20 May, 2013

Sugar.



I don't know about you, but I've observed that I often don't feel like stopping after I finish my favorite dessert. This is true even after I might have already overeaten at a large and elaborate dinner at some function or such. Thankfully, not all that often. But, and this is where it gets weird, this is true even when it's not a dessert that I particularly like - for example a "throat-cuttingly" sweet gulab jamun or jalebi, although those are pretty popular.

Personally, I prefer a (squeezed-out) rasgulla, or a square of chocolate. Or two. Or three. Or, coming to think of it, I could finish the lot. At least theoretically. (And literally, if no one is watching!) What I'm trying to say is, it doesn't even have to be something that I like, nor do I even have to be hungry to clearly go overboard. And I don't even have a "sweet tooth"!

Sweet poison? Sounds dramatic, but it might be truer than we realize.

We all generally know that "too much" sugar consumption is not a good idea, but, if we don't actually belong to any of the categories where sugar is officially restricted, how do we define "too much"?

Where would you stop?
Would you cut it out altogether?!
Could you?



There must be something about sugar that puts it in the same category as highly addictive and mood altering drugs like cocaine, alcohol, heroin, nicotine, as they all work in the same reward centre of the brain. Researchers have proved sugar to be to be more addictive than even cocaine.

Back in 2009, Dr.Robert H.Lustig gave a speech on YouTube that went viral.
It was titled "Sugar: The Bitter Truth", in which he demonstrates that sugar is a poison.

While this might be news to many of us, according to him, the 'truth' was out long ago, when way back in 1972, Dr.John S. Yudkin had said as much. In fact Yudkin was one of the first to accurately describe the problem, linking high sugar consumption with heart disease, but sadly, his voice wasn't heard. It seems there were vested interests (like these).

As a kid, I've often enjoying chewing on the sweet stem of a piece of sugarcane.  And (where conditions seem hygenic) I still love having a glass of freshly pressed sugarcane juice with a dash of lemon and ginger. In these forms, the sugar is very different from what it becomes after it is processed into the white table sugar crystals that we mostly encounter it as everyday, which is stripped of most if not all of its nutritional value.

It takes about three whole feet of a stem of sugar cane, to make just one teaspoon of the refined sugar. 
A can of Coke contains about ten spoons.  So that's roughly the equivalent of 30 feet of sugar cane!
While it's easily conceivable to drink a can of Coke, it's pretty difficult to eat 30 feet or sugar cane.
Not too easy to drink the juice extracted from that much cane, either (a typical serving of one glass of fresh juice is from one, or at the very most two small stems.) 

In other words, as it gets increasingly processed, sugar deceives our bodies into consuming more than we need or can handle.

We've come a long way with the refining process and convenience.

Sugar Cutters
Take a look at this picture on the left. 
(From The Best of James Herriot, by Reader's Digest, Michael Joseph)
"Until granulated sugar became common in the 1930's, every kitchen needed sugar cutters.  Sugar was sold in very hard conical loaves, up to 3 ft high and more than 1 ft across at the base. A small hammer broke the loaf into sections, and these were cut into smaller pieces for dissolving in drinks or crushing for baking. Pincer-like iron cutters about 9in. long (left) were common, but the cutting was easier if they were mounted on a wooden base and operated by a single long handle that could exert greater pressure than cutters gripped in the hand."


If you are convinced, as I was, well then, no time like the present to take corrective action.

And what might that be?

To begin with, Lustig has some food advice (in a nutshell) -

• Oranges. Eat the fruit, don't drink the juice. Fruit juice in cartons has had all the fibre squeezed out of it, making its sugars more dangerous.

• Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other sweetened beverages. These deliver sugar but with no nutritional added value. Water and milk are the best drinks, especially for children.

• Bread. Watch out for added sugar in foods where you would not expect it.

• Alcohol. Just like sugar, it pushes up the body's insulin levels, which tells the liver to store energy in fat cells. Alcohol is a recognised cause of fatty liver disease.

• Home-baked cookies and cakes. If you must eat them, bake them yourself with one third less sugar than the recipe says. Lustig says they even taste better that way.



A simple enough list.

Another one from Canada's Food Guide.

The thing is, sugar has always been associated with happiness. Hindi-speaking folks will be familiar with the sayings about “Mooh meetha karo”, “Tumhare moonh mein ghee-shakkar”. To a truly health-conscious person today, this can present a challenge!

