Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
What candies, cakes, chocolates, ice creams, pastries, soft drinks, and juices have one thing in common? Sugar, that’s what.
A natural ingredient that has been part of man’s diet for thousands of years, sugar is ideal for all kinds of food preparation. From improving the taste of food, sugar also acts as a structural agent for products like meringues and as a natural preservative (sugar binds water molecules, making them unavailable for microorganisms).
People call it sugar but scientists use the term “sucrose” for it. Extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet, sugar is made up of glucose and fructose. Sugar is an important source of energy, with glucose being the most significant for the body.
Sugar is thought to have been first used over 5,000 years ago in the Polynesian Islands. Both brown and white sugar contain the same number of calories at four calories per gram. The body breaks down all sugars and starches to glucose.
To keep the brain from functioning, it needs around 130 grams of glucose per day. “Sugar taps into a powerful human preference for sweet taste,” points out Dr. Marcia Pelchat, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a basic research institute in Philadelphia. “We’re born to like sugar,” she adds.
“Sugar does seem to be special in some ways,” says Dr. Pelchat – even in the womb. Doctors used to treat the problem of excessive amniotic fluid by injecting a sweet substance into the liquid, she says. The appealing taste would prompt the fetus to swallow more fluid, which was then flushed out through the umbilical cord and the mother’s kidneys.
“Sugar was once a luxury ingredient reserved for special occasions,” wrote Tiffany O’Callaghan, Opinion section editor of New Scientist. “But in recent years it has become a large and growing part of our diets. If you eat processed food of any kind, it probably contains added sugar. You can find it in sliced bread, breakfast cereals, salad dressings, soups, cooking sauces and many other staples. Low-fat products often contain a lot of added sugar.”
Just like salt, eating too much sugar is doing people no good. In fact, sugar is being touted as public health enemy number one: as bad if not worse than fat, and the major driving force behind obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes. Some researchers even contend that sugar is toxic or addictive.
Obesity used to be a serious problem in industrialized countries. Now, it is also a major health problem in the Philippines. Recent studies show that three out of 10 Filipinos are overweight.
“In 10 years, the prevalence of obesity among Filipino adults almost doubled from 20.2% in 1998 to 37.2% in 2018,” reports The Manila Times. “One out of four Filipino children aged 6-10 years old and one out of every 10 Filipino adolescents are overweight/obese as of 2018.”
Being overweight and obese are major risk factors for a number of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke, which are the leading causes of death worldwide. In the Philippines, 276 people die from a heart attack each day, while stroke claims the life of one person every minute.
Being overweight can also lead to diabetes and its associated conditions, including blindness, limb amputations, and the need for dialysis. Based on the 2013 Philippine Health Statistics, diabetes is now the sixth leading cause of death among Filipinos. Over six million Filipinos are diagnosed to have diabetes.
In a press conference some years back held in Makati City, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, a professor at the Division of Endocrinology in University of California, San Francisco, said sugar is the reason why obesity is now one of the world’s biggest health threats and the cases of diabetes is exploding in most parts of the globe.
Obesity, he pointed out, is increasing worldwide by one percent, and diabetes is increasing worldwide at the rate of 4 percent. As quoted by health reporter Eleanor A. Leyco-Chua, Dr. Lustig said obesity is not the problem.
“People don’t die of obesity,” Dr. Lustig emphasized. “Obesity is not even listed on death certificates. But people die of the disease that normally travels with obesity and therefore goes the metabolic syndrome.”
Metabolic syndrome, according to the Cleveland Clinic, is “a collection of risk factors – increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglycerides levels – that occurs together, increasing the chance of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.”
Having one of these conditions doesn’t mean you have metabolic syndrome. However, any of these conditions increase your risk of serious disease. Having more than one of these might increase your risk even more.
The number of diabetics around the world is growing, and it is evident in the numbers of young children diagnosed with diabetes. In children, diabetes is most common in those aged 10 to 19 years old, according to the website healthline.com.
In the past, fats have been “wrongly demonized” as the cause of all health problems. But the real culprit why the world is getting sick is the excessive consumption of sugar, according to Dr. Lustig.
“The food industry definitely wants this to be about the obesity epidemic because then they will win,” the American professor pointed out. “The food industry will always steer the discussion to the obesity epidemic, it is not about obesity.
“Our sugar consumption is killing us. And you can’t fix this until you fix the food. You can’t solve the healthcare unit until you solve health, and you can’t solve health until you solve diet,” he said.
