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Sugar: Easy Greening

Sugar: Easy Greening

Even with everything I know about sugar, it still evokes a twinkling reverie: Enchanted gingerbread houses, sparkling jewel-toned cookies, the smell of a cake in the oven. But the truth is, sugar has become a bit of a problem. The amount of refined sugar we consume is staggering and is taking a toll on both our health and the environment. But should we say goodbye to sugar altogether? Get the scoop on refined sugar here and learn all about natural sweeteners.

A Ravenous Sweet Tooth
More than 145 million metric tons of sugar are produced per year in about 120 countries—that’s the equivalent of 324 billion pounds of sugar. So where does all this sugar go? In 1816, the average sugar consumption per person was 15 pounds per year—estimates place that number at about 120 pounds of sugar per person a year now. Sugar is added to almost all packaged foods. Added sugars made up 11 percent of our calories in the late 1970s; they now are 16 percent overall and 20 percent for teenagers. A 20-ounce soft drink alone can have upwards of 15 teaspoons of sugars.

High sugar consumption is linked to tooth decay and obesity. Many high sugar foods lack other nutrients that are essential for proper growth and development. When you fill up with these empty foods (foods with no nutritional value), you generally end up either skipping healthier foods, or find yourself craving nutrients and continue eating, boosting your calorie intake. Nutritionists generally recommend that we greatly reduce our consumption of processed sugar to less than 10 percent of our diet.

Sugar’s Source
Technically, sugar is any of numerous sweet, colorless, water-soluble compounds present in the sap of seed plants and the milk of mammals and making up the simplest group of carbohydrates. The most common sugar is sucrose, what we know as white sugar or the stuff that we use in our coffee and cupcakes. Sucrose is found in all plants but only occurs at concentrations high enough for profit in sugar beets and sugarcane.

Sugar and the Environment
Sugar beets and sugarcane. Sounds innocent and somehow romantic, but in reality these are industrial monocrops with millions and millions of acres planted across the globe. Sugar has caused environmental harm throughout the world’s tropics. Recent studies by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warn about the environmental impact of these crops.

The fascinating report published by the WWF, called Sugar and the Environment, shows that sugar may be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop due to habitat loss, intensive use of water for irrigation, heavy use of agro-chemicals, as well as discharge and runoff of polluted effluent. The report provides some startling global statistics, such as an estimated 5–6 million hectares (roughly 14 million acres) of cropland are lost every year throughout the world due to severe erosion and degradation caused by intensive sugar production. And as new fertilizers and other chemical products are being used, there is a dangerous potential for the sugar-dependent island nations to simply run out of fertile land.

The United States also produces sugar; much of it is grown in Florida. Environmentalists accuse the sugar industry of despoiling the land and polluting the environment there. Water runoff from these farms is high in phosphorus and has left the ecosystem of Florida waterways in crisis. When Al Gore was vice president, he planned a sugar “tax” to be used by the federal government to purchase Everglades land for ecosystem restoration.

Natural Sweeteners
So the next obvious question is this: Will replacing refined sugar with more natural sweeteners like raw sugar and maple syrup make a difference? Unfortunately, in terms of nutrition, sugar is sugar. And although wholesome sweeteners have more nutrients in them due to less processing, the amount of nutrients they retain is minimal. That said, unless you are planning on becoming a sugar nun and giving up sweeteners altogether, the less refined options are clearly the way to go. Almost every step taken in refining a food uses energy while decreasing nutrients. Anytime you step away from industrially processed food you are doing yourself and the planet a favor.

Care2 has compiled a fantastic guide to natural sweeteners which not only includes descriptions, but also equivalents and baking tips—it is mighty helpful.

Fair Trade Sugar
As far as the environment goes, replacing refined sugar with natural sweeteners is an important step. There is another option too. I cook and bake zealously—this involves sweeteners. I use a lot of maple sugar and honey, but do have some good old-fashioned cane sugar on hand for occasions when nothing else will do. If you use sugar, it is important to purchase organic sugar if it is American grown, or Fair Trade Certified if it is grown abroad. The sugar industry has spawned some terrifying work conditions that should not be supported by us, the consumer. Meanwhile, Fair Trade farms stick to strict standards regarding employment practices, the use and handling of pesticides, the protection of natural waters, virgin forest and other ecosystems of high ecological value, and the management of erosion and waste. Selling at Fair Trade prices enables small sugar farmers to pay for organic certification and training in sustainable agriculture techniques, as well as earning a fare wage. Fair Trade Certified sugar is available from Costa Rica, Malawi, Paraguay, Peru and the Philippines.

Read more: Basics, Conscious Consumer, Eco-friendly tips, Green Kitchen Tips, , ,

By Melissa Breyer, Producer, Care2 Green Living

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

19 comments

+ add your own
7:43AM PDT on Mar 17, 2010

I will try to find fair trade sugar. I use only fair trade coffee so I don't know why I didn't think to look for sugar.

