This post is the unabridged version of an article Louise and I wrote for AgroMag, the alumni journal of our AgroParisTech engineering school. In recent years, I drastically reduced my sugar consumption. Like many millenials, I grew up in a fat-free family. During my childhood, fat was the enemy. My parents, both medical doctors, had thoroughly removed it from our diet. When shopping for food, the rule was « less than 5 percent fat ». Whatever the amount of sugar. No more oil in salads, fat-free yogurt and cheese, the latter looking more like plastic and not really melting in the pasta. The ketchup was super sweet but had not fat, so it was OK. No more ice creams, but sherbets that sent our blood sugar levels through the roof. Oven-baked fries were fine, too, despite the added sugars, since they weren’t, well, fried.
When I started living on my own, I did the same. On lazy days, I could eat 2 or 3 apples and a bowl of Special K with skimmed industrial milk for dinner. Zero fat, tons of sugars. Over time, thanks to (or despite) the nutrition classes I took, and because the truth about sugar came to light, I realized my mistake. I gradually rehabilitated nuts, oils, avocados, and reduced my sugar intake. No more cravings between meals, or unstable waistline. Even my legendary addiction to chestnut jam is gone.
Sugar is present in our food all day long: in coffee, orange juice, industrial food, pastries, sodas, bread, ketchup, balsamic vinegar, sweets, sauces, yogurts… A recent article published in the prestigious journal Nature (1) presents sugar as an addictive substance as dangerous as alcohol and links its consumption to the epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the Western world.
Our dependence on sugar is well known to the sigar industry. Big Sugar, the all-powerful American sugar lobby, spread the belief – or dogma – that the villain on our plates was fat. It was just a matter of buying a handful of famous, but corrupt, scientists to lay the blame for all our illnesses on fat. Striking but falsified publications in medical journals paved the way for the fat-free craze. The global ban on dat. Over the last fifty years, global sugar consumption has tripled, while the world’s population has doubled.
Differents types of sugar
This article is about what is called « sugar » in everyday language. From a biochemical point of view, it is called « simple » sugars, as opposed to complex sugars such as starches. The most common are monosaccharides (glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (sucrose, lactose, maltose). These small molecules are very easy to assimilat, causing an almost immediate insulin response.
There are two types of sugars. So-called « whole » sugars and « refined » sugars. The refined products have undergone processes to isolate the sweetening agent from the initial ingredient. It is like refining wheat flour by removing the bran to isolate the starch. Refining foods eliminates fibers, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. We obtain a sugar that is faster to digest, and slightly less nutritious.
As with refined sugars, « white sugar« , or sucrose, is extracted from sugar beet. « Brown sugar« , also sucrose, is derived from sugar cane. The sap of agave also known as agave syrup is heated to break down its sugars into glucose and fructose. Maple syrup (also sap), also contains sucrose. Unrefined sugars include the Brazilian rapadura and Moscovado sugar. Honey contains glucose, fructose, maltose, sucrose, and a range of more complex sugars. Molasses, a byproduct of making cane sugar, contains sucrose, but also minerals and vitamins. Finally, fresh and dry fruits contain fructose, but also fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Industrial sugars sometimes hide in our food under various names: dextrose, brown rice syrup, sorbitol, glucose syrup, corn syrup, dextrin, malt syrup, maltodextrin, barley malt, invert sugar syrup, dextran , diastase, malt diastase, or the infamous high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used in countless industrial foods and widely implicated in the development of type 2 diabetes.
When buying ready-made foods, read the label carefully. Check that your item does not contain these harmful additives.
Sugar, an unhealthy food
It is not debated anymore. A diet that’s rich in sugar (not starches) favors the development of cardiovascular diseases. People who have eliminated fats from their diet but increased its sugar content – used, ironically, to enhance the taste of de-fatted foods – are three times more at risk for cardiovascular disease compared to those who do not consume sugar (2). Even if they maintain a « healthy » weight.
Excessive sugar consumption alters the metabolism of fats, and causes inflammations of the cardiovascular system. These disturbances may then cause an atheroma deposit in inflamed arteries. This eventually leads to cardiovascular diseases. Thus, one should not blame dietary fats themselves, but sugar and above all the combination of too much fat and sugar together. The other deleterious effects of sugar, especially refined ones, are excessive weight, metabolic disorders, type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammatory diseases… All the pandemics afflicting our civilization! This public health problem led the WHO to recommend, in 2015, to limit the consumption of added sugars in foods to less than 10% of the daily energy intake (ie 50 g). 100 grams of commercial children’s cereals contain more than half of this allowance, which is actually calibrated for adults!
