Sugar’s deadly seduction

Aint’t she sweet

by Geoff Olson

sugar cubes• I loved her from the moment she first touched my lips. She’s really sweet. But I’ve had a long and difficult relationship with C12H22O11, otherwise known as sucrose. She is also known as table sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar – but most of us just call her ‘sugar.’

The liaisons began early with breakfast cereals like Captain Crunch, Cocoa Puffs and Trix. After school and on weekends I would demolish Twizzlers, whittle down Tootsie Rolls, inhale Pixy Stix, guzzle Coke and Orange Crush and chew multiple pieces of Bazooka Joe gum until they fused into one flavourless hunk of synthetic rubber.

In the summer, I would spear and roast marshmallows on a stick, suck on Freezies and make Coke floats with my Uncle Al.

All this chewing, munching and guzzling was just a warm-up for the annual rite of sugary self-abuse: Halloween. After my neighbourhood rounds, I would return home to examine my haul – the sacraments of Nestlé, Hershey’s and other confection makers. After selecting a sizeable portion for immediate consumption, I would fall into a comatose sleep in a confusion of candy wrappers.

It would be misleading to say I had a sweet tooth; I had a sweet tusk.

My long-term love affair with sugar, punctuated by a predictable sequence of dental cavities and mercury amalgam fillings, segued into adulthood. Like T.S. Eliot’s Mr. Prufrock, I have “measured out my life with coffee spoons,” carpet-bombing cups of joe with sorry amounts of sucrose. By my early forties, my sugar intake was substantially the same in youthful substance, if not in style (chai tea, non-fat yogurt, swish Swiss chocolates, etc.). At this point, I was napping every day, which I assumed was a result of age. But a persistent brain fog began to concern me. I went to my GP, who referred me to a neurologist. Nothing was found in the X-rays. Around this time I met my partner, who had some simple advice for the zombified wreck she inexplicably chose to date. “Try going off sugar,” she said.

I reduced my intake, and voila – no more afternoon naps and a general higher level of alertness. Not surprisingly, the ‘sugar crashes’ were storm warnings that I suffer from hypoglycaemia, the base station in the ascent up type 2 diabetes. I made this diagnosis on my own, with zero help from a lifelong conga line of allopathic witch doctors, none of whom ever asked a single question about my diet beyond alcohol consumption. My blood glucose levels had probably been yo-yoing like George Michael’s career for most of my life.

The average Canadian consumes 26 teaspoons of sugar each day. That works out to 40 kilos or 20 bags of sugar a year. The substance is used in 99% of the processed foods on store shelves, former food industry executive Bruce Bradley told the CBC in the Fifth Estate documentary The Secrets of Sugar.

Food industry research departments have a Holy Grail for any given food: the so-called “bliss point,” defined by the right combination of ingredients – mostly fat, salt and sugar – that light up the brain’s reward centre like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The name of the food industry game has long been more about addiction than nutrition. As a result, our grocery store shelves are full to bursting with sugary and saccharine junk foods, and all but the most health conscious among us have been reduced to junkies jonesing for cheap hits of fructose.

Many medical researchers have concluded that sugar consumption, combined with sedentary lifestyles, is a leading cause of chronic disease, second only to smoking. Dr. Robert Lustig, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, insists that sucrose in its present content in processed food is a “poison,” plain and simple.

Sucrose is composed of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose. “The latter cannot be metabolized for energy, like glucose: the liver converts it to fats. The byproducts cause insulin resistance (leading to diabetes), inflammation and increased levels of fats in the blood (leading to cardiovascular diseases and promoting some cancers), increased uric acid levels (stressing the kidneys) and obesity that synergistically aggravates all of the above. This is well established in the scientific literature,” notes David G. Harper, Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of the Fraser Valley, in a letter to The Vancouver Sun.

Other medical researchers are now reporting evidence linking excessive sugar consumption with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all pretty disturbing, but the sweet stuff has a long and ugly history. “The distortion and dehumanizing of human institutions and human lives caused by crack cocaine today is nothing compared with what the European desire for sugar did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” wrote Terence McKenna in his 1992 book, Food of the Gods. Twelve million African slaves went one direction across the Atlantic while millions of tonnes of plantation cane sugar went the other.

Thankfully, just as we rethought slavery, we are now rethinking sucrose. In March of this year, the World Health Organization urged consumers to lower their consumption down to six teaspoons of sugar a day or no more than 10% of their daily caloric intake.

Some critics say we should regulate sugar the same way we regulate her slave trade siblings, liquor and tobacco. At the very least, we should be demanding more – or rather, less – from our health-compromising food industry. For the sake of our children, if not ourselves, we can start by voting with our wallets against the worst offenders in their line-ups of sickly-sweet food items –and that goes triple for anything containing high-fructose corn syrup or that alleged sugar substitute, the neurotoxic aspartame.

As for me, I still try to set boundaries with my insulin-spiking seductress and mostly keep to them, but her charms are hard to resist. Sucrose and I still have the occasional rendezvous, with wine and chocolates and the whole nine yards and I always feel bad the next morning. But at least now I’m on to her, like millions of other consumers.

www.geoffolson.com

photo © Macgyverhh

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