On November 12th, Leonardo After Hours, an interactive informal panel discussion sponsored by USTAR, hosted two associate professors of nutrition and food science from Utah State University: Robert Ward and Korry Hintze, Evolutionary Biologist James Ruff from University of Utah, and raw foodist and chef of Omar’s Rawtopia , Omar Abou-Ismail. Moderator Jennifer Napier-Pearce and our panel experts discussed the good, the bad and the interesting about the sweetest thing on Earth—sugar.
Which sugar are we talking about?
As we all know, our diet has naturally occurring and added sugar. Naturally occurring sugars are unrefined (unprocessed by human) carbohydrates, found naturally in foods such as fruit (fructose), milk (lactose), brown rice, whole wheat, etc. However, the discussion focused on added sugars (free sugars)–monosaccharides and disaccharides added to food by humans.
How much is allowed?
We all know that eating lots of sugars is not very healthy. But how much is “allowed?” Is there a certain amount of added sugar we need? From numerous research studies, scientists say no more than 200 calories directly from sugars. The panel agreed that none of us should eat more than 9 teaspoons of sugar per day. Usually it’s said that women should keep to 100 calories of sugar (6 teaspoons)
Do you like sodas? Well, bad news: just one 12-ounce can of regular soda contains eight teaspoons of sugar (130 calories) and zero nutritional value. Your daily limit is almost reached in a single serving! However, there is no lower limit. No added sugar is needed to our bodies—a consensus by the panelists.
If you still feel like sweetening your life, healthy and raw food expert Omar Abou-Ismail suggests choosing stevia or honey. Stevia is a recommended alternative to many people who have health issues because it has zero calories. Natural honey gets more stars because of additional nutrients and antibacterial properties. On the positive side, it’s expensive. Now why would that be a plus? Price doesn`t make food better or worse, but it does affect our consumption habits. When it`s expensive, you tend not to consume it as quickly and in such big portions. In this case, expensive is good for you!
High-fructose corn syrup was mentioned as the most problematic. It is cheap, and is more versatile as a food ingredient than sucrose, and that is why manufacturers like it so much. However, recent studies have suggested that it may have negative metabolic effects when compared directly to sucrose, which is surprising as they are almost chemically identical. This is an active area of research in many laboratories and clinical studies and we should expect to hear more about this in the near future.
Why do we crave it?
If all the sweets are so bad, why do we want them so much? The simple answer, the environment has changed, but our DNA and cravings have stayed the same. Evolutionary biologist James Ruff explains: “Fruit and plants were the main sources of sucrose (fructose), but it is tricky; in nature you cannot find fresh and ripe fruit all the time. When they are ripe, our ancestors ate them as much as they could.”
During those times, body fat was an advantage, not a health risk. Sugar offers huge amounts of energy and helps us store fats. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had a better chance of survival by eating sugars, which were hard to find. The food challenges our prehistoric ancestors faced means that biologically, we have trained ourselves to crave sweets. The problem today is that humans have too many sweets available to them that require much less physical activity to acquire and consume them.
Another interesting fact was mentioned by Robert Ward. According to him, one liter of human milk contains about 70 grams of lactose, which is a disaccharide sugar. So, we get used to it from the very beginning. Omar Abou-Ismail pointed out the strong taste of sugar; we adapt to it and raise our “needs” to satisfy our sweet wishes.
By Vaiva Kulbokaite