Everyone takes sugar in their tea, milk, biscuits, dessert, sweets, chocolates, nimboo paani, etc. There are very few who don’t relish sweet taste. But is sugar a natural food? What is it about sugar that makes it a culprit for so many health conditions? Find the answer by understanding what exactly sugar is and how it impacts our body. We also explore the variants of sugar and healthier alternatives of it.
1. Does our body need sugar?
Our body needs energy to perform all its functions and sugar is one of the sources of energy. Having said so, the sugar our body needs is not the white-refined sugar that we commonly presume! Any food item that we eat, irrespective of whether it tastes sweet or not, is turned into glucose in our body. Glucose is a form of sugar and it is this sugar that our body needs.
2. If body needs sugar, shouldn’t refined white sugar be a good way to get it?
Refined sugar is a highly processed food item, nutrients keep reducing as a food moves from its natural whole state to a processed state. Also, it is loaded with chemicals and these interfere in the normal body functions, leading to health issues. It is easy for the body to break-down and use the sugar from natural foods vis-a-vis sugar from refined sugar and processed foods. Natural foods include plant-based whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, grains, pulses & legumes.
3. How is white sugar made? Isn’t it a natural food?
Sugar comes from a plant source such as sugarcane, palm or coconut. Let’s take the example of sugar made from sugarcane. First, the cane is washed and shredded and is crushed to extract juice. The juice is then clarified, concentrated and crystallized. This crystallized syrup is then spun at high speeds or centrifuged to separate the liquid to get raw sugar. To further purify the raw sugar, it is subjected to high temperature and filtered to remove molasses, the thick brown syrup left after sugar has been removed from cane juice. Molasses are rich in antioxidants and nutrients. As they are removed to refine sugar, it reduces the nutritive value of sugar.
Although sugar is made using a plant source i.e. sugarcane, which is a whole and natural food, it gets depleted of its natural nutrients in the refining process. All the fibre of sugarcane is completely filtered out and heating the cane juice at high temperatures destroys the natural enzymes present in it. Therefore, what we get from sugar is only empty calories, without any vitamins or minerals!
Also, the process of clarification or getting rid of impurities at various stages requires the use of various chemicals that are toxic to the human body. Some commonly used chemicals & their likely impact on our body is as follows:
Sulphur - Sulphur is used to do away with the natural brown colour of sugar. It basically bleaches the sugar to give it a whiter appearance. Sulphur is often linked to respiratory diseases like bronchitis and asthma.
Phosphoric acid - is linked to tooth decay and is also a respiratory and skin irritant.
Carbon hydroxide - can lead to low blood pressure, vomiting, severe throat pain, skin and eye irritation.
Polyacrylamides - can damage male reproductive glands and sweat glands. They are eye and skin irritants that can also cause urinary incontinence, speech disorders, nausea, sweating, numbness, etc.
4. What happens in our body if we consume white sugar?
Body needs enzymes to digest foods. Unlike water rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, refined sugar doesn’t have live enzymes. The process of heating cane juice destroys the natural enzymes. Hence, body has to work harder to digest sugar and this depletes our energy levels.The surge in energy felt on eating sugar is only because it leads to sudden increase in blood sugar. It is a temporary phenomenon and should not be misconstrued that sugar gives us energy.
In response to sudden increase in blood sugar, the pancreas releases more insulin (its natural sugar regulator). Increased insulin secretion eventually leads to a drop in sugar levels, causing a crashing slump thatleaves us tired, irritable and craving more sugary foods. Sugar tends to become addictive! It's a vicious cycle that can contribute to ourweight gain problemsas well as health conditionslike diabetes and heart disease.
The connection between sugar and weight issues is well known. When the intake of sugar is high, the excess amount gets stored in the body as fat.
Refined sugar leaves an acidic residue in the body after being digested. This disturbs the body’s acid-alkaline balance, which leads to symptoms & diseases.
Also, as body’s pH level becomes more acidic, it draws on its mineral stores of calcium, magnesium, potassium etc. to neutralise the acidic effect. Hence, the body is depleted of vitamins and minerals in order to digest and eliminate sugar and its residues. There is ample evidence that correlates sugar to diseases such as osteoporosis, tooth decay, arthritis, even cancer.
5. What about other kinds of sugars such as raw sugar or brown sugar?
These alternatives to white sugar are its less-processed or processed-differently versions!
Raw Sugar - The initial stages of making raw sugar are just the same as that of refined sugar. Raw sugar has coarser grains that make it appear more natural. To make white sugar, raw sugar is subject to further processing to make finer crystals and molasses are removed.
Brown Sugar - is simply refined white sugar plus molasses. To make brown sugar, the molasses are added back to the refined white sugar.
Due to presence of molasses, both these varieties may contain more nutrients than white sugar. However, like white sugar, they are also processed and treated with chemicals and are not the natural whole foods that are most appropriate for the human body.
Another variety of sugar that has caught people’s fancy these days is sulphurless sugar. It’s emergence is a result of the increasing concerns about the presence of chemicals in sugar. High levels of sulphur are linked to mild to severe problems of the respiratory tract. One might think that the sulphurless sugar variant does score over white sugar, for avoiding sulphur. But does it avoid use of other chemicals or does it retain nutrients present in the whole plant based source (sugarcane in our example)?
Once you view sugar or any of its variant from the lens of natural whole foods vs refined & processed foods, you would know which way to lean.
6. What are the healthier alternatives to sugar?
It is best to consume sugar as it exists naturally, like in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds. It may not be practically feasible to cut down on white sugar completely. However, what we can do is try to minimize our sugar intake and consider shifting to natural or less processed sweeteners such as jaggery, honey and dates.
Disclaimer: The health journeys, blogs, videos and all other content on Wellcure is for educational purposes only and is not to be considered a ‘medical advice’ ‘prescription’ or a ‘cure’ for diseases. Any specific changes by users, in medication, food & lifestyle, must be done under the guidance of licensed health practitioners. The views expressed by the users are their personal views and Wellcure claims no responsibility for them.
Very comprehensive article and good read!
Changing habits is difficult but one can try doing slowly from shifting to jaggery/ honey and dates! If I feel like having or adding some sweet taste, I try substituting sugar honey in salads, dates in smoothies and jaggery in curd or tea as much as possible!