It is no wonder why health bodies are waging “a war on sugar.” The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) wants people to cut sugar consumption radically. In the United States, doctors and scientists are pressing food companies to reduce sugar and be more open about how much they add. In the United Kingdom, a group called Action on Sugar has launched a campaign to ratchet down sugar.
As early as 1972, Dr. John Yudkin sounded the alarm that sugar was the greatest danger to our health in his book entitled Pure, White, and Deadly.
“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive,” wrote the British professor of nutrition, “that material would promptly be banned.”
Although the book did well, it had a devastating impact on Dr. Yudkin’s career. Prominent nutritionists combined with the food industry destroyed his reputation, “and his career never recovered,” wrote Ian Leslie in an investigative report published by The Guardian. “He died, in 1995, a disappointed, largely forgotten man.”
But Dr. Yudkin’s “discovery” has not gone to waste. Dr. Mark Hyman, an American best-selling author, claimed sugar – and not fat! – is causing heart attacks! In his book, The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet, he provided an easy, step-to-step plan to get rid of a person’s sugar addiction and reverse his risk of heart attacks.
On his claim, he wrote: “A rigorously done new study shows that those with the highest sugar intake had a four-fold increase in their risk of heart attacks compared to those with the lowest intakes. That’s 400%!”
The study of more than 40,000 people, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, accounted for all other potential risk factors, including total calories, overall diet quality, smoking, cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and alcohol.
“For years, we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that fat causes heart attacks and raises cholesterol, and that sugar is harmless except as a source of empty calories,” Dr. Hyman wrote. “They are not empty calories.”
There is also mounting evidence that shows that flooding your body system with sugar-sweetened beverages – such as soft drinks, fruit drinks, iced tea, and sports drinks – may increase your risk of diabetes.
A study published in the journal Diabetes Care examined more than 310,000 patients and found that those who drank 1-2 servings of the sweet stuff a day were 26% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who drank it once a month or not at all.
“The reason is twofold: Loading up on sugar-sweetened beverages tends to lead to weight gain, which is a risk factor for diabetes,” writes Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, author of Best Sugar Addiction Now! “Previous studies have found that those who toss back high-calorie drinks tend not to cut calories elsewhere from their meals. Second, sugar-loaded drinks deliver a quick rush of sugars to your body, which over time can lead to insulin resistance and inflammation.”
Gary Taubes, in an article which appeared in The New York Times, noted: “In 1924, Haven Emerson, director of the institute of public health at Columbia University, reported that diabetes deaths in New York City had increased as much as 15-fold since the Civil War years, and that deaths increased as much as fourfold in some U.S. cities between 1900 and 1920 alone. This coincided, he noted, with an equally significant increase in sugar consumption — almost doubling from 1890 to the early 1920s — with the birth and subsequent growth of the candy and soft-drink industries.”
Eating too many foods high in sugar may depress your immune system. Dan Hammer, writing for the smoothie-handbook.com, explains: “Your body uses white blood cells to destroy viruses and bacteria. In the 1970s, researchers discovered that vitamin C was needed by the white blood cells to aid them in the process of destroying viruses and bacteria. Researchers developed a ‘phagocytic index’ which tells them how rapidly a particular macrophage or lymphocyte can gobble up a virus, bacteria, or cancer cell to destroy it. Dr. Linus Pauling realized that white blood cells need a high dose of vitamin C to effectively do their job in protecting you.”
Sugar, in the form of glucose, has a similar chemical structure to vitamin C. “As your glucose levels increase,” Hammer says, “this molecule competes with vitamin C to enter the cell. If there is more glucose present, then there will be less vitamin C allowed into the cell. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much glucose for this disruption to occur. A blood glucose level of 120 reduces the ‘phagocytic index’ by 75%!”
Dental caries, also known as tooth decay, is an expensive disease to treat, consuming 5-10% of healthcare budgets in industrialized countries, and is among the reasons for hospitalization of children in some high-income countries.
In 1998, the National Monitoring and Epidemiological Dental Survey reported that about 92.4% of Filipinos have tooth decay. A National Oral Health Survey revealed that 97.1% of 6-year-old children suffer from tooth decay.
In 2003, a WHO report stated that “sugars are undoubtedly the most important dietary factor in the development of dental caries.” A review of human studies showed that the incidence of caries is lower when sugar intake is less than 10% of total energy consumed.
“If God hadn’t meant for us to eat sugar, he wouldn’t have invented dentists,” said Ralph Nader, an American activist, and author. But Luc Tappy, a physiologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, disagrees: “You cannot live without essential fats. You cannot live without protein. It’s going to be difficult to have enough energy if you don’t have some carbohydrate. But without sugar, there is no problem. It’s an entirely dispensable food.”