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Too Sweet on Sugar?

Culturally, sugar is an inseparable part of being American. Sugar can both refer to instant gratification, and slow, sweet success. Sugar is in the candy bar on the shelf or brushed over the ham you’ve spent hours roasting for a special occasion. Sugar is entangled with psychological associations with what is “good” and with what is easy, earned, or elevated. But like the history of America itself, the impact that sugar has on our culture is complicated and far more complex than what immediately might meet the eye. There are the various ways that the availability of processed foods and sugar has negatively impacted the health of Americans, particularly those that are low income and have limited access to fresh produce.


How Much Sugar Are You Supposed to Have?

It’s reported that the average American consumes about 94 grams of sugar each day- a feat that’s not hard to imagine considering sugar is an ingredient in most foods that value convenience and easy gratification. But that’s almost 4 times the amount that a grown woman should be consuming (25 grams) and men should have no more than 34 grams. Children are recommended to have more than 12 grams, which is equivalent to just one can of soda a day. As anyone who has been on any variation of the Atkins-Keto-Low Carb diet will tell you, it’s far easier to find a list of things that DON’T have sugar/carbs/starches in them than it is to enumerate all of the foods that does have them.

When reducing the amount of sugar in a diet, it can be extremely confusing trying to identify and define the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” One particularly prevalent image that is often associated with critiquing of the sugar industry is the image of a cup of soda with a pile of white, refined sugar in a pile next to it. When looking at sugar that occurs naturally in food it is important not to conflate the two- while a cup of strawberries might have 10 grams of sugar, there are also a number of vitamins it can offer to help nourish the body, in addition to dietary fiber- that which can help make the release of sugar slower in the body so that your energy levels don’t go from 0 to 100 (then back to 0 again). Foods that contain very few (or no) other nutritional benefits are known as “simple sugars”- like white + brown sugar, corn syrup, or agave. “Complex Carbohydrates,” as their name suggests, are foods that’s carbohydrates are a mix of sugars, fibers, and starches, meaning the body’s metabolism of these foods are slower and more sustainable.


What’s the Big Deal About Eating Sugar?

Since sugar is naturally present in lots of food, wouldn’t it make sense that there shouldn’t be a need to go out of our way to try and avoid it? The problem is that sugar, even natural sugar, tends to have a higher caloric value, meaning that you could eat a lot less of it and receive the same amount of energy-potential calories. This factor is part of the reason why biologically humans have evolved to crave sugar- thousands of years ago when our food supplies were limited, high sugar foods meant that we would have greater potential to survive. But the availability of sugar in our everyday lives now means that unfortunately, sugar might become a little too available- meaning that those excessive calories are no longer burnt during periods of hard labor or famine, but instead stew inside us sipping a soda sitting in traffic. These excess calories are then converted by the body into fat, which can lead to several health issues, namely heart-related diseases. Even if you do burn enough calories in a day that a sugar dependent diet doesn’t concern you, sugar is also a source of inflammation, which can manifest itself in a number of seemingly arbitrary symptoms such as bloating, sluggishness (after your initial sugar high wears off), and congestion and breakouts of the skin.


Why Not Cut Sugar Out Altogether?

Besides just being a near impossible feat, sugar is an integral part of the flavor experience! The crispy part as you bite into some barbecue chicken, the caramelization on onions, the sweet satisfaction of cake- it offers flavor and also balances heat, acidity, and saltiness. More than that, desserts have likely been equated with rewards for most people when growing up. For some people, comfort foods resemble buttercream topped cupcakes or a stack of oreos, and these cravings have a deeper emotional tie beyond just a physical experience. But the combination of psychological and physiological effects that sugar has can lead to an addictive quality that can start to verge on unhealthiness.

How do you ration your sugar intake? One way could be just stopping and savoring your food. If you are on a low-sugar diet, then when you do crave cake like crazy and it’s your birthday, rather than indulging in calories that leave you unsatisfied consider instead (if you have the self-control) to eat a slice of cake that is actually gratifying. While artificial sweeteners might be a great option for people who need to strictly monitor their glucose for health reasons, artificial sweeteners are far more potent than natural sugars, meaning that over time they can actually alter your body’s ability to gauge sweetness of foods, meaning natural sugars will start to lose some complexity and unsweet foods will just taste… bleh. Instead of trying to cheat by using synthetic sweeteners where you’re used to sugar going, consider getting inventive and creative with different spices and sugar-free seasoning blends.

How many kinds of sugar are out there? Don’t be fooled by labels that try and market bars and snacks as “health foods”- oftentimes these products can be just as high in sugar but operate under the guise of their products being made with more “natural” ingredients. Even if a product is sweetened with agave syrup rather than corn syrup, that doesn’t necessarily make it a healthier alternative- it still contributes an excess number of calories and contains high levels of fructose.

When reading about sugar, it can be confusing understanding the difference between all of the different “-oses.” There’s glucose, fructose, sucrose (not to be confused with sucralose), lactose... If there’s sugar that’s found in a certain kind of food, there’s a special name for it. Glucose is a simple sugar and is the body’s most recognizable fuel source. Glucose is easily absorbed into the bloodstream, and affects insulin levels, meaning it’s the most sugar that diabetics are often most concerned with. Fructose is another monosaccharide (simple sugar) that is absorbed quickly through the bloodstream, but takes a little bit longer to impact insulin the same way that Glucose does, meaning that even if a product is full of fructose, it still could rate relatively low on the Glycemic Index. High fructose corn syrup, a product that appears in an extraordinary amount of products in the average supermarket, is not a pure fructose syrup as its name might suggest. Instead it is actually a combination of approximately 55% fructose to 45% glucose, a ratio that is high only in relationship to natural corn. The science is conflicting on whether or not high fructose corn syrup is actually bad for you or not, but it’s definitely cheap, making its inclusion more often a decision made out of profit rather than health.


So What Do You Do About Sugar?

If you think you’re experiencing some side effects of sugar overload, it might be a good idea to stop, take a step back, and think about the food you’re eating on an average day and places that would be easy to cut back a little bit on. For some people it might be easer to jump into a low sugar lifestyle by abandoning everything cold turkey, but other people might find it easier to take smaller steps and make a slower transition. As we mentioned, sugar is in just about EVERYTHING, either naturally or as an additive, so don’t beat yourself up thinking you’re never going to get to “zero sugar”- Even if you could get to a day where you’re not eating ANY sugar, it’s 1) probably not going to be very sustainable 2) could lead to serious malnourishment issues if you’re depleting yourself of vitamins and finally 3) make your life a whole lot less exciting. When looking for places to cut down your sugar, remember that it’s not just about extending your life- think about the ways the quality of your life could be improved if you feel better and healthier, but don’t become so resentful and bitter about sugar that you no longer can enjoy the sweeter things when it’s time to celebrate.


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