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Sugar: The New Health Food?

Sugar: The New Health Food?

First, the good news: some of the biggest players in the American food business have begun to phase out high-fructose corn syrup–a highly processed sweetener that is produced by a complex series of chemical reactions that includes the use of enzymes and caustic soda. The most common argument against high-fructose corn syrup is the correlation between the rapid rise of obesity in the United States, which began in the 1980s, and the introduction of industrial-grade high-fructose corn syrup at the same time. In addition, high-fructose corn syrup has been linked to diabetes and metabolic dysfunction; and has been shown to elevate triglycerides levels, which can lead to heart disease.

So although it’s great that, according to The New York Times, ConAgra isn’t using high-fructose corn syrup in its new Healthy Choice All Natural frozen entrees; that Kraft Foods recently removed it from its salad dressings, and is working on its Lunchables line of portable meals and snacks; it’s not in the tomato sauce on a Pizza Hut pie called “The Natural,” nor in the just-released soda Pepsi Natural. But here’s the catch. They’re swapping high-fructose corn syrup with sugar! Food manufacturers are switching to sugar as a result of extensive taste testing and consumer surveys. The general impression is that sugar is more “natural” than corn syrup–and as more and more people are becoming health-aware, that sounds good to the masses.

But just because sugar has been around for a long time, long before high-fructose corn syrup became an industrial staple, doesn’t mean that it is natural, healthy or necessarily good. In The New York Times, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco Children’s Hospital, said: “The argument about which is better for you, sucrose or HFCS, is garbage. Both are equally bad for your health.” Both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are made from glucose and fructose. The level of fructose is about 5 percent higher in the corn sweetener. Dr. Lustig studies the health effects of fructose, particularly on the liver, where it is metabolized. Part of his research shows that too much fructose–no matter the source–affects the liver in the same way too much alcohol does.

In addition, Sugar has caused environmental harm throughout the world’s tropics. Studies by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warn about the environmental impact of sugar crops. One 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. And needless to say, big food probably isn’t using Fair Trade certified sugar.

While we can applaud the fact that food producers are stepping away from high-fructose corn syrup–embracing another refined sweetener and calling it natural and healthy seems to suggest that it’s all really just a big game of marketing. Wouldn’t it be great to see these manufacturers begin to use truly natural sweeteners like maple or agave syrup?

To read more about refined sugar, read Sugar: Easy Greening and to learn about natural sweeteners see the Care2 Directory of Natural Sweeteners.

Read more: Basics, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Food, Health, , ,

By Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor, Healthy & 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.

55 comments

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12:35PM PDT on May 8, 2011

The problem I have with corn syrup, even though they say it's formulated at the same sweetness, is that it is sweeter than sugar.

3:39PM PDT on Sep 19, 2010

Too bad that HFCS has given a bad name to fructose. The worse thing about sugar is that it is acidic and high glycemic. Granulated fructose is more slowly absorbed so there is not a need for the pancreas to produce insulin, which is acidic and will cause calcium to be pulled from the bones to buffer the blood acid. I've used fructose for 40 years! I'm 71 now with good bones and still weigh what I weighted in high school (110). Don't use or need prescription drugs of any kind because I believe in PREVENTION!

Please understand, the problem is not fructose, it is the processing chemicals that converts the glucose into fructose when they make HFCS, that is what is harmful. Why do they want to make the conversion? Fructose is twice as sweet as sugar so they use less and make more money.

1:01PM PDT on Sep 18, 2010

Would love to see the natural sugars used, honey, agave, maple, stevia. All the chemical insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers should be banned from agriculture. Let's hear it for good wholesome real food!

7:26AM PDT on Aug 4, 2010

We need to start eating REAL food...

4:42AM PDT on Aug 4, 2010

Thanks for the article.

12:13AM PDT on Jun 17, 2010

Does anyone know if unrefined sugar is still as bad?

10:19AM PDT on Mar 29, 2010

I am going to read labels from now on, I am already careful not to use much sugar, but now I will omit the corn syrup as completly as I can.Thank you for the info.

7:50AM PDT on Mar 29, 2010

Curious.
Mar 23 article says HFCS worse for you than sugar.
Mar 26 article quotes Dr. Lustig "The argument [...] is garbage"
I'll bet Dr. Lustig didn't read the AAAS brief on the Princeton research, which says "...rats drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, [] become obese -- every single one"

But to reporter M. Breyer, Many Kudos for providing the link to the AAAS brief!

Oh, she left out that in the test the sugar & HFCS weren't the same concentration.... sugar was normal like in sodas - HFCS was HALF the normal concentration.
....Every Single One, they said.

1:15AM PDT on Mar 29, 2010

i drank cokes for years(with sugar & caffeine)but when i developed fibrocystic breast disorder,my md said i needed to start drinking caffeine and sugar free everything! so i switched to diet caff.free coke,and aspartame for tea and coffee,...then, ..oops..aspartame isn't good for you either,..so now it's stevia,molasses or no sweetener at all.

4:44AM PST on Mar 10, 2010

I think it is best to use mostly natural sweeteners and also to vary them.. Think honey, agave, maple syrup. Skip corn syrup, white sugar, etc. It can be tough to find some of these natural sweeteners, such as finding a good maple syrup source. The internet is your friend here though.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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