For the first time in our human history, sugar is harder to avoid than it is to obtain. In our not so distant past, sugar was hard to come by – we actually had to work strenuously for it!

Today, sugar is a major ingredient for the most consumed beverages, ketchups, savoury sauces, dressings, and most other processed foods. At least 3 popular children’s breakfast cereals have a higher sugar content per serving than a Twinkie!

With the increasing rates of child obesity and incidence of young children getting what was once called adult onset diabetes(type II), it is clear that we have taken our sweet time to get savvy about sugar.

Getting straight about what is high on the glycemic index (GI) is not a simple affair; misinformation abounds. For example,have you heard the idea that brown sugar is somehow more virtuous than white, or that agave syrup is a health food Neither is true, but sources may claim the opposite either due to a lack of good information, or, worse still, a desire to mislead consumers in order to boost sales. We are told that nonnutritive sweeteners (i.e. artificial sweeteners like Aspartame and Nutrasweet) are low calorie, and thus recommended for weight loss. Then we read research which shows that consuming these sweeteners might lead to weight gain because they are not recognized by the body – thus sneaking by our neurological satiation signals!

Here’s the crux of the matter: In nature, sugars and carbohydrates (our energy sources) come with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, proteins, fat and fiber – the bodybuilding and metabolism/digestion regulating components of our diet. In their whole form, sugars fuel our body function, while refined sugars, on the other hand, are devoid of nutrients. Regular high consumption of refined sugars actually depletes the body’s essential reserves of what it needs to function. In addition, when we consume refined sugars alone without proteins, good fats, or fiber, they enter the bloodstream in a rush. This causes a flooding of insulin and other hormones to try to bring blood sugar levels down to acceptable levels. High and consistent levels of sugar intake will, over time, impair insulin, adrenal, and thyroid efficiency and tax the immune system. Constantly elevated levels of glucose (blood sugar) over time leads to insulin insensitivity and type 2 diabetes. In addition, it should be noted that while it is not a mainstream view, a growing number of reputable doctors and researchers believe that excess sugar consumption and the resulting inflammation can also lead to diseases including Alzheimer’s and cancer.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that one should completely avoid indulging in the sweetness of life! Our natural inclination to get pleasure from sweet tasting foods is just that: completely natural. Anthropologists suggest that we are hard-wired to seek out sweetness. The theory is this: a sweet-tasting food in nature signified that a plant was 1) less likely to be poisonous (bitter and poison were usual pairings in the African savannah), and 2) nutrient dense. While both may have been true for our ancient ancestors, neither applies to the world of mass-produced, highly processed sweet foods that we now crave, so it s best to choose healthier sweet treats and to be moderate with those natural cravings!

My recommendation for minimizing the adverse impacts of sweeteners is this:

Choose more wholesome sweeteners, eat them in moderation, and make sure to include protein, fiber or healthy fat in your meals or snacks so that the entry of glucose into the bloodstream is slower. You wouldn’t drink a bottle of honey or maple syrup on its own, right? So, why do that with refined sugar products? This approach allows for a balanced life with sweetness and good health for the holiday season and beyond!

What is the glycemic index (gi)?

The GI is a numerical scale used to indicate how fast and how high a particular food can raise our blood glucose (blood sugar) level. Foods that rapidly release glucose above tolerable levels rate high on the glycemic index. Foods that release glucose more slowly are low on the glycemic index.

What about artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame are synthetic chemicals produced in a laboratory and may have deleterious effects on health. The human body lacks the enzymes to properly deal with sucralose and the metabolism of aspartame has been shown to produce neurotoxins (wood alcohol and formaldehyde) that could damage brain cells.

What is the concern about high fructose corn syrup (hfcs)?

Fructose found naturally in fruit is not the same thing as industrialized fructose. High-fructose corn syrup is highly processed from cornstarch and has a different chemical structure than other sugars (see below) so the body reacts to it differently. It also no longer contains the natural metabolites our bodies need to process it properly. Unlike whole natural fruit that contains fiber, highfructose corn syrup has been documented in human studies to set the stage for obesity and type II diabetes.

Evidence of a direct correlation between hfcs and the present epidemic of obesity in north america:

In 2004, research presented in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition first raised concerns about HFCS. The study investigated the relation between intake of HFCS and the development of obesity. Food consumption patterns were analyzed with findings that showed consumption of HFCS in the US increased by more than 1000% between 1970 and 1990. The report went on to say that the increase of HFCS-containing foods and beverages (such as soft drinks) far exceeded the consumption of any other food or food group.

They found that digestion, absorption, and metabolism of fructose differs substantially from that of glucose. Liver metabolism of fructose favors fat production. In addition, unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production. Insulin and leptin act as key feedback signals to help regulate food intake and body weight.

The study concluded that the increase in consumption of HFCS mirrored the rapid rise of the epidemic of obesity in the United States. While this is a US study, we know that the Canadian diet is becoming more and more similar to that of our southern neighbours.

How much is too much?

Despite all of the concerns about sugar intake, Health Canada does not specify a recommended daily intake on food labels, as it does with sodium or saturated fats. Combined, this can make it very difficult to know how much is too much. Home economist Allison Jorgens, P.H.Ec offers the following easy-to-follow advice:

Although there is no “recommended” limit on sugar consumption in Canada, this simple equation may help to put sugars into perspective:

1. Simply divide the amount of sugars in grams declared on the Nutrition Facts table by 4 to determine the equivalent number of teaspoons of sugar per serving.

Consider the American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations for limiting the amount of added sugars you consume daily:

2. The AHA recommends average women limit added sugar consumption to about 6 teaspoons a day (24 grams), and average men limit added sugar consumption to about 9 teaspoons a day (36 grams).

Remember too that food labels do not distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars. Healthy foods, fruit, vegetables, & dairy contain naturally occurring sugars that should not be the cause of worry. Added sugars are what you want to aim to minimize or avoid.


Glucose: The sugar in blood, made by the body through the digestion of carbohydrates. it is a single sugar.

Fructose: The principal sugar in fruit and honey. Like glucose, it is a single sugar. in fruit, it is not a problematic sugar because it is accompanied by nutrients and fiber.

Be aware though that “fructose” on a label does not translate into eating fruit sugar.

Pure crystalline fructose, like what you’ll find on a product label, typically comes from one of two sources: corn or sucrose (table sugar). Corn starch is industrially processed to release fructose. sucrose (table
sugar) is also enzymatically separated in the factory to break apart the fructose from the glucose.

Sucrose: Regular cane or beet sugar. it is a double sugar, composed of one part each of glucose (50%) and fructose (50%) tightly bound together. Enzymes in our digestive tract are required to cleave sucrose into glucose
and fructose, which are only then absorbed into the body as single sugars.

From the Winter issue of Ecoparent Magazine ( available in hard copy at Chapters/Indigo, Nature’s Fare Markets, Whole Foods, and other independent newsstands and baby stores. Dr. Heidi is a regular food and health contributor to Ecoparent.