May 17, 2011 § 3 Comments
Recently, I finished reading David Gillespie’s Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat, and it’s a good thing too- my highlighters are all running out of ink. Pretty much my whole book is saturated now in pretty shades of florescent pink, orange and yellow, depending on which pen I was near in the house when I sat down to read.
In it Gillespie weaves the story of his own personal journey to escape the effects of fructose with his research on the history of sugar, the biochemistry of fructose, and the attempts in the last century to understand the connections between Western diet and Western disease. If all this sounds dry or clinical, it isn’t. Honestly, I was sucked in from page one, and there weren’t even any vampires or anything.
As I’ve mentioned before, biochemistry isn’t exactly my bag. I can make it through Dr. Robert Lustig’s “The Bitter Truth”- even that brief hardcore science-y bit, but that doesn’t mean I can turn around and replicate the argument. In fact, prior to watching “The Bitter Truth” on YouTube I was pretty much on the opposite side of the spectrum. I was one of the many people whose reaction to the idea of giving up sugar was: “What?” and “Oh sure, why not just give up all the fun in life? I mean really.” I was an avid dessert baker, devoted canner of jams (talk about sugar!), and all-around lover of sweets. Not junk, of course, but wonderful treats made with caring, love, and the occasional french pastry chef.
Nonetheless, I always suspected there had to be an answer out there to the problem of Western disease that was eluding us in plain sight- like Waldo. There had to be an “Aha!” out there somewhere. Once I watched Dr, Lustig explain it, it was as if a lightbulb had been turned on in my head. Fructose was the “Aha!”
Reading Gillespie has been like that again. Sweet Poison turns on a second lightbulb, one that fills in the details where before there had been shadow. A non-doctor, he has a knack for translating all the various medical findings and research into accurate but comprehensible lay-person-speak. He is also, incidentally, very funny, which can be helpful when you’re hanging in there talking about phosphofructokinase 1 and the islets of Langerhans. Here are a few of my favorite passages (all emphases are mine):
“There is one substance that does not stimulate the release of any of the ‘enough to eat’ hormones. That substance is fructose… We can eat as much fructose as we can shove down our throats and never feel full for long. Every gram of the fructose we eat is directly converted to fat. There is no mystery to the obesity epidemic when you know these simple facts. It is impossible not to get fat on a diet infused with fructose.”
“If you look at BMI calculations over time you quickly realize that the obesity epidemic is very real and is a very recent phenomenon… In 1910, just over one in five US adults was overweight and fewer than one in five of those people was obese (one in 25 for the whole population). Less than a century later, two out of every three US adults are overweight and half of those people are now obese (one-third of the whole population). In less than 100 years, the chances of a given US adult being overweight have gone from very unlikely to highly probable, and the trend is accelerating.”
“If obesity was a disease like bird flu, we’d be bunkered down with a shotgun and three years’ supply of baked beans in the garage. But nobody actually dies from obesity itself. You never hear of anyone being pronounced dead from being fat. No, people die from other diseases that may or may not be related to being fat, like cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke), kidney failure or various cancers. Obesity is a symptom, not a disease.”
“A lot of the people conducting experiments on rats had been criticized for giving the animals unrealistically high doses of fructose. ‘Of course the rat would die. Look how much fructose you gave it,’ would be the cry. ‘No person actually eats that much fructose.’ These figures tell a different story. Every man, woman and child in the United States (and Australia) is eating that much fructose and more. The USDA rats were actually on lower fructose diets than most of the people feeding them.”
“(Prior to omitting fructose) I was just as trapped in the dieting-with-no-visible-results treadmill as I had ever been. Free access to the biggest medical library in the world (the web), however, allowed me to read my way to a conclusion that, now that I see it, seems blindingly obvious. Fructose was killing me and everyone else as surely as if arsenic was being poured into the water supply.”
