The Truth About Sugar

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "Solving the Sugar Puzzle," September/October 2012

What’s good? What’s bad? How much sugar is too much? Here’s what the latest science says.

"There is no substitute for whole natural foods, a variety of foods, eaten in season. I read that xylitol, which is marketed as a natural sugar, is actually processed using toxic chemicals. "

On a steep, wet hillside near the equator, two hands place sugarcane stalks in shallow dirt trenches and cover them carefully with damp soil. Sprouts soon poke from the tropical ground in long, straight rows. After 12 to 18 months, the bumpy stalks grow as thick as a fireman’s pole and as tall as a two-story house. Workers harvest the giant cane by hand and take it to the nearby sugar mill, where heavy metal rollers crush the stalks into a pulp and extract the sweet juice. Heat condenses the liquid into a syrup and the molasses is spun out.

Hard labor, primitive processing and months of waiting, all for one precious product: a small pile of sweet crystals, the last 17 percent of the original sugarcane plant, a substance commonly known as raw sugar, or sucrose.

The dance happens all over the tropical Earth. Sugarcane takes up only 16 percent of the world’s total cultivated agricultural land, yet surprisingly is the world’s biggest crop: 2.6 times more sugarcane is produced each year than wheat, 6.4 times more than soybeans. With this and all the sugar we extract from other plants, such as sugar beets (55 percent of the U.S.’s sugar comes from sugar beets), maple trees, corn and even coconuts, the amount of sugar produced has grown. Worldwide consumption of added sugar (that is, sugar not naturally found in food) has tripled over the last 50 years. And Americans now spend about 23 percent of our grocery dollars on processed foods and sweets—nearly double what we spent 20 years ago. Though the American Heart Association recommends women limit their added sugar to just 100 calories per day (6 teaspoons) and men to 150 calories a day (9 teaspoons), the average American now, consciously or not, eats 28 teaspoons of added sugars a day, or more than 90 pounds of sugar per year.

It doesn’t take a medical genius to surmise that putting so much sugar in our bodies might not be a direct path to health nirvana. Most experts agree that we all eat far too much of it: rates of obesity have dramatically increased in the U.S. over the past 20 years, and studies have linked drinking large amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages to increased risk of obesity, especially in children.

But that’s not news.

Next: A New Chapter in the History of Sugar »

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