Sugar – Part 3: Oh Sweet Poison, Thy Name is Sugar!


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj
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“It seems like every time I study an illness and trace a path to the first cause, I find my way back to sugar.”
Richard Johnson, Nephrologist, University of Colorado Denver

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What does the word “sugar” mean to you?

To me, anything that tastes sweet: cane sugar (sucrose), beet sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, honey, syrups, sugary drinks, molasses, agave the popular ingredient for tequila, chocolates, toffees, confectioneries, etc.

Baby and cake icing (Source: tammydeyoungdesigns.com)
Baby and cake icing (Source: tammydeyoungdesigns.com)

Most of us had our first singular experience of sweetness when we licked the dab of cake icing or a drop of honey from the finger of one of our loving parents.

Even though sugar tastes delicious it is not a food. Though it is habit-forming it is not a drug, but many people get addicted to it. The more sugar you taste, the more you want! It gives instant energy and quickens the muscles, but it is not a nutrient.

Old Lady enjoying her huge ice cream (Source: Lupe Clemente/flickr.com)
Old Lady enjoying her huge ice cream (Source: Lupe Clemente/flickr.com)

Sugar is the universal name for a variety of carbohydrates, derived from various sources.

Carbohydrates supply energy for working muscles. They provide fuel for the central nervous system, enable fat metabolism, and prevent protein from being used as energy.

Before learning to grow food, the carbohydrates that our ancestors consumed for energy must have come from whatever plants that were available to them according to the season.

Around 6,000 BC, people in New Guinea cultivated sugarcane. They drank the sweet juice by chewing the stalks of the sugarcane. The cultivation of sugarcane spread gradually from island to island, and around 1000 BC reached the Asian mainland. By 500 BC, the Indians were processing crystalline sugar from sugarcane. By 600 AD sugar found its way to China, Persia, and northern Africa. Eventually by the 11th century, it reached Europe. In England between the 18th and 19th centuries consumption of sugar increased by 1,500 percent.

By the mid 19th century, Europeans, Americans and the people of the civilized world became habituated to the use of refined sugar and considered it as a staple item of food.

Now, we consume sugar daily in one form or another because our body cells depend on carbohydrates for energy. An ingrained love for sweetness has evolved within us and we use sugar generously to sweeten almost all our raw, cooked, baked, frozen food and drinks.

There is good and bad food. Health experts point their finger accusingly at all foods that have sugar and brand them bad. They say that we are in fact poisoning ourselves by satiating our sweet tooth. Some even use the adjective ‘toxic’ to describe sugar and say it disrupts the body’s usual hormonal cycles and endangers our internal and external organs.

All experts say the use of sugar results in high rates of obesity, metabolic disorders like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other ailments.

Testing urine by smelling and tasting was once the primary method used to diagnose diseases. Hippocrates (460-377 BC) of Kos noticed that a patient’s urine smelled differently as the course of fever changed. The Greco-Roman doctor Galen (131-201 AD) of Pergamon believed that urine revealed the health of the liver, where blood was supposedly produced. He stated, evaluating the urine was the best way to find whether or not the body’s four humours – blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile – were in equilibrium.

Thomas Willis (1621–1675) by John Wollaston (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)
Thomas Willis (1621–1675) by John Wollaston (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

In 1675, Thomas Willis (1621-1675), an English physician who played an important part in the history of anatomy, neurology and psychiatry, and a founding member of the Royal Society of London, was the first in modern medical literature to diagnose diabetes by the taste of urine. He observed that the urine of the diabetics tasted “wonderfully sweet, as if it were imbued with honey or sugar.” His taste test impelled him to append the latin word ‘mellitus‘ for honey to this form of diabetes. Ancient  Hindu, Chinese, and Arab texts also have reports of the same sweet taste in urine of patients suffering from diabetes.

Haven Emerson (1874-1957), Emeritus Professor of Public Health Practice at Columbia University, New York, pointed out that significant increase in deaths from diabetes between 1900 and 1920 corresponded with an increase in sugar consumption.

In the 1960s a series of experiments on animals and humans conducted by John Yudkin, the British nutrition expert revealed that high amounts of sugar in the diet led to high levels of fat that paved the way for heart disease and diabetes. But Yudkin’s warning was not heard because other scientists blamed the rising rates of obesity and heart disease to cholesterol caused by too much saturated fat in the diet.

Even though the Americans changed their diet by consuming less fat than they did 20 years before, obesity increased.

Why?

The culprit was sugar and fructose in particular.

