The Trouble with Sweet: Part 1

November 02, 2007

The Trouble with Sweet:  Part 1 

 Competency # 11 Sugar Reference:   Dr. Chi-Tang Ho’s Presentation to the American Chemical Society on Corn Sweeteners, reported August 28th 

 This is a complex topic.  I’m changing the sweeteners I use and just about everywhere I go, people ask me, “What’s the good sweetener?  The pink one, the yellow one…?”  But I’m a sweet tooth.  So are you.  We all are.  

Let’s start with the basics.  We'll get to corn sweeteners and artificial sweeteners one by one. Our tongues have a receptor for sweetness.  No kidding!  Sugar is rare in nature, and it usually means a ripe fruit that is full of dynamite nutrition.  When the apple tree is ripe, we are designed to gobble up apples because that tree will be ripe for two weeks, and then it’s a year until you get apples again.  So, our tongues are designed to go ballistic when we taste sweet.  

Primitive societies eat about 4 pounds of sugar a year.  Now, in America we eat 158 pounds a year.   That's some 10% of our calories.  Some folks get 20-30% of their calories from sugar. What is sugar?  Actually, let’s start with glucose.  Table sugar is two “sugars” attached to each other.  Glucose and fructose.  Both are 6 carbons formed in rings.  Glucose is your body’s natural fuel.  We convert all the food we eat into glucose, if we can.   That’s what your liver does.  It takes extra protein and turns it into glucose, if you need it, or fat if you have enough glucose.  Carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, bread) are actually long strings of glucose, like beads on a necklace.  Your body gradually chews up those long strings, if they are protected by fiber.  If not, your stomach can turn carbs into free blood sugar almost as fast as drinking the straight stuff.  If you have excess glucose, we change it into a fat molecule and store it.  There are several other basic sugar molecules, but our liver is designed to change them all into glucose.  

When we eat table sugar, we can use the glucose right away but the fructose molecule has to be switched around a little. Now, the gallon of blood in your body (if we drain you dry, like when we draw blood from you in the ER) has about 1 teaspoon of glucose in it.   ONE TEASPOON.  Total.  Get it.  Ok.  So, now drink a glass of OJ with 8 teaspoons of sugar.  If that got into your blood right away, you would go into coma rapidly.  We are designed to eat whole oranges.  We have only figured out how to make OJ recently, in any quantity.  So, a glass of OJ is like a little hand grenade.  But what about a “Big Gulp” of full sugar soda?  A 64 oz “Big Gulp” has 53 teaspoons of sugar.  Now, that’s a real bomb.  The “dynamite” nutrition of whole fruit turns into a metabolic bomb going off inside you when we add pure glucose to our metabolism in that quantity. Your body has to panic.  It puts out insulin like crazy to control your blood glucose level.  

That insulin lasts 4-6 hours.  Insulin tells every fat cell in your body to go into hyper-drive, picking up the glucose to store it as fat.  In an hour or two, it’s all cleaned up, except that your fat cells are still being affected by the insulin and your blood glucose level goes too low.  You feel hungry again.  But your fat cells won’t give any energy up because they are in storage mode.  You are starving hungry.  Your blood sugar goes too low.  You eat more sugar.  Up and down all day long.  Your pancreas is in overdrive.  And gets worn out.  Your fat cells get bigger and take more insulin to respond.  Your pancreas finally says, "Enough already!"  You become diabetic.  Our biological drive to crave sugar turns into the insatiable craving of a junkie. 

 Here’s the problem.  It’s a big topic.  I wanted you to learn two or three key ideas this week.  1)  You have one teaspoon of glucose free in your blood.   2)  We evolved eating 4 pounds of free sugars a year (honey etc) and are now eating 158 pounds a year.  3) Rapid sugar rise in your blood is hard on your pancreas that has to put out insulin in a panic, and hard on your body in the long run. 4)  You can wear your pancreas out with repeated hand grenades of sugar. Next week, we will start on high fructose corn syrup and then move on to the sweeteners.  You need to know this stuff if you are to take good care of yourself. 

WWW.  What will work for me?  Step one of AA is to stand up and admit your problem.  The food industry knows this about me, and you.  I’m a sugar addict.  I was made that way.  And it’s slowly killing me.  I need to get smart about sugar.  My first step is to create a visual of a little grenade going off every time I have a sugar hit.  Next, I’m going to get rid of sugar in what I drink.  What you drink does not register as calories.  You don’t feel full with the calories you drink. We’ve written about that before.  So, drink water, 16 oz of vintage Lake Michigan, straight up.  Drink tea.  What I'm going to do about brownies with chocolate chips in them, and dark chocolate icing is another matter.  This may take work.

The column written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI (262-784-5300)