Is Sugar a Poison?

Submitted by dpeacock on April 2, 2013

While experts recommend that women limit themselves to 6 tsp. of added sugars and men to 9 tsp., one measly Cinnabon contains 13 tsp. While experts recommend that women limit themselves to 6 tsp. of added sugars and men to 9 tsp., one Cinnabon-brand cinnamon roll contains 13 tsp.

Several weeks ago, the Green American editorial staff started researching an issue theme centered on sugar. With the labor abuse in the sugar industry and the fact that much of the sugar sold in the US comes from genetically modified sugar beets, we thought we’d have plenty of social and environmental problems to cover. We knew that science has long been establishing links between sugar and obesity and type 2 diabetes. But what we were surprised to discover was just how serious of an impact sugar is having on human health.

So we shifted our focus to look more closely at those health impacts in the April/May 2013 issue of the Green American, and the results were much worse than we'd expected.

America has a sugar problem, says Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco, in part because “our brains light up for sugar the way they do for cocaine.”

The American Heart Association recommends that women eat only 30 grams (6 teaspoons) and men consume 45 grams (9 teaspoons) of added sugars per day for good health. However, here in the US, the average person eats over 108 grams—or 22 teaspoons—of added sugars per day.

What is this sugar overload doing?

It might not surprise many of you that study after study has linked consumption of sugar—or, more accurately, the sweet fructose in sugar—to “metabolic syndrome,” a set of risk factors that together increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and stroke.

But new studies are coming out that pinpoint fructose as a primary cause of type 2 diabetes and a possible cause of Alzheimer’s (a link so strong the scientists who uncovered it are calling the brain disease “type 3 diabetes") and cancer. Add in the fact that much of the sugar on US store shelves comes from genetically modified sugar beets, and there are just too many potential risks associated with sugar consumption to ignore. (For more on the risks of genetically modified organisms, see select articles from our “Frankenfood” issue of the Green American.)

For more details on these links, see the upcoming issue of the Green American, "Sickeningly Sweet," which should hit your mailboxes at the end of the month. (To subscribe, click here.)

The links are so frightening that Green America associate editor Martha van Gelder and I decided to get sugar out of our lives.

I know I have a sugar problem. Whenever I’m under stress, I tend to eat, and more often than not, I reach for sugar—probably thanks to the number of warm and comforting childhood memories I have around sweet food. There’s my mother’s chocolate chip cookies and pull-apart caramel bread. My grandmother’s apricot rolls and hard-as-a-rock-but-oh-so-good Christmas Bread. My aunt in Honduras making me a cinnamon, sugar, and milk concoction called poleada when I got homesick on a long visit in my teens. Summertime popsicles and winter hot chocolate. The list goes on and on.

So I’m starting slow, reading labels and limiting myself to the AHA’s recommended 30 grams of added sugar for women. Martha went cold turkey off of sugar. And online editor Andrew Korfhage has never been a big sugar eater, but he's careful to make his overall diet as local, organic, and Fair Trade as possible., to avoid genetically modified organisms and avoid exploiting workers around the world. He also uses one of the best-option sugar substitutes we identified in the Green American: local and organic honey.

Every Tuesday and Thursday this month, Martha, Andrew, and I will be blogging about the social, environmental, and health problems associated with sugar and our attempts to limit it in our diets. (Or detox from it, in my case.) We may even have a couple of experts, including a holistic nutritionist, join us to offer advice.

What’s your relationship with sugar? Hate it? Consume it in moderation? Or do you, like me, have a sugar problem? What tips do you have to limit the amount of sugar in your diet?

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