The Sweetest Poison

Fructose. Fruit juice. Fruit juice concentrate. Glucose. Glucose solids. Golden sugar. Golden syrup. High-fructose corn syrup. Honey. Invert sugar lactose. Malt syrup. Maltodextrin. Maltose. Mannitol. Molasses. Raw sugar.

A poison by any other name would still taste as… sweet???

That’s right! The list above is but a few of the more than 50 words that can be found in foods that mean there is “sugar” involved.

Sugar has been getting a bad rap recently, and with darn good reason. Sugar is increasingly becoming dubbed a toxin. Robert Lustig, a childhood obesity and pediatric hormone specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, is widely known for his lectures making the case that sugar is a harmful chemical causing damaging effects. So why is sugar so bad for us?

First, evolution is key. Our ancestors worked day in and day out, expending crazy amounts of energy, in order to consume enough calories to live. Our brains are wired to crave and indulge in any food that’s high in calories, because our ancestral family members never really knew when their next meal would be or if they would have enough food to survive long winters. There were serious evolutionary rewards for the humans who could eat more than their fill – these humans survived. Throughout our history, the foods high in sugar have also been high in calories. There is no “off-switch” in our brains when consuming sugary foods, because there is no “off-switch” in our brains when it comes to survival.

Second, sugar can cause a serious addiction response. Not only do our brains think we need lots of calories to survive, they also provide us with chemical rewards for consuming sugar. Studies have shown that the same areas of the brain that light up for heroin use also light up when people eat sweets. Dopamine and other happy-feeling chemicals get released every time you indulge. That also means that, just like drug addicts, we can get used to our current sugar intake and crave more to achieve the same “high” as before. Excess calories from sugar in foods can cause obesity, which raises the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, etc.

Third, companies have figured out the first two facts and are using it to their advantage. Pretty much every processed food you can purchase at the grocery store was not developed with what you would think of as a typical “recipe.” These days, companies use chemical formulas that rely on a ratio of sugar to fat to salt, with sugar being the main element. There aren’t chefs in kitchens creating our foods, there are scientists in labs. They know how to keep us hooked – and they get paid very well to make sure we keep coming back for more. Companies who make baby formula even put sugar in their products so that their milk is sweeter than breast milk, because even a baby will choose processed food over natural food due to the sweeter taste.

So what can you do? The key is control. Start by making small changes that you can stick with, like decreasing your intake of pop or candy by one serving every day. Then you can decrease by two servings and so on. You can also trade your candy and soda for an apple or raisins. Making a swap like that ensures you’re still feeding your sweet tooth, but you are also getting some other essential nutrients like fiber and vitamins and minerals. Also, remember that sugary foods aren’t everyday foods. Sugary foods used to be reserved for special occasions like a small piece of birthday cake on a celebration day. Although every day is truly a day to celebrate, it doesn’t have to be celebrated with poison.