But what about plain old white sugar? And what about the increasingly common industrial sweetener, high fructose corn syrup? These two get a pretty bad rap, even from mainstream media, and although much of their reputation is deserved, there are some misconceptions that I’d like to straighten out.
The sweet (and not so sweet) truth about refined sugar.
Most of you are probably aware that excess refined sugar isn’t great for your health. Sugar and HFCS are particularly detrimental when consumed in liquid form, because we don’t tend to compensate for calories we drink by reducing our calorie consumption elsewhere. (1) This can lead to weight gain from overeating, along with elevated triglycerides, insulin resistance, and other indicators of metabolic syndrome.
Refined sugar has also been implicated in reduced immune system efficiency. (2, 3) In one study, immune cells demonstrated a significantly reduced capacity to kill pathogens (e.g. viruses, bacteria) following sugar consumption (from sucrose, glucose, fructose, honey, or orange juice) when compared with fasting levels; starches didn’t have this effect. Unfortunately, this study was quite small and I haven’t found further evidence to corroborate or refute these results. I believe it’s a good idea to avoid sugar when your immune system is compromised.
Refined sugar is also thought to promote cancer growth by ‘feeding’ the cancer. While it’s true that cancer feeds on sugar, it actually feeds on the glucose in your blood; not necessarily the sugar you eat. (4) While those two factors are obviously linked, it’s more important to be aware of your own blood sugar control, and don’t consume more sugar (or carbs in general) than you can effectively metabolize. After all, you will always have glucose in your blood as long as you’re alive, so the goal is to avoid having high blood glucose over a prolonged period of time, not to eliminate glucose entirely.
But while there’s plenty of evidence that excess sugar or HFCS can be harmful to health, there’s actually no evidence that small amounts of refined sugar in the context of a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet (and active lifestyle) is harmful. The problem is that limiting yourself to small amounts of sugar is often easier said than done.
Is Sugar Addictive?
Addictive properties of sugar have been observed in rat models where food is restricted for 12 hours, encouraging a binge-like pattern of consumption. (5) These rats experience dopamine and opiod release that resembles the neurological response to substances of abuse, although significantly smaller in magnitude. Additionally, these rats experience opiate-like withdrawal symptoms after being given an opiate-blocker, or after a period of fasting.
Most human studies, however, have not reproduced these findings in rodents. (6, 7) (As always, it’s worth noting that the second reference was partially funded by the World Sugar Research Organization.) At least one small study which interviewed obese individuals did find that, based on self-reported symptoms, some obese patients fit the profile for sugar addiction, particularly those who also suffer from binge eating disorder (BED). (8) But as of yet, there’s little to no rigorous evidence that sugar is chemically addictive in humans.
However, some evidence does indicate that sugar can interfere with the normal hormone signaling from ghrelin and leptin, both of which help control appetite and satiety. (9) So although this isn’t an ‘addiction’ mechanism, it’s another way in which sugar can encourage overconsumption in susceptible individuals.
Whether sugar is addictive or not, from a practical standpoint, it’s often easy to eat more sugar than you mean to. Certain people are going to be far more sensitive to these effects than others, so it’s really a matter of being familiar with your own eating behavior when it comes to potentially addictive foods.
Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Really Worse Than White Sugar?
So far, I’ve been talking about white sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) somewhat interchangeably. But HFCS is without a doubt the more vilified of the two, both in the natural health community and in mainstream media. Foods and beverages sweetened with “real sugar” instead of HFCS are seen by many as ‘healthier’ and more ‘natural,’ and even big soft drink companies like Pepsi are trying to cater to the ‘natural’ crowd by offering “made with real sugar” sodas. If HFCS can make sugar look like a health food by comparison, it must be pretty terrible for you, right?
Well, first, let’s talk chemical composition. White sugar, or ‘table sugar,’ is simply sucrose, a disaccharide composed of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule bonded to each other. This means that table sugar is always 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
Contrary to popular belief, HFCS has about the same amount of fructose as white sugar. It’s also the same level of sweetness. (10) The two most common forms of HFCS in our food supply are HFCS-42, which is 42% fructose, and HFCS-55, which is 55% fructose. This is certainly “high fructose” compared to regular corn syrup, which has no fructose, but most people hear “high fructose” and think ‘mostly fructose,’ which is definitely not the case.
The main difference is that the fructose and glucose in HFCS exist primarily in their free monosaccharide form, instead of as the disaccharide sucrose as in table sugar. And given the similarities between the two sweeteners, it should come as no surprise that HFCS does not have significantly different metabolic effects from sugar. (11, 12)
I know many of you are also concerned about GMOs in HFCS. Genetically modified varieties of both sugarbeets and corn are grown and consumed in the US, with corn much more widely so. (13) Overall I’d say you’re probably better off with table sugar rather than HFCS from a GMO perspective, because it’s produced from crops that are less commonly GMO. It’s also pretty easy to find organic, non-GMO sugar.
So, How “Toxic” Are Sugar and HFCS?
White sugar and HFCS are not “toxins” in the sense that even small amounts are highly undesirable and potentially harmful. Excess refined sugar can have undesirable health effects, but its addictive power is not comparable to a drug, and HFCS isn’t that much different from table sugar. Some people may be highly sensitive to even small amounts of sugar, often due to severe gut dysbiosis, and in this case they’re justified in avoiding it vigilantly.
But barring extreme sensitivity, there’s no evidence to indicate that refined sugar (or HFCS) is actually toxic in moderate amounts, and most people would be better off avoiding the stress that comes from being unnecessarily fearful of any food that has even a trace amount of refined sugar in it.
I’d even go as far to say that intentionally consuming sugar on occasion shouldn’t be a problem for most people. If every now and then you decide to indulge in a piece of dark chocolate or have a scoop of real ice cream made with refined sugar, you shouldn’t mentally and emotionally beat yourself up or force yourself into a week-long “detox” to make up for your dietary transgression. The stress that comes along with excessive food restrictions can be much more harmful than having a bit of refined sugar here and there.
Sugar is neither a toxin nor a replacement for real food. Ultimately, small amounts of sugar can fit into a whole foods, nutrient-dense, healthy diet, as long as you recognize it for what it truly is: a treat.
Now tell me: What’s your philosophy on refined sugar? Do you avoid it like the plague or happily enjoy it on occasion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.