25 May 2010

The Science Behind Sweet

Enter: The Villain

So, recent history would paint sugar as the big-bad ugly of our times. Carbohydrates are the enemy, not fat! Well, that's what they say. I, however, would tend to disagree. I think Dr. Atkins was a quack (sorry, that's just how I feel). Seriously, anybody that tells me I should cut out all carbohydrates (and advises against eating fruit) is a quack in my book. Just like most other natural nutrients, carbohydrates have a time and place where they are appropriate.

Luckily, most of the world has caught on, and realized carbs are not the enemy. Just like with fats, we've discovered that it's the refining and isolation of specific compounds that causes the most problems (trans-fats, anyone?). What has me baffled, though, is sweeteners. In all honesty, the concept of sweetening is entirely man-made. So how do we determine what's "good" or "bad" in this case?


Types of Sugar

Sugars come in 4 different forms: monosaccharides (like fructose, the sugar found in fruits), disaccharides (like sucrose, or table sugar), polysaccharides (stored sugars - starches, how plants store sugar, and glycogen, which is how animals store sugar), and oligosaccharides (which is composed of multiple monosaccharides... I'm not really too informed about these honestly). Our bodies need to break down sugars into their most basic parts in order to use them for energy, or store them for later use.

Monosaccharides are the simplest, and therefore the quickest, to break down. They are much sweeter than polysaccharides; this is why high-fructose corn-syrup is so widely used in the food industry - it's cheap to produce, and you need less of it to accomplish the same sweetness as regular table sugar. Unfortunately, its simplicity makes it lightning fast in terms of breakdown, meaning it absorbs into our bloodstream incredibly quickly.

A Natural Balance

Stripping a natural food of its major constituents to isolate a particular aspect of the food (such as fructose) has generally been found to be a bad idea. I think we can all agree that fruit is good, yes? But it's loaded with fructose! Isn't that bad?

Like I keep saying, nature is one smart cookie. Fructose is not the only carb in a fruit. They tend to contain a good deal of fiber as well. When the fruit reaches the intestines, some interesting things happen: the soluble fiber dissolves, creating a gel, and the insoluble fiber just kind of sticks around adding bulk. This gelatinous goo prevents your intestines from absorbing the simple sugars rapidly. Take out the fiber, and the fructose is processed like lightning. Your blood sugar spikes, increasing the insulin in your bloodstream, which tells your body to store energy.

Personal Musings:

Now here's the thing; we know refining flour takes out the best parts of it: the germ and fiber and all that good stuff. We know, then, it's better to choose whole wheat flour. That's the healthy option, because then you get your fiber, and vitamins and minerals that are lacking in the isolated product of refined white flour.

Refining fats can produce trans-fat, which our bodies can't handle. We know it's best to choose natural, unrefined fats. That's the healthy option, because then you get the essential fatty acids that refined fats are lacking.
But sweeteners... that's a different story. The concept of sweetening is completely man-made. Think about it. In nature, you eat something sweet, or not sweet. It's naturally balanced so your body can handle it.  We evolved to consume these very complex food items. Besides sticking to foods that are naturally sweet, like fruits, there is no "healthy" option. So how do you choose the "best" option for something that is inherently unnatural? Should we just give up sweets altogether?? Because I don't think I can live in a world without cake...

Here's my theory:
Eat Smart

Do the best you can to choose sweets with high-fiber contents. This doesn't mean you have to eat cardboard! I was discussing this concept with the hubs, and he said "So then what if you balance the sweetness in a baked good with fiber? Like, carrot cake. Or oatmeal cookies. Would that work?" I'm not a scientist, but I can't see why not.

Everything in Moderation

Just remember that any kind of sweet needs to be consumed in moderation. Even though the concept of man-made non-fruit sweets is inherently "unnatural" if you think about it, I don't think it's necessarily dangerous. We've been baking for a few thousand years at this point, I think we're ok. It's excess that causes problems. Look at something as simple (and natural) as sunlight. We need sunlight to survive (not just environmentally, but physically as well), but in moderation; too much sun, and you can be burned, or even get cancer.

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