Sugar has a bad name. Let’s get to the bottom of exactly what sugar does and doesn’t do and how we should and shouldn’t consume it.
Sugar comes in a variety of forms – processed sugar such as raw sugar or caster sugar; unprocessed sugar such as rapadura sugar or cane juice; natural sugars such as honey or maple syrup; in all fruits (with some fruits having lower sugar levels than others and fruits containing varying sugar levels at varying stages of ripening); and in products such as high fructose corn syrup, glucose or sucrose. Carbohydrates are also a form of sugar, this includes bread, pasta, rice, potato and sweet potato.
The human body needs sugar, it needs it for quick energy and it has a role to play in cell function and the intricate workings of the body. Sugar in its natural form contains many vital minerals and nutrients. The body however processes all sugars in the same way, so the energy it gets from a piece of fruit is treated the same by the body as the energy it gets from a cake or biscuit. Sugar instructs the pancreas to produce more insulin which in turn instructs the hypothalamus (a part of the brain) to store the excess food we consume as fat.
In terms of evolution, our ancestors consumed more sugar in summer when high fructose fruits were ripe and in abundance. Records show us that as a race, we put on around 5 kilos of body fat in summer. This saw us through a winter where food was scarce and contained higher levels of protein, where women were often pregnant and feeding young babies. The ebb and flow of the seasons meant that we lost that weight each year. Today, there is no winter of food, the supermarket has food from around the world every day. We also have food in abundance and we need to be more careful about listening to our body when it comes to consumption of food generally and consumption of sugar specifically.
Sugar is no different to any other food in our ecosystem. It should be eaten as close to its natural source as possible. When we chose rapadura sugar over processed sugar, the sugar we consume retains the vitamins and minerals that our body requires. So whilst we are getting the energy, we are also accessing many minerals that we need. When we avoid processed foods, we are avoiding processed sugars that contain no nutritional value.
Sugar also has a role to play in our daily health as it dampens our immune system thus making us more susceptible to colds and flus and other bacterial and viral infections that are naturally passed through the community. If you or a member of your family seems to get every bug that comes around from a cold to gastro, the removal of sugar may help improve the immune system’s ability to fight off infection.
Sugar should be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet, remembering that it has a role to play in weight gain and energy production. We can help our body to adapt to prefer a more savoury palate by consuming more protein and vegetables. Sugar is highly addictive so when we allow the gut microflora to thrive on protein and vegetables, we crave sugar less because our microbiome does not need sugar to survive. So enjoy eating summer fruits and a piece of birthday cake but remember that your immune system and your body generally will work better with less of it!