I want you to try something. See if you can go for two whole days without consuming any sugar. Sound easy? I guess it depends what you think I mean by sugar.
For the purposes of this challenge, sugar means ‘refined sugar’ – the stuff that comes in white or brown granules and has been created in a factory from sugar cane or sugar beet; but you can’t just stop putting sugar in your coffee for a couple of days and pass the test - you must also forgo any food which has ‘sugar’ on the ingredients list.
Before I go any further there is another distinction it’s very important to make, one which many people are not clear on. ‘Sugar’ is not the same as ‘sugars’. The nutritional listing on food packaging will often break down the Carbohydrate component further by stating ‘of which sugars’ and giving a value. Sugars are a family of substances naturally occurring in food that could also be called ‘Simple Carbohydrates’. Examples of sugars are glucose and fructose, which commonly exist together in varying proportions in fruit. Since the word ‘Sugar’ is the singular of ‘sugars’, it would be appropriate to refer to fructose as ‘a sugar’. However, the word ‘Sugar’ when not preceded by the word ‘a’ typically refers to a particular form of sugar that is produced in a refinery and therefore should more properly be named ‘refined sugar’.
So when you see ‘Sugar’ on the ingredients list, this means ‘refined sugar’ and is therefore out of bounds for the challenge. If, on the other hand, it is absent from the ingredients list, yet the phrase ‘of which sugars’ appears in the nutritional breakdown, the food or drink is consumable within the rules.
One more thing – if you were planning on eating out on one of your two days, your challenge just got a whole lot harder. Few chefs take kindly to being quizzed about the sugar content of their sauces and even fewer have many dishes on their menu that does not contain any.
If you take up my challenge, I anticipate your experience will have two key components – first the inconvenience of having to find foods devoid of sugar; and second, the craving for sugar. Many of you will fail, others will succeed ruefully. Only a few, if any, will pass the challenge with ease.
For advanced challenge-seekers, the next phase would be to go for a few weeks without sugar, instead seeking alternative snacks and ways to cook without it. You would explore the sweet flavours derived from naturally occurring foods, finding that after a while your palate adjusts to these new foods and you can enjoy them in their own right. In spite of getting used to the natural foods you’d probably still find yourself craving the profound sweetness of refined sugar during those few weeks; and yet if you returned to sugar, the first time you had it you’d be surprised by how intensely sweet it tastes.
What does all this tell us?
First, that we are, in effect, addicted to sugar. Clearly addiction can be defined a number of ways depending on your standpoint and I don’t wish to get into quibbles about semantics; but for me the parallels to the characteristics of drug addiction are clear.
Second, that sugar is added to most prepared food, either by us or by someone else.
Okay, so maybe we are all addicted to sugar. We’re all addicted to water too, right? We’re addicted to food. Just because we like something and want it all the time, it does not necessarily make it a problem.
Well it does if that thing is bad for us – and sugar is indeed bad for us. I do not intend to back this statement up with references. There is plenty of discussion around the subject on the Internet, so if you doubt my assertion go to Google. In fact, go to Google anyway – don’t take my word for it. It’s important to be aware of the range of possible ill effects to appreciate the point I am making. I won’t pretend that there is no one out there who disagrees – but let’s face it, that is true of the moon landings and pretty much anything else you’d care to mention; but the fact is there is also a good deal of empirical evidence too. Make up your own mind and if you end up disagreeing, then for you this post ends here.
There are arguments to be developed around why regulatory bodies allow things that are bad for us to be put into foods, and the extent to which we should be allowed to eat what we want since it is only our own bodies that come to harm – but these issues are for other posts. Instead I want to leave you with a more philosophical perspective.
Former drug addicts often report that they never lose the sense that they are missing out – that the highs a drug-free life has to offer never quite match up to the highs they experienced on the drug. Presumably, they feel they would be in a better position had they never experienced the drug in the first place. There is a similar (although clearly less profound) response to the removal of sugar from a one’s diet – note that I base this solely on my experiences and those of people I know.
So if sugar is bad for us, but once it has been a part of our diet for a while we will always miss it, then surely it would be better if we had never tasted it in the first place? Imagine a world where sugar was banned from all food so no one ever ate it or had ever eaten it, all the natural food they ate tasted great and there was no craving for sugar because no one even knew what it was. We’d all be healthier and therefore, all other things being equal, happier.
Yet this is clearly a Utopian dream. There is no more chance of this happening that there is a chance that we will rid the world of drugs. In both cases, it is difficult to challenge the assertion that if a magic wand could be waved to make the offending substance disappear in a flash, the world would be a better place; but when something is already here, some people are enjoying it with apparent impunity and other people are making money from it, there is no earthly way to remove it.
So sugar is here to stay. If you want to be healthier, I recommend you try to kick the habit….but if you succeed, expect to spend at least a few minutes a week, as I do, daydreaming about cheesecake and profiteroles.
Cigarettes, Sugar and our Innate Short-Termism
Why (Refined) Sugar is Bad: Some References
The Worst Sugar Pushers of all - Health Food Stores