Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Our big bad

Hooked on sugar and we don't even know it



In those rare moments when you really get real, you figure you don't just want that can of pop or that chunk of chocolate — you actually need it? You're not the only one.

Almost a decade ago, the U.K. set out to get people healthier and save lives by limiting salt intake. Results poured in, just like iodized salt in the rain. But when it came to sugar the story went sideways.

On the salt side, several strategies were used — front-of-package labelling; public education programs on why salt is bad for you; and working with the processed food industry to get salt out of their products (three quarters of sodium in the average U.K. diet is in ready-made food products, not salt added at the table or in cooking).

Salt intake dropped by some 15 per cent, about half the intended goal, but enough to save about 17,000 lives from things like stroke and heart disease due to high blood pressure. The results were enough to carry on the program in hopes of reaching the original goal of a one-third reduction.

On the sugar side, though, it was a flip tale. People would not tolerate even a teensy reduction in the amount of sugar they ate or drank. Whatever it was they were tasting, respondents reported that it just wasn't good. But, really, they were probably noticing that they didn't feel as good

It seems we humans are addicted to our sugar. Check the label on the next container of orange juice, fresh or otherwise, you pick up at the store. I bet you a bag of fresh oranges it's pulp free. Why? The natural fruit sugar hit hits your brain reward centre harder and faster without the "burden" of fibre from the pulp.

Natural fruit juices have all those wicked fruit drinks with added sugars and glucose to compete with, and tasting panels have told manufacturers they prefer pulp-free juices loud and clear. Some people say they don't like the mouthfeel of pulp, or that it sticks to their teeth or some such ridiculousness. But what they really don't like is how it interferes with their private little sugar high.

Despite the mounting scientific evidence that sugar is downright rotten for us, we just can't resist it. One of the latest studies by the World Health Organization fingers sugar along with tobacco and alcohol abuse as pushing cancer cases up by a whopping 70 per cent over the next 20 years.

The increasing cancers striking low- and middle-income people will be caused by increasing infections, like HPV, and by increasingly affluent lifestyles and the incumbent increase in bad diets that include more processed foods with more fats, salt — and sugar. WHO is even recommending a tax on sugared drinks.

So, as First Lady Michele Obama unveils the new labelling guidelines in the U.S. for food products that will more realistically help consumers make healthier choices, like less sugar, it's even more helpful if we all finally sign on to just how addictive sugar is. My hubby would like that. He laughs when people tell them how they're going to lose weight and get healthy by cutting back all this fat they eat. "What about the sugar?" he says.

Recently, Robert Lustig came out with an article in The Atlantic with an eye-catching headline that's been making even more headlines — The Sugar-Addiction Taboo. See? You aren't the only one who has a closet addiction to sugar.

In it, Lustig cites Nora Volkow, director of the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse, who came out swinging last year against obesity in America, declaring food addictions are every bit as real as drug addictions. It all has to do with the neurotransmitter dopamine, and our bodies' abilities to perceive pleasure as well as signal properly that we are full — or not. She pointed out that only 20 per cent of people exposed to highly addictive drugs like heroin or cocaine get hooked, while 34 per cent of Americans are obese — or hooked on food.

Of course we don't need drugs to live, at least the kinds we humans get addicted to, but we do need food. The question is what kinds of food? Nutritious ones, yes, but Lustig argues, do we really need sugar?

Sugar is composed of two molecules. One is glucose, which we do need, but if we don't eat it, our livers will produce it. The other molecule is fructose, which we don't need. In fact, says Lustig, the rare few who suffer a disease called hereditary fructose intolerance and so can't ingest any kind of fructose, pulp-free OJ or no, are among the healthiest people on the planet.

A recent student/faculty research study at Connecticut College in the U.S. found that rats prefer Oreo cookies to cocaine. Oreos were chosen because they're America's favourite cookie (hey, we like them, too!). And guess what? The rats opened the cookies and ate the icing first, just like we do.

Jamie Honohan, the research student interested in the experiment, was curious how high-fat and high-sugar foods in low-income neighborhoods contributed to the obesity epidemic. The study showed that eating cookies activated more neurons in the brain's "pleasure center" than did drugs of abuse. And while the study was preliminary, it "... supports the theory that high-fat, high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do," said Joseph Schroeer, the associate professor of psychology and director of the behavioral neuroscience program at the college.

Another recent study at Oregon Health Sciences University focused on subjects fed a milkshake while lying in an MRI scanner. Fat and sugar levels were dialed up and down. Fat levels stimulated responses in the somatosensory cortex — the mouthfeel centre. But only sugar stimulated the reward centre.

Now it's up to you. Like that fresh OJ, even with the pulp in? Limit how much you drink. Remember those little four-ounce juice glasses our grandparents used? Those were around for a reason.

And to be fair to Britain, a new sugar reduction campaign is now underway. The goal is similar to the National Health Service's salt campaign — a one-third reduction in consumption. See if you can beat it.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who knows when she's hooked on sugar.

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