Thursday, 17 July 2008

We’re all Junkies

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.

See Also:
Cigarettes, Sugar and our Innate Short-Termism
Why (Refined) Sugar is Bad: Some References
The Worst Sugar Pushers of all - Health Food Stores


Asclepius said...

It is interesting that MRI scanning shows that we cannot fool the brain with sugar free sweetners. Sugar free sweetners and table sugar elicit a response in different parts of the brain.

We CAN seemingly fool our metabolism with sweetners; the trouble being that our bodies anticipate an increase in blood sugars when the tongue senses sweetness. This kicks off a whole chain of hormonal events to manage this anticipated increase in dietary energy that never actually arrives.

I like to get my sweet-fix in a raw form straight from the plant.

Methuselah said...

Don't get me started on artificial sweeteners. Aside from their likely ill-effects on the body (who'd have thought that chemicals made in a lab would not be good for bodies that have not evolved to deal with them?) they perpetuate what seems to be the prevailing ethos that if we want something but can't have it then rather than come to terms with that denial we should instead find a way to fool ourselves we are getting it after all.

Magic Milestones said...

It's worth noting that even after months without sugar, the moment a breach happens, one is right back to square one. In this respect it is a lot like being an addict.

mmm pick n' mix!

Methuselah said...

Last night a friend of mine sent me an SMS from the supermarket – she is trying to give up refined sugar and was searching for appropriate food. It said simply ‘Unbelievable’.

lukeski said...

While i appreciate the general sentiment on the ubiquity of food. I think that the case has been slightly overstated here. My diet regularly goes two days with no or even very little sugar in it, without actually trying to avoid sugar.

For example
Honey and fruit with either unsweetened yogurt or porridge oats. If you object to honey or you get bored of yogurt, then we can go for home made bread and butter.If you cant be bothered to make your own bread then buy either atkins bread or artisan / sourdough bread.

Mid morning snacks
Crisps, fruit, crackers, celery and dip (Delphi are a good brand who dont add sugar)

Tomato and chickpea salad, green salad with home made vinagreitte, tuna / sardines and soya (i would have to give up my love of worcestershire sauce sadly) I note this is actually pretty much what i eat for lunch everyday if i am not eating last nights meal

Puy lentils braised with tomators and red winegoats cheese
Home made red pasta sauce or white pasta sauce, or a bought pesto sauce provided it is not some cheap junk
Spcied Fried tofu, rice and wilted greens with soy and ginger.
Pan fried tuna with soy sauce, boiled potatoes and green beans in a mustard dressing.

I guess what i am saying is the challenge amounts to no more than cooking your own food for two days from raw ingredients. Not overly demanding. The problem principally lies with processed foods. However a little judicous editing can get rid of most of it, if you think about a typical pasta sauce, or even better say a madam patak curry sauce. It may contain a small percentage of sugar, maybe a few percent, but by the time you have added a significant amount of vegetables and then pasta or rice. The percentage of sugar has reduced to a very low figure, particularly if you tend to buy higher quality and organic sugars.

If you really absolutely want to avoid every last ounce of refined sugar in your diet, then life would become a bit tiresome, as you would have to cook a high proportion of food from scratch, but still would be able to eat fish, dairy, meat, nuts all fruit and vegetables etc and just add a little flavouring.

Moderate adjustments should remove most processed sugar and i am unclear why you would wish to remove all refined sugar. Given that their are plenty of people out there who do consume very large quantities of refined sugar, and while not healthy clearly arent dropping dead in their 30s en masse - such small quantities of sugar seem highly unlikely to have a significant negative health impact.

Now Salt in processed food - that is a different matter.

Methuselah said...

Lukeski - thanks for your comment. I think you may be underestimating the extent to which what you are describing already goes well beyond what many people are prepared to do in the name of health.

"...the challenge amounts to no more than cooking your own food for two days from raw ingredients..."

For many people the idea of doing this is unheard of. My point is that for these people the challenge suddenly becomes a whole lot harder because in the world of convenience foods avoiding refined sugar is hard, and that's the world in which many people live.

I do accept your point that total elimination versus near-elimination is a nuance, but I guess there are two reasons why I took the line I did. First, it helps to illustrate the point if one contrives to take the extreme case. But more importantly, I believe that for some people, especially with something like sugar that potentially has addictive qualities, all-or-nothing is the only way to crack it, or at least some defined rules other than "try to avoid it". This is less true of the sauces and other cases you describe and more true of inherently sweet products. I suppose I am drawing a parallel with drug addiction. I imagine would be very hard for a drug addict to avoid getting back into a full 'habit' if you suggested he or she doesn't give up the drug entirely but just has small amounts when it's not convenient to avoid it. Likewise, if you tell yourself that you are just going to limit sugar as much as you can, then the clear mandate is not there to stop you getting drawn into a cookie binge. Depends on the individual, I guess.

Finally, to your point about the likely impact of small amounts of sugar. I do agree - but from a personal perspective, being a purist, I like to protect my palate so that natural foods continue to taste as nice as possible. Second, I take the view that small differences, when taken over 40 years, for example, might amount to a real difference. Of course I would never know whether the onset of osteoperosis in May 2051 could have been deferred by 3 months had I avoided small amounts of sugar for my whole life, but I am happy to do so just in case.

cathy said...

Interesting post. I agree that we are absolutely addicted to sugar. We're eating so much more sugar today than a few decades ago. It's no wonder that diabetes, obesity, and all of the other health problems one hears about are on the rise. But, we're addicts, and giving up the sugar addiction is so much easier said than done.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is a stupid question, but I need to ask it.

I don't have a problem dropping sweets and things like that at all; I eat very few of those anyway, I don't have a sweet tooth. Mostly I live off of meat, fruits and starches (potatoes and rice, mostly). My main problem is I eat lots and lots of meat. Does the meat you buy at the store and restaurants regularly have a lot of sugar in it? It's strange to think that it might, since I don't imagine meat as having sugar in it, but I suppose the sauces will probably have sugar. However, things like chicken with no sauce on it, would that have sugar in it?

Methuselah said...

Anon - it's not a stupid question at all. Yes, sauces in restaurants and ready-made meals in stores do often have sugar in, so I tend to only have those more infrequently - perhaps only when I am dining out.

And even without the sauce, some stores sell pre-cooked meat that has sugar added in small amounts - see this post.

With meat bought in stores, there should be information about this on the label.

The amounts of sugar you will find in meat this way is relatively small so it's less of a concern than eating cakes, sweets etc. So I wouldn't get too worried about it - eating lots of meat is a good thing in my view, so I would just try to find sources of meat that are not adulterated with sugar when you can but not stop eating it because of the possibilty of sugar being there in small amounts.

Anonymous said...

FYI: There is a very interesting and funny episode of The Simpsons called Sweets and Sour Marge, that talks about the addictiveness of sugar and the effects in our bodies:

Methuselah said...

I have seen that episode - music to my ears!

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