Gillespie plays connect-the-dots between fructose consumption, the resultant circulating fatty acids in the bloodstream and all the nasty consequences thereafter: heart attack, stroke, type II diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), as well as some of the most prevalent and deadly cancers today: colorectal, prostate, pancreatic. He even goes through and explains exactly how tooth decay works: fed specifically by sucrose, or table sugar, a manmade combination of fructose and glucose. Turns out, the bacteria that causes tooth decay thrives not on large amounts of sucrose, but rather a steady consistent supply of it over time. Well, hell-o-o-o, soda!
He explains why low fat diets don’t work, and why the Atkins diet will work but why no one can stay on it for very long. He explains why exercise- while good for you in other ways- won’t help you lose weight. He explains how he gradually stepped away from fructose, in particular a soda habit, by first switching to diet soda, then seltzer, and finally simply water, and describes the consequent palate change that took place over the course of a few weeks. He lists five deceptively simple rules to live by, including: “Party foods are for parties,” and “There is no such thing as good sugar.”
What Lustig and Gillespie are trying to tell us is not to never have dessert again, but to understand that “dessert” is a phenomenon that our bodies are not evolved to understand or process effectively, much less the onslaught of non-dessert sugar that is, in the Western diet, omnipresent and getting worse. We have to understand this dietary “loophole” in our digestive system and act accordingly.
“The results are in,” Gillespie writes, “If you feed humans fructose for the first 40 years of their lives you get an obesity epidemic, and massive health system costs associated with treating cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, oral health, cancer and miscellaneous other problems. It’s time to stop.”
Special thanks to the Year of No Sugar reader who recommended this book!
All quotations above are from Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat. For more information on David Gillespie visit his website: http://sweetpoison.com.au/
May 11, 2011 § 9 Comments
What if we could find something that tasted like sugar- but without the toxic effects to our bodies of fructose? How much would that change our lives? All our experiments this year have been moving in that general direction: not only are we weaning ourselves down from a taste for sweetness on the one hand, but we’ve been working on sweet alternatives on the other. Ideally, happiness and healthiness meet somewhere in the middle, get married, and live happily ever after.
Thus our many experiments with banana and date sweetened cookies, banana and coconut pancakes, and most recently yogurt and banana popsicles. Recently, however, I’ve begun to wonder just how many bananas a person could reasonably eat. Also, I’m getting a little tired of all my cookies— carob chip, peanut butter, raisin— all tasting pretty much like bananas and dates.
So imagine my surprise when my husband Steve came home a few weeks ago with a (get ready) chocolate bar!! Gasp! Avert thine eyes!
But no! he says, we can eat this.
Huh? I thought I had seen it all in my desperation to comb the internet for sweet substitutes that our Year of No Sugar would accommodate. I have yet to try brown rice syrup, but other than that we haven’t found much beyond cutting up fruit, putting it into our recipes and hoping the other ingredients don’t notice.
But this was a bar of what looked an awful lot like my long lost friend chocolate. “Chocoperfection” was the name, with the tag line, “Sugar Free… Naturally!” How could this possibly be okay? Steve’s massage therapist, our friend Ellen, had given him one upon hearing of our project. “I,” she said ominously, “am about to change your life.”
We eyed the gold wrapper. We read the ingredients. We reread the ingredients. There were two I wasn’t familiar with: “oligofructose” and “erythritol.” Hmmmm. Sounded suspiciously fakey- and we don’t do artificial sweeteners, (although according to my husband Diet Dr. Pepper drives a car with diplomatic license plates, and therefore doesn’t count.)
So I looked it up. Turns out, oligofructose is extracted from fruits or vegetables- in this case from chicory root. It is touted as being not only not bad, but in fact health promoting on account of the extremely high amount of dietary fiber (one Chocoperfection bar brings with it an astounding 52 % of recommended dietary fiber) as well as prebiotic effects- which is to say it is believed to stimulate the growth of “good” bacteria in the colon.
Erythritol is a “sugar alcohol,” which doesn’t sound like a good thing. After all, sugar alcohols such as “xylitol” and “maltitol” are known to be associated with laxative properties and “gastric distress.” Ew! However, erythritol is unique; unlike other sugar alcohols it is absorbed in the small intestine and then excreted. Translation? No tummy troubles.
