Ask the Nutritionist: Is Sugar Really That Bad? - Vegetarian Times

Ask the Nutritionist: Is Sugar Really That Bad?

I keep hearing people knock high-fructose corn syrup when they see it on food labels. What is it exactly? And is it really bad for you?
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I keep hearing people knock high-fructose corn syrup when they see it on food labels. What is it exactly? And is it really bad for you?

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a potent sweetener made from corn starch—it’s actually twice as sweet as sugar. Manufacturers began using it as a cheap sugar substitute in the 1970s when the price of sugar shot up. HFCS now accounts for 40 percent of the caloric sweeteners added to foods and drinks, according to a review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) in April 2004.

Americans down about 132 calories’ worth of HFCS a day, mainly in sodas and fruit drinks, says Barry Popkin, co-author of the AJCN review and a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. That’s a lot. By simply slashing 132 calories daily, you can lose 16 pounds a year without doing anything else.

But calories aren’t the real concern with HFCS. This is: It seems to make us pig out in two ways. First, when soda manufacturers switched from sugar to HFCS, they used the same amount, so sodas today are actually much sweeter than they were 30 years ago. Regular exposure to their intense sweetness can make you crave other sweet foods too.

Second, your body metabolizes HFCS differently. Unlike other sweeteners, HFCS doesn’t produce a normal rise in insulin after a meal, which prevents the usual levels of a hormone called leptin. Leptin makes you feel full so you stop eating. Too little leptin, says Popkin, and you’ll eat too much.

Getting more than 10 percent of your calories from any sugary food makes weight control tough. For the average person who should consume about 2,000 calories daily, 10 percent works out to a maximum of 200 calories daily from sweets (about 1 soda). So while there’s nothing inherently “bad” about HFCS in terms of calories or nutrients—it’s no better or worse than sugar—eating foods every day that contain it may make the best diet fail. It boils down to the fact that HFCS appears to both make you crave other sweet foods and not know when to stop. Now that’s bad.

From the first slice of Thanksgiving pie to the last holiday cookie, it’s impossible to avoid sweets this season. But are there better choices?

You won’t be surprised to hear a nutritionist say that the very best choice is fruit. But it’s not what most people want around now. If you’re doing the baking, try a fruit crisp with lots of whole oats and nuts in the topping. Top with a dollop of yogurt for filling protein. Or try puddings made with soymilk, or milk- and yogurt-based smoothies.

Another option is hot chocolate made with soymilk or fat-free dairy milk. I use 1 cup of milk, 1 teaspoon of cocoa and 1 teaspoon of sugar. It’s high in protein, low in artery-clogging saturated fat and full of cocoa, which actually contains some healthful antioxidants.

I love the holidays, but I dread them, too, because when I start eating sweets, I can’t stop. Why?

In my experience, the more sweets you eat (no matter what kind), the more you crave them. But as soon as you cut back—you may have to go cold turkey here and get them out of your house—the cravings ease up and may even disappear. My nutrition clients are always amazed and thrilled when this happens.

There are a couple of reasons for this . . . see the first question for one of them. For another, some sweet foods actually make you hungry. Why? When you eat sugar, your blood glucose surges. Insulin then works hard to bring it down—and fast. But the plummet in blood glucose then increases your appetite. This may be why, after you eat sweets, you want more and more. Sweets also increase the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin.

When I’m baking holiday treats, is it healthier to use raw sugar or honey instead of refined or powdered sugar?

Darker sweeteners, such as raw sugar, brown sugar or honey, are less processed than lighter, refined sugars. This means they have a marginally higher nutrient content. But all conventional sugars are high in calories and low in nutrients—there’s just no getting around it.

If you had to pick a cookie from a holiday tray of goodies, which would you choose?

A cookie with as many natural and unrefined ingredients as possible. That means I would pick anything made with a whole grain, such as whole wheat flour or oats. Other good choices include cookies that are high in fruit and nuts or made with egg white, such as this meringue recipe.

Chewy Meringue Cookies

Makes 20 cookies

Recipe excerpted from Diet Simple (LifeLine Press, 2004).

This recipe has many variations.

Instead of one cup of dried fruit, you can use 1/2 cup fruit and 1/2 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips (though that adds to the calories)—or, for a low-cal chocolate flavor, simply add a few tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder.

3 large egg whites, at room temperature

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1 cup dried peaches, apricots or other dried fruit, chopped into

1/4-inch pieces

1 cup sliced almonds or other chopped nuts

1 Tbs. cornstarch

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon, optional

1. Preheat oven to 300F. With electric mixer on medium speed, beat egg whites until foamy. Gradually beat in sugar until meringue forms stiff, yet billowy, glossy peaks. Set aside.

2. Mix dried fruit, nuts, cornstarch and cinnamon, if using, in separate bowl. Fold meringue into nut mixture.

3. Spoon heaping tablespoon-sized dollops onto greased baking sheet or sheet lined with parchment paper (or for ease, use 11/2-inch ice cream scoop to drop perfect mounds).

4. Bake 40 minutes, or until meringues are lightly browned, set on outside and spring back when gently pressed in centers.

PER COOKIE: 60 CAL; 2G PROT; 2.5G TOTAL FAT (0G SAT. FAT); 9G CARB; 0MG CHOL; 10MG SOD; 1G FIBER; 6G SUGARS PER COOKIE WITH CHOCOLATE CHIPS: 70 CAL; 2G PROT; 3.5G TOTAL FAT (1G SAT. FAT); 9G CARB; 0MG CHOL; 10MG SOD; 1G FIBER; 7G SUGARS