How Sweet it Isn't!
At the beginning of this century, when the health movement was just
getting started, refined sugar was Enemy #1. Pioneers in this area almost
universally believed that health and longevity required the total elimination of
sucrose from the diet.
Despite these early warnings, U.S. sugar consumption has been
steadily increasing. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Americans take in 20 teaspoons of sugar per person,
per day--and that's just added sugar, not the sugars that occur naturally in
fruits and other foods.
Even with the introduction of artificial sweeteners such as
saccharin and aspartame later in the century, sugar remained the sweetener of
choice. These lower-cost, non-caloric "sugar substitutes" initially threatened
the sugar industry, but their downsides quickly made them even less attractive
than plain old sugar.
Research shows that eating foods artificially sweetened with these
chemicals increases a person's cravings for sweets. This finding quickly negated
the highly touted weight-loss benefits of artificially sweetened foods and
drinks. Even more significant is that each popular artificial sweetener has now
been shown to cause a long list of health problems, from headaches to an
increased risk of cancer.
Fructose Isn't the Solution
The manufacturers of many so-called "health foods" have led the way
in denouncing the use of artificial sweeteners, and fortunately people seem to
be listening. Unfortunately though, health food manufacturers are now touting
the fruit sugar fructose as a healthy alternative. They point out that because
fructose is the natural sugar in fruit, it doesn't lead to the quick spikes in
blood sugar levels associated with sucrose. These spikes trigger mood swings and
energy level fluctuations, and place additional stress on the pancreas and
What makes this unfortunate is that the manufacturers' claims about
fructose are only half-right. It's true that fructose consumed in fresh, whole
fruits doesn't cause spikes in blood sugar. But when that same fructose is
extracted from the fruit and used in processed foods, it acts just like sugar...
if not worse!
Research has recently revealed that the consumption of fructose,
sucrose and all the other forms of sugar could turn out to be one of the biggest
"hidden" threats to our overall health. When the early pioneers sounded the
warning against sugar, it seems they knew exactly what they were talking about.
Glycation (the Maillard Reaction)
One of the major problems stemming from sugar consumption has to do
with a chemical process called glycation (or the Maillard Reaction). If you're
concerned about preventing health problems like heart and artery disease,
Alzheimer's, cataracts, vision loss and aging in general, glycation is something
that you should know about.
In simplest terms, glycation refers to the combination of a sugar
and a protein molecule. Most everyone has seen the effects of glycation in the
kitchen. During baking, sugar (whether it be white table sugar--sucrose; fruit
sugar--fructose; or milk sugar--lactose) combines with certain amino acids in
the grain proteins of flour. The chemical reaction that takes place causes
loaves of bread and pastries to turn brown. The same reaction also occurs when
meats are glazed and coffee is roasted.
Glycation also occurs in the body when the sugar in your blood
(glucose) combines with the amino acids tryptophan, lysine and arginine. During
this reactive process, certain by-products are created and released within the
body. The byproducts are known scientifically as Advanced Glycation Endproducts.
And in terms of what Advanced Glycation Endproducts do inside the body, well,
their acronym says it all: AGE.
How do AGEs Work?
AGEs are now thought to accumulate in your body and remain there
throughout your entire lifetime. The formation of these endproducts is
accelerated when you have lower levels of antioxidants in your system and when
the kidneys are weak or malfunctioning. More importantly, extremely large
numbers of AGEs are also created when blood sugar levels are high. This helps
explain why diabetics always seem to have abnormally high levels of AGEs.
To help get a better picture in your mind about AGEs, visualize the
clear, runny portion of a raw egg. This part of the egg is mostly protein. An
amazing chemical reaction takes place when you heat this clear portion of the
egg. It quickly and permanently transforms from a runny, clear liquid to a
rubbery, white solid.
Proteins similar to those in the egg are found throughout your
body. Proteins, after all, are the body's building blocks. They are used in the
construction of enzymes, blood vessels, muscles, nerve fibers, organ tissue and
just about every other body part. When glycation occurs and AGEs form, these
proteins are changed forever. Just like the changes to the egg, the process is
irreversible. The long-term health consequences of this protein-altering process
can be disastrous.
For example, when proteins in blood vessels undergo glycation, you
get stiffer, less flexible arteries which lead to higher blood pressure, plaque
formation, blood flow blockages, heart and artery disease, stroke, heart attack,
etc. The smallest blood vessels are the hardest hit, such as those in the back
of the eye, the kidney and the brain. These areas require a constant supply of
glucose to meet their high energy requirements. As a result, they have the
highest degree of glycation of any tissue in the body.