Now, we eat most of our sugar mainly as sucrose or table sugar. Americans include high-fructose corn syrup as well.

One molecule each of two simple sugars – glucose and fructose, having the same chemical formula, but with slightly different molecular structures, bond together to form a molecule of sucrose.

Because fructose is about twice as sweet as glucose, an inexpensive syrup mixing the two was an appealing alternative to sucrose from sugarcane and beets. In the 1960s, the U.S. corn industry developed a new technology to convert corn-derived glucose into fructose from which high fructose corn syrup was produced. Despite its name, the high fructose corn syrup has 55% fructose, 42% glucose, and three percent other sugars.

The various avatars of sugar are metabolized differently in the body. Our body cells prefer the simple sugars fructose and glucose to the heavier disaccharide sucrose. Enzymes such as sucrase in the intestine split sucrose into fructose and glucose instantaneously. Glucose travels through the bloodstream to all of our tissues.

The human body regulates the amount of glucose in the blood. Glucose reaches all the tissues in the body through the bloodstream. It stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin, the hormone which helps remove excess glucose from  the blood, and boosts production of leptin, the hormone which suppresses hunger.

All body cells convert glucose into energy, but only liver cells can convert fructose to energy by metabolizing it into glucose and lactate.

Too much fructose from sugars and sugary drinks including fruit juices, taxes the liver by making it spend much energy on converting and leaving less for all its other functions. This leads to excess production of uric acid that induces formation of gout, kidney stones and leads to high blood pressure. According to some researchers large amounts of fructose encourage people to eat more than they need since it raises the levels of grehlin, the hormone that stimulates hunger.

Sugar also triggers the body to increase production of Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol often informally called bad cholesterol. LDL cholesterol transports their content of many fat molecules into artery walls, attract macrophages, and thus drive atherosclerosis.

Also, excess fructose increases fat production, especially in the liver. The fat converts to circulating triglycerides that are easily stored in fatty tissue, leading to obesity and a risk factor for clogged arteries and cardiovascular diseases.

Some researchers have linked a fatty liver to insulin resistance – a condition in which cells become unusually less responsive to insulin, exhausting the pancreas until it loses the ability to regulate blood glucose levels properly.

Richard J. Johnson, a nephrologist at the University of Colorado Denver has proposed that uric acid produced by fructose metabolism also promotes insulin resistance thought to be a major contributor to obesity and Type 2 diabetes, the disorders that often occur together.

Richard J. Johnson, MD, University of Colorado
Richard J. Johnson, MD, University of Colorado Denver

Rich Cohen in his article “Sugar Love” (A not so sweet story) published in the National Geographic quotes Dr. Richard J. Johnson:

“It seems like every time I study an illness and trace a path to the first cause, I find my way back to sugar.

Why is it that one-third of adults [worldwide] have high blood pressure, when in 1900 only 5 percent had high blood pressure? Why did 153 million people have diabetes in 1980, and now we’re up to 347 million? Why are more and more Americans obese? Sugar, we believe, is one of the culprits, if not the major culprit.”

Now, more than one-third of adults and nearly 12.5 million adolescents and children are obese in the United States. In 1980 about 5.6  million Americans were diagnosed with diabetes. However, in 2011 more than 20 million Americans were found to be diabetic.

Dr. Arun Bal, diabetic foot surgeon warns:

“India is facing an epidemic of diabetes. At present, confirmed diabetes patients in India are 67 million, with another 30 million in prediabetes group. By 2030, India will have the largest number of [diabetic] patients in the world. Diabetes is not only a blood sugar problem, but brings along other complications as well.”

Dr. Suresh Vijan, Interventional cardiologist, also warns:

“The incidence of heart disease is increasing at a rapid rate. It was 1.09% in the 1950s, increased to 9.7 % in 1990, and 11% by 2000. This rising trend will make India the heart disease capital of the world… Indians face a dual risk of heart disease and diabetes. The risk of death due to myocardial infarction is three times higher in diabetics as compared with non-diabetics. Life expectancy too is reduced by 30% in diabetics as compared to non diabetics; this translates into a loss of eight years of life… Increased consumption of dense-rich foods along with increasing sedentary lifestyle has increased the incidence of diabetes and heart disease.”

Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco, is crusading against the use of sugar. His YouTube videos “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” and “Fat Chance: Fructose 2.0” have gone viral.

It’s not just the heart, diabetes takes a severe toll on vision too.

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Don't Lick the spoon !(Source: news.discovery.com)
Don’t Lick the spoon ! (Source: news.discovery.com)

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