Too Much Sweetness – Sugar and Sweeteners

Scrooge, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Car...
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Many of you saw my Halloween costume as Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge. Some asked if I was the good scrooge or the bad Scrooge. I replied that I was drawn to the character as a representation of positive transformation especially in response to confronting our own mortality. It the spirit of the transformed Scrooge I waited till the end of the holiday season to publish this article on the detrimental effects of excess dietary sugar. Hopefully, you have had your fill of sweets and are ready to shift to a healthier diet in the New Year.

I preface this article with the belief that I am not a purist, nor do expect others to be so. Rather I believe in choosing your vices wisely.It is important to know which vices are likely to kill or maim you before your time;. and to know how to ameliorate or reduce the risks. The purpose of this series of articles is not to point a finger at your indiscretions but to provide information to help you make choices.

This will be a series of short articles on sweeteners in our diet. This first one will be a general discussion and the next few will go into more detail on some of the different nutritive and non-nutritive choices available.

Sweetness can be defined as a subjective experience of the brain that normally occurs when sweetness sensors in the tongue become activated. This activation occurs when the sensors are exposed to chemicals of a certain shape The most commonly occurring natural substances that we perceive as sweet are sugars.

Biologists have shown a preference fro sweets as far back as many motile bacteria. Most animals show a clear preference for sweets (felines (cats) are an exception with no ability to taste sweet). Primates have a well developed sweetness sense. Considering there is no need in the human diet for sugar one might ask why did the desire for sweets evolve?

Through most of human existence the only sweets we normally encountered was fruits and berries. These are a source of calories which were often in short supply. In addition most wild fruits had far less sugar than modern domestic varieties. It was difficult to over-indulge in sugars except perhaps seasonally when a few extra pounds might also have some survival value to hold us over in less abundant seasons.

In addition, wild fruits tended to be small with a much higher ratio of skin and seeds to pulp (containing the sugar). It is the colorful skins and seeds where the beneficial flavinoids and other nutrients are concentrated.

Today we have a much bigger selection of sweets. Here are some examples of sweets available now that were not available to our Paleolithic predecessors.

  • Sweeter and concentrated fruits and juices available all year
  • Refined sugars taken from natural sources
  • Chemically, genetically, and enzymatically altered natural sources
  • Natural and artificial non- nutritive sweetenerMany of these natural and synthetic substances can have negative health consequences. I will review all of these in upcoming articles as follows.
    1. The major dietary sugars glucose, fructose,  sucrose and lactose.
    2. The major sweeteners and sweet foods including fruit, juice, table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, date sugar, coconut and palm sugar.
    3. The sugar alcohols including xylitol, erythritol, and maltitol
    4. Stevia (from the herb)
    5. Synthetic sweeteners – Including Splenda (sucralose, Nnutrisweet (aspartame), sacchararin, and others.

    In the mean time give some thought to how much sweetness you need in your diet. Many report that mildly sweet foods taste sweeter and appreciation of healthy food in general increases with avoiding overly sweetened foods. Most traditional cultures have balanced their desire for sweetness with appreciation for other flavors including bitterness. Seek balance. You can have too much of a good thing.

(Click here for the next article in this series – Glucose)