Sugar-coating the Facts
Whether it’s a morning latte or an afternoon cola, you are probably consuming more sugar than you should. Here’s what you can do about it
Seed of health: Agave plants can be distilled into a juice that’s 40 percent sweeter than sugar — and healthier for you, too
Photograph by Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock
Right now marks the start of a long holiday-studded season, and when it comes to the holidays, the sugar pours... and pours... and pours.
“It begins on October 31 — Halloween — then Thanksgiving and right into the next year with Valentine’s Day; it doesn’t end until Easter,” says Holly Anne Shelowitz, a certified nutrition counselor at Nourishing Wisdom in Rosendale. “You always see more sugary meals and desserts served during this time.” But with the average American consuming 22 teaspoons of sugar per day (teenagers take in a whopping 34 teaspoons daily), Shelowitz and other health and diet experts in the Hudson Valley suggest we think twice before taking that next bite — or sip — of sugar.
So does the American Heart Association, which released a statement earlier this year attributing obesity to our nation’s increasing appetite for added sugars. It’s also the first time the association provided specific daily recommendations for added sugar: six teaspoons for women, and nine for men. Added sugars are the extra sweeteners that are placed in foods and beverages during processing and/or preparation (the sugar and honey you add to your coffee or tea is an added sugar).
“The World Health Organization said the same thing about reducing added sugar — in 2003-2004 — but nobody seemed to pay attention to it,” says Catherine Fink, a registered dietician at Peak Nutrition in New Paltz. Perhaps that’s because many find the advice hard to swallow: According to the association’s guidelines, consuming a typical 12-ounce soft drink — about eight teaspoons of sugar — already puts women over the limit, and men aren’t too far behind.
Of course, added sugar isn’t the only culprit behind weight gain, but with an estimated 64 percent of the population overweight and 31 percent obese (according to the Obesity Society), cutting back sounds like a smart idea. Obesity increases the risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, certain cancers, and other health problems. To give credit where it’s due, more people are indeed paying greater attention to food labels, but we’re still getting hoodwinked. “One of my patients showed me an ‘all natural’ nutrition bar,” Fink says. “Yes, everything is natural and organic, but do you understand that it’s still all added sugar?”
Glenn Finley, a naturopathic doctor at New Leaf Holistic Health in Kingston, says it’s easy to be deceived. “Cane juice has become the ‘natural sugar’ on some food ingredient labels, but it’s still sugar,” says Finley, who helps patients kick the sugar habit and manage blood glucose by using herbs and nutrients, and by retraining the taste buds to appreciate the sweetness of healthier alternatives like berries, spices, and other natural flavors. As a result, he says, people are losing weight and gaining better health.
Dr. Zubair Jafar, director of cardiac research at the Hudson Valley Heart Center, also urges Valleyites to take the Heart Association’s new recommendations seriously. “Sugar is a waste of calories,” he says. “Any excess of it makes you fat, your blood pressure goes up, and it makes your cholesterol out of whack.”
He says the quickest way to reduce added sugar in the diet is to stop drinking it. Jafar, also the director of interventional cardiology at Dutchess County’s Vassar Brothers Medical Center, says liquid calories from sweetened soft drinks, juices, teas, and other beverages seem to go down pretty fast and easy — gliding right past our lips to surreptitiously pack on the pounds. Before we know it, we’re fat and scratching our heads as to why. “When you drink sugar, it doesn’t make you full; and many studies show, if you drink sugar, it turns to fat,” he says.
Many foods and beverages with added sugars contain heavy doses of high fructose corn syrup, the ubiquitous ingredient that has replaced sugar as the preferred sweetener among most commercial food and beverage companies. However, it still carries the same number of calories as sugar and has no nutritional value. In 2008, the American Dietetic Association published a statement, authored by a researcher from the Corn Refiners Association Independent Scientific Advisory Board, which claims high fructose corn syrup is no more a contributor to obesity than is sugar, but not everyone is convinced.
“High fructose corn syrup messes with the liver’s function and handling of fats — it definitely interferes with the amount of fat and sugar in the blood,” Fink says. “If someone sitting in front of me has a lot of abdominal fat, I’m going to ward them off high fructose corn syrup altogether.”
And Dr. Jafar adds, even “if you drink a lot of diet soda, you’re still addicted to sweets — you’re just training your body to continue to want to eat a lot of sweets. I’m not saying have nothing, but have less.”
So isn’t there something out there that we can use to sweeten our food without souring our health?
You bet there is, says Pleasant Valley resident and former restaurant owner Joseph Baldwin. A Culinary Institute of America graduate and proponent of the slow food movement, Baldwin is working with local doctors to spread the word about the sweet, natural goodness of stevia, which comes from the South American herb Stevia rebaudiana. Rebiana, a sweetener that uses stevia extracts, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last December, and is now available in stores. Rebiana is considered by some to be a near-perfect sweetener, with a zero glycemic index and zero calories — a dream come true for diabetics, those who are overweight, or just about anyone who wants to cut back on added sugar. The glycemic index is a numerical scale used to measure how fast a food is absorbed by the body and raises blood sugar. For good health, foods with a low glycemic index are best.
Baldwin grows his own crop of stevia in Dutchess County, and shares the herbs — which he dehydrates, boils, and grinds himself to make syrups and powders — with anyone who asks. He also gives weekly stevia demonstrations at farm markets and other venues.
“A cookie made with stevia is going to be a little bit different, but after a while you love it,” says Baldwin. “The flavor is strong and sometimes has an aftertaste,” says Shelowitz, who gives cooking demonstrations and nutrition talks on how to reduce sugar cravings, weight loss/weight balance, and other topics.
There’s also agave syrup, a juice 40 percent sweeter than sugar that comes from the agave plant (indigenous to Mexico) that is gaining popularity as the new low-glycemic sweetener.
Agave syrup is “still better than sugar,” says Shelowitz, but “it is being marketed as this great healthy sweetener and it still has a high glycemic index and it raises blood glucose.”
Lisa Protter, raw food expert and co-owner of Organic Nectars in Saugerties and New York City, says it depends on where you buy it. Protter sells raw, organic, unrefined, and “low glycemic” agave sweeteners and says there is definitely some confusion and misinformation around the healthfulness of agave products. Protter says some products are overprocessed and heated to very high temperatures but hers is heated below 118 degrees, which she says preserves the plant’s enzymes and nutrients.
“Food is medicine — we passionately believe in this,” said Protter, whose award-winning products are available at various food stores in the Hudson Valley and online via her company’s Web site. After spending time in Mexico visiting agave farms, Protter says some manufacturers do have questionable practices or turn out products that are highly processed — a situation that can give all agave a bad rap. “Taste it. How do you feel after you eat it? Trust your gut,” she says.
The bottom line? “There’s a whole spectrum of different sweeteners out there,” Shelowitz says. “And any of these is going to be better than white sugar.”