10:47PM PST on Dec 8, 2009

I run a Family Child Care in Mesa and been looking for a EASY recipe for my Children I care for and I found it! It was easy to have children mix and drop the cookies. I love the option to drop or smash and use cookie cutters! We have been looking at the Letter C.They got to make a whole sheet to take home, they ate one after frosting and sprinkling.
Mens Health

10:59AM PDT on Jul 3, 2009

Agave is not good for you. Stevia is good, in moderation. Please check out this wonderful article here:
http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/07/02/Agave-A-Triumph-of-Marketing-over-Truth.aspx

12:48PM PDT on Mar 27, 2009

I have been using raw sugar for more than 20years of my life and it is vastly different from refined white sugar where the natural ingredients are being stripped off with a kind of 'bleach' to make it look white.

Stop using 'white & refined' sugar and the manufacturers will stop the use of bleach. No demand no sale! Stop bleaching and save the environment.

1:15AM PST on Feb 7, 2009

Especially for tea or recipes that call for liquid sweetener please try organic BLUE AGAVE. Just as sweet as honey but made from the agave plant. mmm good!

8:19PM PDT on Aug 2, 2008

I love Xylitol but have only tried it in gum. I found a site that says too large of quantities cause diarrhea, & they were selling the stuff, so they're probably honest. They also told the dosages necessary to have the positive effects--tooth benefits & antibacterial/viryl (whatever it is? sorry!)--but I can't remember. It can be Googled though. Malitol is a combo of it w/something else, but it's still costly & possibly has an aftertaste, like stevia, if not used in right dosages. Sweet Sicilly & Angelica are herbs too, that can be used to reduce sugar needs in baking, but are hard to find & dosages etc. ??? Google, eh? Sorry! But at least it's an idea of what to look up. Also, fruit replacements in baking for egg & dairy, like bananas & apple sauce, reduce the need for sugar too. Just add a little oil & a little baking soda, I find, to help it along. Vegan baking has tons of recipes. My other posting cut off before I could mention that current laws are concerns on what we're up against politically. "dubya" & his buds signed a ridiculous law forcing the FBI to prosecute anyone who causes loss to animal proceeds (burgers & shakes included) to a higher degree than they would a terrorist. Check out isawearthlings.com, the Humane Society's web site, or/and view "Your Mommy Kills Animals" for evidence of this. Peta probably has something too. Anyhow, the point is we need political influence to change if we aren't able to do it on our own.

7:53PM PDT on Aug 2, 2008

Even great & well intentioned advice can have a negative affect, like "eat a little sugar is like being a little bit pregnant". It's very true & sugar laden diets are very harmful. But the actuality of people who know this to be true following it wholeheartedly is slim. If it were easy to cut it out, the "diet" industry wouldn't be making billions while we're still fat. We know not to eat donuts, but not doing so, expecting the fact that a total cutout of the bad stuff will keep us from craving more bad stuff, is an overwhelming reality for most to follow through. I'm NOT negative, just stating the obvious, yet extremely overlooked. It's so obvious we take it for granted. It's like an addiction to smoking except we're tempted by bad diets almost everywhere we go. Processed food companies put corn syrup & processed everything in their foods for several reasons: Mainly it's addictive & we'll eat more, it's cheaper to make since it's subsidized, & it lasts longer since even bugs CAN'T thrive on it. We have to fight this on a higher level than just saying it's bad for us. 2 ways I can think of are self discipline & politically. 1st way, read "The Now Habit", "Ecological Cooking", "Fast Food Nation", & "The China Study", also watch "Peaceable Kingdom". Know eating processed foods is as hard environmentally as is driving. Volunteer for something bigger than you. 2nd, we need political influence. Republicans made animal activists "worse" than terrorists.

4:24PM PDT on Jul 31, 2008

Eat a little sugar is like being a little bit pregnant. Once you eat it it has you and you cannot get away from it,like any drug. The way is whole grains that nourish and sustain us without sugar of any kind and be kind to ourselves.
May we all be healthy
P.Tyler ND

11:20AM PDT on Jul 31, 2008

Your "guide to natural sweeteners" lists fructose and agave syrup (which is like 90% fructose). As I understand, fructose is bad because it doesn't satisfy hunger, is turned directly into fat and encourages glucose in your blood to be stored as well (as glycogen and/or fat). I'm not familiar with many of the other products on that list but might they be high in fructose too? ..It might be best to identify which ones are low in fructose and indicate them on the list.

namaste

6:49AM PST on Dec 25, 2007

Has anyone heard of or used Xylitol? I love to chew gum but the choices are slim either sugar or an artificial sweetener. I found Spry at the health food store and rediscovered Xylitol. It is a natural product found in fruits (and in our bodies) and therefore assimilates easily. I have also seen it in powder form that can easily be added to coffee or tea if desired. There are a few benefits from Xylitol as well such as it can actually help prevent tooth decay and may even help to prevent ear infections (chewing and swallowing with gum) and osteoporosis.

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