Did you know that all sugar is not created equal? Dr. Maryellen Renna, pediatrician, nutrition advocate, and spokesperson for Earth’s Best, shares her thoughts and expertise about sugar—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The past century has brought an onslaught of information on how to stay healthy and live a longer life. Research on regular exercise revealed that it reduces cancer rates and heart disease, so now we have a reason to incorporate exercise time each week. We found out that sleep can improve overall health and increase life expectancy; sun exposure has its benefits but can also cause skin cancer; drinking soda increases the risk of developing diabetes; the pesticides in our foods can affect our health. Etc. Etc. The list of new information is endless and often difficult to track.
Not so long ago, the medical community deemed fats as the culprit to the blossoming overweight population, but as the obesity epidemic continued to soar, a closer look revealed that SUGAR is a real danger. Now, the medical community, along with the media, has essentially vilified sugar as the root of much that ails us. But, pointing a finger at one lone target is not going to solve our problem however we need to clarify the real issues.
It may come as a surprise to learn that every cell in the body relies on ‘sugar’ in order to complete the vast amounts of tasks required to function. Our survival relies on the sugar that occurs naturally in foods that come directly from the earth, like fruits and vegetables. Prehistoric man survived only eating what he could kill or grow, and lived completely off the land. Fortunately, those of us living in the 21st century don’t have to live off the land, but merely take a drive to our local supermarket. This is where the problem begins. With so many food choices, how and where do we begin to figure out what we should eat versus what is not so good for us. When you pick up a packaged food item, the sugar content of the food is displayed on the nutrition label, but what does it really mean? Are all sugars the same? Are they all lumped together? Do they have the same effect on us? Realizing that it is not always feasible to eat only fresh fruits and vegetables, there are few facts you can utilize when strolling down the supermarket lanes.
You should know that there are 6 simple sugars included on the nutrition label under “sugars”. The simple sugars are made up of one or two molecules, while carbohydrates are composed of 3 or more sugars linked together. All of them are found naturally in foods. Sucrose is commonly known as table sugar, lactose is milk sugar, and fructose in mainly found in fruits. When we ingest sucrose—table sugar—our body breaks it down to fructose and glucose. When we ingest lactose—milk sugar—our body breaks it down to glucose and galactose. The end product of all sugar digestion is glucose, which is supplied to every cell in the body to use as an energy source. Excess ingested sugar will be stored in the liver to use at a later time, but once the liver stores are filled, the sugar gets converted to fat, which is one of the biggest problems with too much table sugar ingestion. Fructose is a more difficult sugar to utilize since it must be converted to glucose for cellular use; it cannot be used as an energy source and any excess turns to fat in the liver.
Most foods that contain sugar are fine if eaten in their natural state. When eating pre-packaged foods there should little added sugar. It is the added sugar content in foods and the foods that are in altered states that is causing a problem. Taking a look at one cup of orange juice; there are 22 grams of sugar in one glass. Now take a look at the sugar content of one orange in its natural state and we see approximately 9 grams of sugar. The juiced form supplied more than double the sugar in the same serving size. Looking at the label for milk, we see 12 grams of sugar per cup, but it is all in the form of lactose—natural milk sugar. Lactose is easier to metabolize then pure sucrose or table sugar, which adds the burden of fructose.
Be aware of the addition of high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener as this adds fructose in unnaturally high concentrations. Fruits are the more abundant foods that contain fructose but usually in amounts between 5-10% while high fructose corn syrup contains between 55-65%.
Added sugars can be found in foods under different names, including sucrose, glucose, cane syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, malt syrup and juice concentrates, just to name a few. Check for these ingredients when looking at food labels to help avoid the added sugars. Make sure your child’s diet is rich with vegetables and fruits, and avoid overly processed foods. The closer to nature’s form a food is, the better it is for your child.
Dr. Maryellen Renna graduated from New York University School of Medicine in 1986. She is board certified in pediatrics and also carries a certification as a Physician Nutrition Specialist. She has spent her career in private practice and has devoted her life to the well-being of children. She is a spokesperson for Earth’s Best, and is regularly called upon to appear on television as a medical expert on various pediatric topics. Appearances include The Today Show, Fox N Friends, WPIX morning show, Good Day New York and Long Island Talks. She is an active Fellow of The American Academy of Pediatrics. She has three grown children and continues in private practice in Jericho, New York.