Upshot: together, oligofructose and erythritol have a pretty good thing going. They supplement one another’s sweetness and counteract one another’s aftertaste. What’s the down side? Well, aside from making my digestive area a little gurgly and- ahem- wind-filled (heLLOO fiber!) the number one complaint would have to be it’s expense: one tiny 1.8 oz bar goes for between three and four dollars- that’s nearly a dollar a bite.
But nutritionally? Well, let’s review: what are the complaints about sugar (fructose)? It gets metabolized as fatty acids. This, in turn, creates cardiovascular disease, fatty liver disease, stroke, insulin resistance/diabetes, not to mention promoting the growth of cancerous cells. Basically, every problem known to man except hemorrhoids and hammer toes.
Well- from everything I can discern, oligofructose and erythritol don’t turn to fat in your bloodstream, don’t raise blood sugar levels and don’t even cause hammer toes. Instead, there is a boatload of fiber, which by definition means it isn’t even being processed until it gets to the colon, at which point it ferments into gases and… well, we’re back in the windy city, so to speak. Best of all? Drumroll please… the “chocolate” bar? Is pretty darn good. I mean, good.
Well, at least the “Almond Dark Chocolate” is. “Milk Chocolate,” which we also tried, has a hard-to-place weird taste. (Other flavors offered that we did not try are “Dark” and “Dark Raspberry.”) You can’t buy these bars anywhere around here so, in the interest of pure, selfless, scientific research, we ordered a small box of almond dark chocolate bars and a small bag of granulated “sugar” (!!) to try in cooking.
Unfortunately, the “sugar” doesn’t work as perfectly as one might hope- the texture is a little crunchy/dry/grainy in baked goods (we tried one batch of somewhat pasty peanut butter cookies), and there is a more distinct aftertaste than in the bars. Then again, maybe it’s not so unfortunate. Ever since we tried the “Chocoperfection” bars I’ve felt kinda… weird about the whole idea. Isn’t this cheating? I think.
I wondered, is this an “artificial” sweetener because it isn’t sucrose/fructose, or is it a natural sweetener because it comes from chicory root? If the point is to avoid fructose, as well as artificial sweeteners that have known negative effects on the body, then we were doing that! If the point is to avoid extracted fructose, as well as any stuff that simulates fructose, then we weren’t doing that! Help!
I felt so conflicted and confused that I e-mailed my question to Dr. Lustig, and waited breathlessly for- at last!- a definitive answer. What he graciously sent me, instead, was this:
“As to non-nutritive sweeteners, there are pharmacokinetics (what your body does to a drug) and pharmacodynamics (what a drug does to your body). We have the former (that’s how they got FDA approval), but none of the latter. So I can’t recommend any of them. But stay tuned, this information may be coming in the future.”
Hmm. Well, that’s essentially where I had ended up before: I don’t know. The thing I have to remember is that Dr. Lustig is a doctor and I’m a writer: he’s offering a doctor answer to what might be, for me, a writer question.
Meanwhile, non-doctor David Gillespie has this to say in his book Sweet Poison:
“No amount of rat studies will reassure me that industrial chemicals that have been in our food supply for less than a few decades are definitively safe… It took almost 100 years of mass consumption before researchers started questioning whether sugar was dangerous. Can we really know if sucralose or aspartame are safe after just a few decades?”
Hmm again. I think I’m getting closer to an answer. Gillespie isn’t taking about oligofructose, per se, but as Lustig points out, all these new sweetening options are big question marks at this point. And question marks, Gillespie reminds us, don’t have a terrific track record when it comes to our bodies’ health.
But back to ethics: it just still feels like cheating to me. Steve is a big “Chocoperfection” fan and much less conflicted about the whole thing than I am. His argument is that even with our “special” chocolate bars, spending a year avoiding all added sugar is still really, really hard. Which is true. And yet… don’t you just have to go with your gut, so to speak?
So we slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y finished off the “special” chocolate bars and for the time being have decided not to order more. The bag of “sugar” languishes in the closet. Sigh.