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.
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.
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.