And sugar's insidious presence is hard to escape: it's something we mostly wouldn't even notice until unless actively trying to avoid it. From the quite obvious beverages and sweets right down to most unexpected things like Bangalore’s Darshini’s spicy sambars are sweetened. Even cornflakes, fruit yogurt, cereals, bread, pasta sauces, it's everywhere!

Have you ever tried to cut down your sugar intake?

Nowadays I'm always on the alert for added and hidden sugars because I have been off the "refined sugar" bandwagon for quite some time now. Remember that "Five White Poisons" thing? But I admit that it wasn't easy, to start with. And some days it is still a challenge.

But there have been times in my life (at least two of them for a year or longer). when I've been totally "off" sugar (just on a whim). Interestingly, during those phases, I couldn't even stand the taste of something like, say, sweet lemonade, and preferred it with a pinch of salt instead. It was easy to abstain completely. So it's possible to exist just fine (and much better, in fact!) without added sugar, I've found. Why did I ever get back? Wish I knew. (Although there's a good chance that it was probably my addiction to fondness for tea, which I do like sweetened a bit!) Now my current goal is to try that again and this time stay off sugar for good.

The other thing is, it's quite difficult to abstain from sugar without stepping on some toes.

To begin with, especially if you are a new convert, no one else among your family or friends might share your zeal, and it's going to take a little extra-effort to have sugar-less versions of things.

You will constitute a minority, and have to adapt to becoming somewhat of a "special needs" person.

Then, those well-meaning friends and family members will try to talk you out of your eccentric idea, and at the same time ply you with temptations and emotional blackmail.

Of course, one really easy way to make healthy choices is to simply avoid shopping at departmental stores altogether, or even eating out. Hardly any processed, packaged or ready-to-eat food will pass the test for 'no added sugar' (in all it's stealth forms) besides the other undesirables such as refined flours, fats and synthetic additives. While this may not even be possible for everyone, making a healthier choice will surely be easier, if armed with the knowledge. I've not entirely managed it, either, especially not the eating out part, but, getting there.... :) We need more sites like Fooducate which help decode nutrition label 'babble'.

If you are (or know of someone) on a professional, standard weight loss program, or on a restricted diet due to health reasons (diabetes, heart ailments, cancer..) chances are a nutritionist or diet specialist would have advised severely slashing or even completely stopping, the amount of sugar being consumed. This 'slashing' would seem severe even if you didn't really think it was 'much' to begin with. (Interestingly, another broad spectrum of eatables that get the axe in such cases, are "bakery products". Food for thought? )

Obviously, the first thing to do when trying to cut out refined sugar, is to look for healthier alternatives.

Which begs the question - Is there such a thing as healthy sugar?
The answer it seems is, NO.
Sugar in any form is still sugar.

According to Dr.Carolyn Dean, even though natural sweeteners such as molasses, unprocessed honey, fruit juice contain low levels of nutrients like B vitamins, and minerals such as iron, calcium and potassium, they are still only marginally better than plain white table sugar, and should be limited in their intake. Switching over from sugar to sugar-free substitutes is even worse. Those such as aspartame, which is a neurotoxin should be "avoided like the plague"; - it has been shown to cause birth defects, brain tumours, and seizures and to contribute to diabetes and emotional disorders. A good sweet substitute without calories is Stevia. It also has antimicrobial properties and in fact actually lowers the blood sugar levels in diabetics by helping to regulate the pancreatic system.

So, while it is good to try weaning oneself off refined sugar, in the long run, it's a good idea to restrict intake of it's substitutes, too.

Pictured above, clockwise from top left, outer circle:

  • White, refined, cane sugar cube
  • Aspartame pellets ('avoid like plague')
  • Palm sugar rock candy  (this is an alternative, less refined sugar, with a subtle, earthy flavour)
  • Organic, sulfurless, refined white cane sugar (organic or sulfurless doesn't make it very much better)
  • Dried fruit: apricot (khubani), Fig (anjeer) and raisins (draksha, kishmish) (fairly healthy substitutes)
  • Shakkar, or unrefined cane sugar resembling powdered jaggery (marginally better than refined sugar)
  • Jaggery chunks (from sugar cane) (marginally better than refined sugar)
  • Jaggery granules (from sugar cane) (marginally better than refined sugar)
  • Mishri (large, cane sugar crystals)
  • Elaichi Dana (a form of cane sugar)
Clockwise from top left, inner circle:
  • White sugar rock-candy chunks
  • Bura or Tagar (a form of powdered sugar*)
  • Khandsari, (a yellowish, crude form of sugar, manufactured in small khandsari units, not crystal, not graded*)

Top:




  • Unprocessed honey (marginally better than refined sugar)
(Details on all these and some more to follow in another post, ‘Sugar – 2’, part of the Pictorial Glossary series.

