Health Issues: Exploring the many meanings of ‘sugar’

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Raw sugar, table sugar, syrup – how does it affect us?

By Dr. Michael Miles

Special to the Crier

Over time the term “sugar” has taken on a meaning of its own. It is most often understood to mean “table sugar,” which is sucrose. This is the “sugar” that is found in candy and cakes and most processed foods. Sucrose is actually a combination of two sugars; glucose and fructose. Glucose is the sugar most commonly used as fuel the cells in our bodies. It is a molecule that has six carbon atoms arranged in a circle.

In nature these sugars come packaged in food. They are part of a whole system of nutrients bound in each food source. They are essential for life.

Within this system of nutrients exists substances that help process the sugars so that they can be used as energy for the body.

Notably, food contains vitamins and minerals that act as keys for turning on the enzymes that break down the food into their individual components including sugar. The enzymes themselves are likewise found in the food.

As important as enzymes and vitamins and minerals are, food also contains fiber. Fiber binds the sugar so that it gets released slowly and methodically in order to provide an even supply of fuel to produce the energy necessary for each cell to function. This is one of the reasons that it is a good idea not to overcook foods to the point where the fiber is destroyed. This is the point where the food turns soft and limp.

The amount of fiber found in foods determines its basic designation. Sugar-providing foods with thick amounts of fibers are sometimes called complex carbohydrates. Sugar-providing foods with little amounts of fiber are called simple carbohydrates.

The American Diabetes Association uses a scale for designating how rapidly the sugar is released from foods. It is called the Glycemic Index. The higher the Glycemic Index, the quicker the sugars get into the body. Table sugar has the highest Glycemic Index of 100 because it has no accompanying components to control its release into the system. From there the index goes down to reflect a more even release of sugar. The progression to more healthful sources of sugar (fuel) will go something like this: table sugar to sweets (candy, cakes, ice cream) to other processed foods to fruit juice to dried fruit to fruit itself, then to vegetables (the best packaging of sugar).

The concern with getting too much sugar into the body too quickly is that over time it disrupts sugar metabolism all together. This happens by either by running down the pancreas, thus reducing insulin production, or by altering each cell’s ability to use insulin.

Insulin is needed to open the doors of each cell to allow the sugar (fuel) inside to be burned for energy.

So, we see that sugar can refer to the fundamental fuel for the body packaged in food and it can refer to it’s unnatural, naked state (“refined sugar”) marketed as a taste enhancer and added in unreasonable amounts to most processed foods.

In unreasonable amounts, sucrose (table sugar) can contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, yeast infections, cancer, addictions, and otherwise generally stress the body’s defenses. In reasonable amounts, a little extra sugar here and there is a treat and can be an enhancement to life, as celebrated in “sugar plums dancing in our heads.”

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