Finally, note that sugar is naturally present in whole foods, such as fruits. There, it does not have the same impact on health as refined sugar. In fruit, there are also fiber, which regulate the assimilation of sugar, but also vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are all excellent for your health. Conversely, sugars that are « added » in industrial foods already depleted in fiber and nutrients, have a much deeper impact on health because they are not at all mitigated during digestion.
Reduce and substitute
Decreasing your sugar intake can be easy – on paper. In most dessert recipes, start by cutting the amount of sugar by a quarter, then by half. Sugar addiction is totally reversible. By educating your palate to appreciate less sweet foods, you become more sensitive to the sugar content of your food. Now, I find that carrots taste very sweet! If you drink fruit juice, be aware that they are often very concentrated, and contain a lot of sugar. Drink less of it, diluting it with water. Then, learn to replace sugar in your everyday cooking White sugar is the least healthy sweetener. (After fructose syrup, which fortunately is not sold in supermarkets) Unrefined sugar have a delicious and pronounced aroma, which allows you to use less. Dried fruits are great in puddings, in breakfasts… Honey is great in desserts too.
Let’s not forget, however, that even unrefined sugar is sugar. The more virtuous alternatives should only help you transition to a sugar-free diet. To go further, why not use vegetables? (Vegetables in desserts is the subject of my second cookbook…) In some cakes, squash, sweet potato or parsnip puree will provide a smooth texture and a slight sweetness. In smoothies, compotes or jams, ripe fruits just bring the right amount of sugar. Be patient, but not afraid. Kicking the sugar addition only takes a few weeks.
Aware consumers learn to understand the labels:
- The « Carbohydrate » line on the nutritional indications for processed products that you buy includes simple and complex carbohydrates. Be careful with the « Sugars » line, which gives information on the amount of simple carbohydrates. Choose whole foods as much as possible.
- If you can’t avoid industrial foods, be aware of the different names that the added sugars take. Some are easily recognizable (sucrose, agave syrup, honey …), others less. You will be surprised by the quantity of foods containing sugar where you do not expect it (canned vegetables, seasonings, bread, plant milks, savory spreads, savory crackers …).
- In addition to this approach, choose, if possible, the most natural ingredients possible. Choose organic, complete and local products. Industrial processes denature products, increase their price and increase their ecological balance (transport, energy …).
Teach our kids how to resist sugar
Our children are at risk: Obesity, cavities… Studies indicate that sugar is one of the agents responsible for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders in children (3).
The consumption of sugar during pregnancy and the first two years of life stimulates the formation of fat cells. These are the cells where the body stores the fats it manufactures precisely from the excess sugar from the diet (4). Avoiding sugar during this period reduces the risk of obesity in the future, since a child that doesn’t eat will have less adipose tissue. It is a matter of getting kids used to a low sugar diet, and teaching them good habits.
How? By leading by example! Low-sugar cookies that you make together. Help them enjoy whole grains and vegetables, and avoid at all costs fruit juices and sodas. As soon as they are old enough, explain to your kids, with simple words, that sugar is bad for their health.
Here are some low-sugar recipes from the blog
- 3 ingredients brownie
- Florentine apple pie
- Healthy chocolate ice cream
- Super light custard
- Simple sugar-free cookies
(1) Lustig, Schmidt et Brindis, Public Health, The toxic truth about sugar. Nature, 482:27–29, 2012.
(2) DiNicolantonio, Lucan et O’Keefe, The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease. Progresses in cardiovascular diseases, 58(5):464-472, 2016.
(3) Johnson, Gold, Johnson, Ishimoto, Lanaspa, Zahniser, Avena, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Is it Time to Reappraise the Role of Sugar Consumption? Postgrad med. 123(5): 39–49, 2011.
(4) Boulton, Dunlop, Court, The growth and development of fat cells in infancy. Pediatr. res. 12(9):908-11, 1978.
Le fructose est le principal moteur du diabète. Le Monde, 2015 (FRENCH)
Trop de sucre nuit gravement à la santé. Le Monde, 2012 (FRENCH)
Le sucre augmente le risque de décès cardiaque. Science et Avenir, 2014 (FRENCH)
Big Sugar’s sweet little lies. Mother Jones, 2012.
How the sugar industry shifted the blame to fat. The New York Times, 2016.
Sugar lobby paid scientists to blur sugar’s role in heart disease – report. The Guardian, 2016.
Sucre, le doux mensonge (Arte) (FRENCH)