.... would make the medicine go down, is a song from Mary Poppins that you probably have heard before.
It is certainly true that sugar makes our lives ‘sweeter’. However, we should keep in mind that Mary Poppins was referring to the ‘sweetness’ of sugar and not necessarily sugar, as we know it – like those in cookies and candy.
This is important since not all sugars are the same and one form of ‘sugar’, known as fructose in scientific terms, can be quite harmful to your health.
Recent studies have shown that excessive fructose consumption may be the root cause of the childhood obesity epidemic in the US. I am sure many of you are thinking, “but fructose is natural and is present in most fruits. How can that be harmful?” Ah, but there is a difference! Let's take a look.
Breaking down sugar
Almost all the food/drink (bread, pasta, rice, cookies, etc.) we consume contains glucose, which is the primary fuel for our bodies. This is the ‘good’ sugar that we all need. So, what happens when you eat carbohydrate-rich food like potatoes or pasta?
The food is broken down by enzymes in your stomach in a process known as metabolism -- this is needed to repair body tissues and provide energy. The process of metabolism also releases glucose, most of which is used by the body for its functioning. If there is more glucose than your body needs, a hormone called insulin (produced by the pancreas) tells your body's livers, muscle and fat tissue to store the excess as glycogen.
Now, our bodies are smart.. when we are low on sugar, the pancreas releases another hormone called glucagon that breaks down the stored glycogen back to glucose. Think of it as your body's natural feedback system to make sure the glucose level in the blood remains stable.
The Fructose problem
In the last twenty to thirty years, economic factors have led to ‘high fructose corn syrup’ replacing cane sugar (white sugar that you know of) in many processed foods. Look around, and you will find that most of the foods we buy have fructose as one of the ingredients.
Now, unlike glucose, most of the fructose is converted to fat -- almost 30% more compared to glucose. But there is a bigger problem. Fructose blocks a hormone (called leptin) that is naturally released by your body that tells you when you are full and cannot eat anymore. As you can imagine, too much fructose will lead to excessive eating even when not hungry, increased fat production, and early onset of diabetes.
Well, you may ask, wouldn’t eating fruits cause the same effects since it has fructose? You are right, fruits have fructose, but natural consumption of fruits amounts to about 15 gm/day of fructose -- even if you ate only whole fruits all day. The fiber that is naturally present in the fruits helps limit its intake, and also helps with its metabolism.
A recent study estimates that people are consuming 54 – 70 gm/day from fructose added to foods and drinks. Guess nature has a way to regulate the amount of fructose one would get from eating fruits- the natural way, with fiber! Next time you are at the grocery store, pay attention to the ingredients of the foods you buy, and how much sucrose or fructose there may be in it.