCS to any food is a chemical modification of that food.  

I was beset with a low-pitched foreboding, not unlike the feeling I recall from childhood just before my older sister told me that Santa Claus was “just our parents.”  What to do?  Love the parents for bringing gifts, or hate them for telling a lie?  

What to do?  Love sugar for being a food?  No poisons, Dr. Lustig says, are sweet, so our long-ago ancestors knew they were “safe” when they ate something with a sweet taste.  Sugar was trustworthy.  You could eat it.  It was food. 

Or hate sugar for being so destructive, causing obesity, diabetes, and a host of other ills that are sapping the vigor of American society?  

Love it for providing calories—after all, we have to have calories to stay alive, right?   

Or hate it for its empty promise—energy without lasting strength and health?

If my language seems strong, the language Dr. Lustig uses is stronger; and he is a scientist.  Here are some of the facts he presents in his book, Fat Chance (many of these points are also developed in his compelling YouTube lecture, Sugar—The Bitter Truth) : 

* Fructose (this includes all sugars apart from lactose, the sugar naturally occurring in milk) is “inevitably metabolized to fat.” 

* Fructose consumption has doubled in the past thirty years and increased six-fold in the last century. 

* Most of us, regardless of weight, release twice as much insulin today as we did thirty years ago for the same amount of glucose; this leads to a condition called hyperinsulinemia and that leads to insulin resistance.  The body experiences hunger, leading to over-eating, especially to the consumption of foods loaded with sugar. This is the classic portrait of addiction.  

* The processed food industry has turned to increased sugars of all kinds to improve the flavor and shelf life of “food products”; we continue to eagerly purchase and consume these processed foods.  About a quarter of all calories we consume on average, come from sugars; in adolescents this percentage can approach forty.  

* High fructose corn syrup, made from corn that has been chemically tweaked, came on the scene in 1975.  Since its inception, that day before any of us had ever tasted it, its consumption has sky-rocketed.  Americans consume almost 70 pounds of HFCS a year.  Most people are probably unaware that they do this.  A quick check of any grocer’s shelf will reveal that most “food products” contain some HFCS, sometimes as a primary ingredient.  HFCS is sweeter than sugar by 20%, yet manufacturers of “food products” add more HFCS to their products than they used to add sugar.  

I knew this information was important; important enough to share.  And there’s more, information I had gleaned at first hand. 

I lived for a year in the Dominican Republic, where sugar cane is king.  It’s been that way since the island was first discovered and most of its native population destroyed by the Spaniards, who were so cruel that the natives, called Taínos, gladly joined hands and walked into the sea rather than serve them.  So the Spanish overlords (and on the western, Haitian portion of the island, the French) imported Africans to do the work of harvesting sugar cane.  

Sugar cane, for centuries the most potent supplier of sweetness to desperate Europeans, is a dangerous customer, designed by Mother Nature to keep its treasure secure.  Sucrose clings to the inner stalk, and the outer stalk is covered with razor-sharp leaves.  Harvesting by hand is still prevalent because of cheap, Third World labor that has replaced slavery and indenture as a means of exploiting the poor.  In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, hired laborers, mostly persons of African descent, generally referred to as “garçons” (boys), harvest by burning the cane fields and cutting the canes as low as possible to the ground with deadly machetes.  I was told that accidents—loss of digits and limbs—were common in the cane fields and in the equally dangerous processing area where cane sugar is converted to granules.  

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