Sugar Train Wreck

July 22, 2013 in Diabetes, Foodland, Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Sometimes being a dietitian/nutritionist provides the opportunity for an imaginary movie to appear right before my eyes. The latest experience happened on Wednesday when our daily community newspaper hit the breakfast counter along with National Geographic’s August 2013 issue. My imaginary movie was a train wreck; the following are some details of the wreck.

The image of the train wreck was first triggered by an article headlined on the front page of the local newspaper. At the top were the words in large bold block black letters in a yellow background: “A SWEET RETURN: Hostess brings America’s favorite snack back to shelves.” Yes, I knew that cutting factories, union contracts, foolish delivery methods, and an infusion of new capital saved Hostess; but frankly, I did not know Twinkies were America’s favorite snack. (Note to self: If I ever have an extra bit of time, see if Twinkies are listed in any market research as “America’s favorite snack.”) In a half page color piece that looks like an advertisement (however, no note of advertisement) on the back page of the “Living” section, in even larger block letters than the front page it says, “TRIUMPHANT RETURN: Iconic treat packs store shelves once again.” The reader is then directed to the preceding page. I’m so glad that I flipped the page, so now I will have recipes if I’m ever despondent enough to eat way over-the-top junk food. The recipes include dipping the entire Twinkie in chocolate; adding more sugar, cookies and Cool Whip; deep-frying Twinkies; and let’s not forget Paula Deen’s Twinkie Pie. If you follow my blog, you may wonder if these recipes weren’t enough for the ‘train wreck movie all by themselves.

Next stimulus for my envisioned train wreck movie was our shiny new copy of August 2013 National Geographic’s cover: Sugar: Why We Can’t Resist It. The story is Sugar Love: A Not So Sweet Tale by Rich Cohen. Also, don’t miss the stunning photographs by Robert Clark; yes, that’s what we expect from National Geographic’s photographers and great writers. I especially enjoyed the posed picture with some of the 2000 processed cereals on page 88-89.

The extra nice thing is that I found the text of the article online so if you don’t have access to National Geographic, you can click on the link. Don’t miss this article, which explains in such a few pages the infamous history of processed sugar and what it means to our health.

Cohen starts from the beginning. Anthropologist have found that the beginning for sugar is amazingly about 10,000 years ago on the island of New Guinea, where people gnawed on sugar cane and it spread from there. A remarkable story! I’ve read sugar’s history, but starting from the Caribbean islands – the narrative of slaves and war prisoners and incredibly hard labor; it’s an ugly, difficult account to read.  Columbus brought sugar cane in his second voyage, planted it in present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic – the dawn of big sugar! Of course it spread all over the Caribbean, South America, Hawaii and beyond. Cohen Quotes from Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott – a book that I’ve owned for years and sits on the shelf next to Sweetness and Power by Sidney W. Mintz.

These books tell the price of eating sugar in Europe and eventually America and the world. These books make the hideous history of sugar, the heart-breaking dichotomy that some of the people that most suffer from the use of sugar in present day America are those whose ancestors were brought to this hemisphere in chains to work in sugar plantations. The poor are often frequent consumers of sugar, in part, because processed food is cheaper and convenient, and drinks are loaded with it. In festive times, they eat even more of it -- ice cream cakes, cheesecakes, candy, while the rich travel and enjoy healthier food and costly adventures.

You’ll not want to miss Cohen’s article; he loads it with plenty of facts and then has it graphically illustrated by Clark’s photography. One of the first pieces of information that is photographed is the 22.7 teaspoons a day that the average American eats (77 pounds a year). Ouch! The plight of the train wreck passengers makes me so sad. Some of us are blessedly not eating our share; but unfortunately others are eating more to attain that average of 22.7 teaspoons a day.

Chart on page 85 shows the calories from added sugar from 1970 (333 calories), to 1999 the peak (422 calories) and 2011 (363 calories).  These numbers dwarf the American Heart Association goal of 150 calories for men and 100 for women.  If you’re an American just at the average in sugar consumption, then cutting back from 363 to the American Heart Association’s recommendation can save you 213 to 263 calories a day. If we translate that into what it means in body weight in a year, it ranges from 21.3 pounds to 26.3 pounds; that’s definitely a significant weight loss to affect many peoples health (diabetes risk, heart health and so on). On the same page, Cohen shares a startling graph of the exponential growth of the diabetes epidemic. It’s no coincidence.

There’s a great quote from Robert Lustig, whom we have written about in the past as an important voice on sugar toxicity. In the NatGeo article, he describes how eating lots of sugar beaches you on the couch, zapped of energy. The solution is to stop eating so much sugar. But that’s not so easy; especially if you use many processed foods. Don’t miss the tiny print on page 84-85 showing the large amount of sugar in such processed foods as low fat yogurt, ketchup, soft drinks, Lucky Charms, wheat bread, and bologna). Seeing that 8 of the 22.7 teaspoons of sugar comes from a 12 oz soda, and 6 from the low-fat yogurt with fruit helps a person realize that a big reduction could be attained by cutting out sugary drinks and heavily sweetened products like yogurt disguised as a health food. The overall illustration shows how difficult it is to pull away from sugar; since it is such a prominent a part of so many commonly used processed foods. It’s added to foods that you may not even guess, like soup and marinara sauce, for example. Do you wonder why so much sugar is added to processed foods?  There are many reasons that all boil down to “it makes them more profitable.” Sugar is craved, possibly even addictive, and may enhance flavor and texture, so it increases sales.  It also reduces costs to make a processed product, because it acts as a preservative, extending shelf life, and is just a lot cheaper than nutritious whole foods that might be used instead of the same bulk the sugar provides in the package.

If we desire to sit comfortably in the knowledge that sugar exists naturally in whole foods, the information that Cohen shares may give you pause. He lists a few foods and the amount you’d have to eat to get 22.7 teaspoons of sugar (7 red apples; 454 eggs; 1,135 cups of rice; or 27 ears of corn). He makes it very clear that it’s difficult to get 22.7 teaspoons into your body, if it was not refined into sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

Have you fallen under sugar’s spell? Do you see yourself as a passenger on my nightmare train, heading for an ultimate wreck? My suggestion is to make plans today to cut back in foods that contain sugar. Be careful with cereals (see my blog Twinkies for Breakfast), baked goods, snack and processed foods. Bypass the Twinkie pie, the deep-fried Twinkie and just Twinkies in general; and number one, cut back on the soda pop, which is the number one source of sugar in America. I don’t want anyone to experience the real-life consequences for which my imagined train wreck is just a chilling prophecy with far too much statistical and scientific evidence behind it to dismiss.

Post script: I guess it’s a Twinkie kind of day. My professional list serve has an article published on the same Wednesday, July 17th by Kacey Culliney called: Gluten-free Twinkies: A money-making move? (She is at least up-front on the moneymaking part.) We’re talking insult to train wreck injury. I’m not feeling comforted that those with the delicate GI tracts of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance will find relief in the possibility of the coming product – Gluten-free Twinkies. In addition, to those with Celiac disease, Hostess is considering those consumers who choose gluten-free for perceived health reasons. Hostess to the rescue! Nowadays it is the absence of something deemed bad for some people that matters, more than the host of unhealthy things it does contain. Do not let Hostess induce you to add more fuel to the sugar train you may already be riding.