*My thanks to Devinder Sharma for having taken the time to reply to my mail and clarify my confusion about Bura and Khandsari sugar. He blogs at Ground Reality, and is amazingly adept at enlivening interest in and de-mystifying the often murky waters food and trade policies.)

Here's an interesting discovery that I've made, when trying to cut back on sugar, (and this was again at one of Bhoomi's programs), which is that consuming a lot of fruits, (don't set any limits at first; you will naturally come around to an optimum portion as you get used to it.) first thing in the morning (a preliminary breakfast as it were, which is also advisable for so many other reasons) and even otherwise, throughout the day, could magically remove any sugar cravings. Well worth a try.

More on how to break the sugar addiction -
In addition to determination and disciple, it is helpful to:
1. Eat sour foods. The sour taste of some foods, like apple cider vinegar, will naturally curb your cravings for sugar.
2. Eat fermented foods and probiotic beverages. Fermented foods are sour, easy to make, and affordable. Probiotic beverages also taste sour, and even a small dosage goes a long way. Both are full of beneficial bacteria, which drive out disease-causing bugs that increase our desire for sugar.
3. Keep a bottle of stevia on hand. Stevia plays a trick on the tongue: while sweet, it is not sugar. If you want that sweet taste, use stevia first
.

And if you're still not yet 'fed up' of all things sweet, you can browse through this account of Sugar in the Cambridge World History of Food.

Additional Reading:
1. "Is Sugar Toxic?" by Gary Taubes in The New York Times
2. "Why our food is making us fat", The Guardian (UK
3. A summary of the Sugar: The Bitter Truth video.
4. "The Real Truth About Sugar", book by Robert Lustig
5. "Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease" book by Robert Lustig
6. "Pure, White and Deadly" book by John Yudkin.
7. Talk with Lustig on WNYC with Alec Baldwin. (Podcast and Transcript.)
8. “The Scary Truth about Sugar” by Dr.Carolyn Dean.
9. “Sugar, not fat, exposed as deadly villain in obesity epidemic” from the Guardian (UK)
10. "How much sugar is hiding in your food?" from BBC Science
11. “The Rats who preferred sugar over cocaine” from Huffington Post
12. “141 reasons sugar ruins your health” by Nancy Appleton.
13. "Sugarcane" in Wikipedia.

(Edited on 20 May 2013 to improve readability and to move most links to the list at the end.)

10 comments:

  1. Brilliant post,thanks. I remember that book "Pure, White and Deadly". you will find a lot of sugar free and refined sugar free recipes in The Yogi Vegetarian, but I must admit to having quite a sweet tooth, even now. I do eat fresh fruit in the mornings and I think it does help with sugar cravings. I like stevia, but I'm an even bigger fan of xylitol as it's actually good for your teeth as well as tasting great and easy to use in recipes.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Sarojini. I love the recipes in TYV - it's such a challenge to make so many of those traditional dishes in a vegan version, and still more in a refined-sugar free one, - you do it so well. :) I've never tried xylitol, how interesting, - always thought it was just something that gets listed on nutrition labels or products! But am happy enough with minor amounts of gur as a substitute for now. Btw, even stevia is very good for oral health and is a good ingredient to include in home-made toothpowders.

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  2. I reach for a bottle of water whenever I crave for something sweet. 4/5 times I succeed😄

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Anon, I have tried that too, and will attest to that. :) In fact, for me it works with any kind of craving, not just sweet. (4/5 times!)

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  3. I have been following a very conscious healtgy diet for the past 8 years and your blog is simply wonderful having a lot of recipes...

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    1. Dear Gayathri, Thank you. It's so great that you have been consciously making healthy diet choices for so long! I've been trying to do the same for a similar length of time, and I do honestly believe it makes a difference. All the best!

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  4. Desi khaand or powdered khand processed without chemicals is a great substitute as people in earlier times made that as harmful chemicals were not used at that time it is available in old ayurvedic medicine shops as it is been put in some medicines but is expensive

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    1. That's right Jasmeet Singh. Incidentally, khandsari is pictured in the lot above, near the centre. And perhaps shakkar is even better, as far as minimal processing goes. :)

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  5. Is cleaning sugar by making bura is good

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    Replies
    1. Bura is just another form of sugar after all.

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