The not-so-sweet side of sugar

The not-so-sweet side of sugar

The question remains, when it comes to the obesity crisis in our country, is sugar really just sugar? A research team at Princeton University says, “No.”

The question remains, when it comes to the obesity crisis in our country, is sugar really just sugar? A research team at Princeton University says, “No.”

by Mary M. Ernsberger — 

Have you seen the commercial for high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that compares it to regular sugar made from cane? It uses actors to represent parents and children so that you are more likely to accept what they are saying. The actor tells you that your body processes all sugars the same way and, therefore, it does not matter which type of sweetener you use.

Let us begin by examining the three types of sweeteners made from corn and the processing each one goes through. In each process, first the corn kernels are removed from the cob, then the cornstarch is removed from the kernels through a process called “wet milling.”

• Corn syrup — Corn syrup is extracted from cornstarch by washing the corn in a solution of sulfur dioxide to separate the hard kernel from the starch-containing inner parts. These inner parts are then heated in a solution of hydrochloric acid for various lengths of time, depending on the desired sweetness. This process was developed in the mid-1800s and was used until 1967, when an enzyme conversion process was commercialized, resulting in the creation of HFCS. Regular corn syrup is still sold under the brand name Karo.

• High-fructose corn syrup — To improve the sweet flavor of corn syrup, three different types of enzymes are added, one after the other, to change the dextrose sugars in the corn syrup first into glucose and then into fructose. Additional glucose is then added to that mixture to finally create HFCS, which is used in many commercially prepared foods and drinks.

• Corn sugar — The Corn Refiners Association has asked the FDA for approval to change their product name from HFCS to corn sugar; but do not be fooled, it is the same product with a new name.

To refine cane into the different types of sugar sold in our grocery stores, the cane plant must go through the following process, according to the Sugar Association.

• Raw cane sugar — The cane is picked from the plant and shipped to the refinery. Upon arrival, it is washed and cut into shreds by large, rotating knives. The shreds are then crushed, which releases the juice from the cane plant into a large tank. The juice, or sucrose, is then bleached with a solution of milk of lime and carbon dioxide, which clarifies the sucrose solution, allowing the fats, gums and waxes to fall to the bottom of the tank. The natural waters are then removed through various stages of vacuuming, which concentrates the sucrose into dark brown syrup. Once the last little bit of water is evaporated, the sucrose crystallizes and is sent through a centrifuge (kind of like the spin cycle on your clothes washer). The result is raw, golden sugar. Raw sugar is 96 percent to 98 percent sucrose.

• White table sugar — The raw cane sugar is covered with a thin layer of molasses, which is the thick, raw syrup that contains sugar, water, plant materials, minerals and other non-sugar ingredients. In the next stage of processing, the sugar is shipped to another plant where the molasses-covered, raw sugar is mixed with a solution of water and sugar to loosen the molasses layer. The solution goes through another spin cycle, is washed, dissolved and filtered to remove any remaining impurities. The remaining golden-colored liquid is finally run through a carbon-based filter to remove the remaining color, resulting in white sugar syrup that is concentrated through evaporation into perfectly sized sugar crystals. The dried crystals are then packaged for commercial sale.

• Beet sugar — Sugar beets contain 16 to 18 percent natural sucrose, so creating a natural sweetener seemed only natural. Beet sugar starts out similar to cane sugar, with the plants being shipped from the field to a single processing plant. There, the beets are washed, sliced and sent through a large tank called a diffuser, which flushes over them to absorb the sugars. The beet pulp left behind is turned into animal feed, and the water/juice mixture is filtered, leaving behind a golden-brown juice. The clarified juice is boiled in a vacuum tank to concentrate the juice into syrup. After a second filtration, the syrup is boiled again and sent through a similar spinning process that results in its crystallization. The crystals are washed in clean hot water, the result being a pure, white sugar product. Once dry, it is packaged and shipped to various stores or food-processing plants.

The question remains, when it comes to the obesity crisis in our country, is sugar really just sugar? A research team at Princeton University says, “No.” During experiments in which rats were fed both HFCS and table sugar as part of an equal, overall caloric-intake program, the rats with access to the HFCS gained significantly more weight than those that ate table sugar. As the experiments continued, the lab animals that consumed the HFCS on a long-term basis also showed abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdominal area, as well as a rise in the triglyceride levels in their blood.

Further research seems to indicate that the liver processes fructose by converting it directly into fat and transporting it to fat tissues. Over time, the fat tissues appear to be attaching themselves directly to the liver, causing a disease known as fatty liver.

It is worth mentioning that as of 2012, 88 percent of corn and 74 percent of sugar beets grown in the United States are grown from genetically modified seed. If those numbers scare you, or the processes these plants have to go through before they end up on your table or in the food products you are serving your family, you might try some of the following natural sweeteners. As a substitute for 1 cup of processed white sugar, try:

• Agave Nectar (raw, dark or light), 1/4 cup — It has similar sugar content to honey, but the glycemic index, or the rate at which the blood glucose level rises after eating a ceertain food, is much lower.

• Honey (raw), 7/8 cup — It has a higher nutritional value, enzymes and is a natural antibiotic. You may need to reduce the liquid level in your recipe by a few tablespoons.

• Maple syrup, 3/4 cup — Make sure you purchase 100 percent real syrup. It is a bit pricier then artificial syrup, but the health benefits are worth it. Maple syrup is good for the nervous system and is a good source of minerals that support the body’s processes. When baking, you may need to reduce the amount of liquid slightly.

• Stevia leaf, 1 teaspoon — Yes, you read that right. Stevia leaf is 300 times sweeter than sugar, so using it in recipes becomes a real challenge. Try using it in the dishes you prepare that require additional sugar once they are ready to serve. Note, however, that the leaf can leave behind a bitter aftertaste, which not everyone likes.

So now you know: Sugar is not sugar. And now you can make informed choices for a sweeter, healthier life.


Mary M. Ernsberger, M.Ed., is a certified herbalist and author of Un-Broken Children: Unlocking the Hidden Genius Within Naturally. She specializes in working with young people who have been diagnosed with mental, emotional, behavioral and learning disorders. 360-525-8533 or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 34, Number 2, April/May 2015.

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