Animal studies have confirmed that damage occurs to areas like the
eyes when diets high in sugar are consumed. In particular, we now know that
cataracts are a result of glycation. The increasing incidence of cataracts in
this country seems to be linked to our ever-increasing sugar consumption.
Researchers also now believe that glycation lies at the heart of
the alteration of proteins in the brain that causes Alzheimer's disease.
What all this boils down to is that refined sugars speed up the
aging process and accelerate the formation of what we commonly call
"age-related" diseases. If you are diabetic, you're well aware of the importance
of monitoring sugar intake. For those of you who are not diabetic, here are some
steps you can take to help keep your own blood sugar levels in the healthy
How To Guard Against Glycation
1. The most obvious step is to cut back on your intake of refined
sugar... not just the white granules we all keep out on the counter. Sugars of
all types are being added to just about every processed food imaginable, even
unsweet things like ravioli, milk and soup! Because these sugars undergo
glycation during processing, they're every bit as harmful as table sugar--and
maybe even more so.
really gave much thought to the effects of these processed foods in the past.
Researchers at the Picowe Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York
have developed assays that show considerable amounts of AGEs from food are
absorbed into the blood.
In other words, not only will consuming sugar trigger glycation in
the body and create AGEs, but if you consume foods that have already undergone
glycation you absorb the harmful byproducts directly into the bloodstream.
Eating these foods year after year leads to accelerated aging and disease.
Based on these findings and the ever-increasing levels of sugar
consumption, it's no wonder diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease,
cataracts and kidney failure are on the rise.
In general, the easiest way to cut back on refined sugars is to
read food labels and make sure sugar (sucrose, dextrose, fructose, maltose,
lactose, etc.) is not one of the first five or six ingredients on the label. The
most popular sugar among manufacturers these days is high-fructose corn
syrup--which, unfortunately, also appears to be the most active in triggering
the glycation process and the formation of AGEs. Steer clear of that ingredient
as much as possible.
Also, if you do choose to buy processed foods, opt for those that
have at least a few grams of fiber. This will help slow the release of sugar
into the bloodstream.
2. Use xylitol or stevia to sweeten baked goods and beverages.
Unlike sugar, stevia doesn't trigger glycation or spikes in blood sugar. In
fact, it's now used in South America to help stabilize blood sugar in diabetics.
And unlike artificial sweeteners, stevia has no aftertaste, side effects or
connection to cancer.
If you have trouble finding stevia in your area, try the following
mail-order sources: Body Ecology, 1266 West Paces Ferry Road, Suite 505,
Atlanta, GA 30327, 800-478-3842; The Heritage Store, P.O. Box 444, Virginia
Beach, VA 23458, 800-862-2923; or Allergy Resources, 557 Burbank Street, Suite
K, Broomfield, CO 80020, 800-873-3529.
3. It is also recommend that you eat more fresh fruits and
vegetables. Eating unprocessed fruits high in fructose doesn't appear to cause
the problems associated with glycation and AGEs. As is usually the case in
nature, fruits have built-in co-factors like fiber, antioxidants, minerals,
etc., that help prevent such problems. So go for the pineapple, not the
pineapple upside-down cake.
4. You can slow the aging process and dramatically improve your
health by maintaining high antioxidant levels. Eating more produce and using a
high-quality daily supplement to ensure adequate and consistent levels of these
nutrients is an excellent start. Vitamins C, E, B6 and alpha-lipoic acid are
ones that have been shown to be particularly beneficial in combating the effects
Early health pioneers knew that refined sugar was dangerous. And
while some studies have detected a link between high-sugar diets and problems
like heart disease, no one seemed to be able to pinpoint the connection. The
latest research on glycation provides that connection.
It may not be long before we begin to hear more and more reports
about the effects of glycation and the dangers of eating sweets and highly
sweetened foods. Whether the public takes notice or not is another matter. Our
society's addiction to sweets will be a hard one to break, and as long as we
continue to invest in these foods at the grocery, they'll always be in ample
supply on the shelves.
Don't wait until all of this becomes public knowledge. Eat whole
foods. Take your natural supplements faithfully and begin to cut back on or
eliminate processed sweets and products loaded with sugar.
A little bit of willpower now can help you slow the aging process
and significantly lower your risk of developing diabetes, Alzheimer's,
cataracts, heart and kidney disease and dozens of other so-called "age-related"
problems. They're not age-related. They're diet-related.