Is Sugar a Danger to Older Adults
All the talk and images of chocolate and chocolate-covered strawberries and other sweet edibles for Valentine’s Day got me thinking about sugar the past week. Sugar tastes good. Sweet foods make you feel good. But sugar has acquired a bad reputation in recent times. The warning has gone out from leading health organizations to reduce the consumption of sugar. Sugar is identified as a major contributor of the global public health crisis in obesity and heart disease. Is sugar a danger to older adults then?
Sugar’s fall from grace
What happened! Sugar used to be king of the world, for centuries; nations acquired faraway lands to grow it and the rich waited to buy it. According to Eric Williams in From Columbus to Castro, when Columbus made his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he brought to Hispaniola in the West Indies, “together with livestock, vegetables, wheat, barley, vine and fruit trees, oranges, lemons, melons, and other plants…the greatest gift of the Old World to the New—the sugar cane.”
It was the indigenous people of New Guinea who were the first to cultivate sugar cane, around 8000 BC, by chewing on it raw. Then its cultivation spread throughout Southeast Asia, China and India via seaborne traders.
In 510 BC the Emporer [sic] Darius of Persia invaded India where he found “the reed which gives honey without bees”. The secret of cane sugar was kept a closely guarded secret whilst the finished product was exported.
When the Arab peoples in the seventh century AD invaded Persia in 642 AD, they found sugar cane being grown and learnt how sugar was made. As their expansion continued they established sugar production in other lands that they conquered including North Africa and Spain.
Sugar was only discovered by western Europeans as a result of the Crusades in the 11th century AD and the first sugar was recorded in England in 1069. The subsequent centuries saw a major expansion of western European trade with the East, including the importation of sugar. At this time, it was regarded as very much a luxury.
The “reed which gives honey without bees” eventually supplanted honey as the world’s sweetener. I suppose there were some practical reasons for this, other than flavor. Whereas honey production depended on the industry of bees, the production of sugar required the human factors of production—land, labor, capital, and technology, all of which could be manipulated by people or nations. But there seems to have been another reason cane sugar supplanted honey. When cane sugar was first brought back from India into the Mediterranean area about 500 AD, it was traded to physicians who used it for medical purposes! Universities began to study this “potent Indian medicine” and developed “better methods for processing sugar cane into crystallized sugar.” And so began sugar’s rise in the world.
How did a product once considered to have medicinal value become public health enemy number one?
What is sugar?
Sugar is a sweet-tasting ingredient—a simple carbohydrate— found naturally in all fruits and vegetables, nuts, and lactose in milk; but it is found in greatest quantities in two plants—sugar cane and sugar beets. That’s why these plants have been cultivated over the centuries to extract sugar. “Sugar beet was first identified as a source of sugar in 1747…and [b]y 1880 sugar beet had replaced sugar cane as the main source of sugar on continental Europe.”
The chemical name for sugar is sucrose. Sucrose is one part glucose and one part fructose, and it is produced by all plants during photosynthesis. According to the Sugar Association, the scientific voice of the US sugar industry,
The sugar that’s extracted from sugar beet or sugar cane plants is identical to the sugar that’s still found intact when you bite into fruits and vegetables. It is completely pure, and contains no preservatives or additives of any kind. That means the sugar we keep in our pantry, the sugar added to bread to help it rise [sic] and the sugar in sweet treats we enjoy in moderation is exactly the same as sugar that’s naturally in peaches, almonds, sweet peas and more.
Well, what’s the problem, then? Why are we being discouraged from consuming sugar?
The problem with sugar is not natural
The problem with sugar is not sugar. The problem is that we are consuming too much of it through foods and beverages that contain added sugars.
What are added sugars?
Sugars that occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and milk are not added sugars. The Sugar industry states that the FDA in 2016 defined the term added sugars as “sugars that are added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.”
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans lists added sugars as including syrups and other caloric sweeteners. Specific examples of added sugars that can be listed as an ingredient include
- brown sugar
- corn sweetener
- corn syrup
- high-fructose corn syrup
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
- raw sugar
- turbinado sugar
These sugars are added to processed or prepared foods and beverages.
According to Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, UC San Francisco, surveys show that the consumption of fructose alone increased significantly over the last century in America alongside increases in the consumption of processed foods.
In 1900, Americans consumed on average 15 grams per day of fructose from the fruits and vegetables in our diet.
By the time of WWII and with the advent of the candy and the soft drink industries, it was estimated that Americans consumed 16 to 24 grams per day of fructose.
And by 1978, just before the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup to America, the USDA Nationwide Food Consumption Survey revealed that Americans were consuming 37 grams per day of fructose.
The 1994 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) showed that consumption had risen to 54.7 gram of fructose per day or 10.2% of the average person’s total caloric intake.
For adolescents the figure was much higher at 72.8 grams per day or 12.1% of total caloric intake.
Recall that these figures represent fructose consumption only; says Dr. Lustig, “double them for sugar.”
Is sugar a danger to older adults’ health?
Scientists say that our body does not distinguish between naturally occurring sugar and added sugars. However, the body is intelligent and shows us when it is getting too much sugar.
When sugars are added to foods and beverages to sweeten them, they add calories without contributing essential nutrients.
Consumption of added sugars can make it difficult for us to meet our nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits.
Too much sugar destroys elasticity as the skin breaks down collagen, a structural protein that is responsible for building skin and bones.
Too much sugar prevents vitamin D absorption, which is needed for strong bones.
Too much sugar prevents magnesium absorption needed for energy and calcium.
These are areas of health that become increasingly important to us as we grow older.
So what should we do?
Our goal should be to reduce the amount of added sugars we consume daily. This means, above all else, eating less processed or prepared foods and being smart about the processed foods we do choose to eat. Breakfast cereals, salad dressings, for example, are foods we tend to think are healthy; however, they may contain high levels of added sugars.
Read food labels. If a product’s label says it contains high-fructose corn syrup or some other sugar, look for a similar product that does not contain added sugars, or do not buy the product at all; instead, make your own at home. Here are some of the many names for added sugars you might see on food labels.
Add the minimal amount of sugar or honey to your hot or cold beverages. Don’t be one of those persons who has “tea with his sugar”!
Cease from eating foods whose principal ingredient is sugar and only appeal is their sweet taste, for example, candies, soft drinks.
Reduce the amount of sweets—pastries, desserts, cookies, etc.—you eat daily. Save high-sugar desserts for special occasions, like Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, birthdays.
Remember why you eat
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