This blog was written by our guest blogger (and my son), Liam Puknys.
By now we all know that sugar is bad for us. Despite the sugar industry’s “a calorie is a calorie” campaign, we’ve caught on. There is a strong scientific consensus that added sugars are causing obesity and other health epidemics. However, not all sugars are created equal, and, the context matters. The fiber in fresh, whole fruit makes its naturally occurring sugars easier to digest and process to the point that eating fruit is healthy, not harmful (note that fiber is often destroyed in processing so go easy on the blender and limit frozen and canned versions). Unfortunately, when you remove that fiber and extract the sugar inside, you are left with fructose, a sugar akin to alcohol.
What do I mean that fructose is akin to alcohol? Sugar and alcohol may seem completely unrelated. However, the alcoholic we drink is derived from fructose, and fructose has a similar effect on your liver to alcohol. On the other hand, glucose, another sugar, is very easy to digest. Your body converts glucose into energy, which it then stores in your cells and puts to use. Glucose is a healthy sugar, and our body requires it to power even the most basic processes.
Fructose, however, is not a healthy sugar. Unlike glucose, which your body can process pretty much anywhere, including in muscles, fructose can only be processed by the liver, just like alcohol. Dr. Robert Lustig, the physician who researched and exposed how your body processes fructose, laid out its effects step by step in the chart below:
Got it? I sure don’t. Fortunately, Dr. Lustig was kind enough to spell it out for those of us without a medical degree in his groundbreaking presentation on fructose and obesity. He shows that the end result of this digestive reaction is that fructose, without fiber, basically goes straight into fat cells, and can poison your liver in the same way alcohol does. On top of that, the liver processes fructose in a way that disrupts the signal to your brain that says “I’m full now.” Because it blocks that signal, your brain thinks that you’re starving while your body is screaming, “I’m full, stop eating!” Since the vast majority of processed food contains very little fiber and a lot of added sugar, and therefore fructose, when you eat processed food, you don’t realize how much you have eaten until much later than you normally should. Because fructose interferes with the process that tells you that you are full, it contributes even more towards body fat than its nutritionals alone would suggest.
The bottom line is that fructose is basically a poison that goes straight into fat. So, how do we protect against it? It’s everywhere; according to Lustig almost 80% of food in the supermarket has added sugar, often disguised behind a plethora of pseudonyms. There are nearly 60 names for sugar in total.
Before I continue, I should mention sucrose. Sucrose is a very common sugar molecule that consists of a fructose molecule connected to a glucose molecule. Once sucrose is in your system it breaks apart into its components, and the fructose half becomes just as damaging as pure fructose. Many sugars, such as cane sugar, which is nearly pure sucrose, contain this substance, so be wary of it as well as fructose.
So, how can you protect yourself against fructose? Do you remember that earlier I mentioned that fruit was safe to eat? It’s not because fruit doesn’t have fructose, in fact, fructose is commonly called fruit sugar. Fruit is safe to eat because it has so much fiber in it. In the words of Dr. Lustig, “When God made the poison, he packaged it with the antidote.” Fiber helps your body process fructose in several ways, chief of which is that is speeds fructose through your digestive tract so that your healthy gut bacteria digest it before you can. So, if you’re going to eat fructose, make sure to have tons of fiber as well. No short cuts though—fiber supplements do not have all the health functions of naturally occurring fiber.
After reading this, you may want to avoid anything that could possibly contain fructose. I’ve called it a poison and pegged the obesity epidemic on it. But according to Lustig, a small amount of added sugar is okay–the general rule of thumb is to keep your sugar consumption under 20 grams daily and otherwise enjoy whole fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth.
ZEGO seed and fruit bars do have some added sweetener, but they also have a lot of fiber to offset its impact. In addition to dates, we sweeten our bars with organic sorghum syrup, which has 34% less fructose than cane sugar and 40% less fructose than high fructose corn syrup. On top of that, sorghum syrup also naturally contains a plethora of micronutrients, such as calcium, zinc, and other essential minerals. ZEGO bars only have about six grams of added sorghum, the rest of their sugar comes from the fruit and seeds in the bars. And, the fruit and seeds contain a LOT of naturally occurring fiber.
In fact, there are four grams of fiber in ZEGO bar of about 165 calories; most other bars have about 2 grams per 200 calories. Our founder and my mother, Colleen Kavanagh, was at the presentation I linked to above (I can actually make out her boisterous laughter in some parts). She quickly adopted Dr. Lustig’s philosophy when she designed ZEGO’s recipes. She put a lot of care into making sure that ZEGO bars have as low a fructose and as high a natural fiber content as possible. And in case you are wondering why she didn’t use 100% dates as sweetener, she did try it. All you could taste was dates; you lost the delicious bright flavor of apple cinnamon and satisfyingly complex flavor of coconut ribbon, for example. Substituting a bit of organic sorghum for some of the dates was the best option for balancing flavor and health.
Fructose above a certain threshold of consumption is dangerous poison that we should all work to avoid. We can avoid its toxicity by eating lots of naturally occurring fiber and keeping our added sugar intake to under 20 grams per day. Luckily, the new nutrition labels will help. Starting as soon as this fall, you will see companies reporting each product’s “added” sugar right on the nutrition panel (smaller companies have longer to change over their labels).
So now that we have the information, it’s time for us to act on it. If you are wondering if lowering your sugar consumption really will impact your weight, you could read a lot of clinical research documenting it or you could check your Facebook feed. I know mine is full of people successfully using new lifetime dietary patterns to take off and keep off weight—the most common trait of these approaches from North Beach to Paleo to Whole 30—is the elimination or dramatic decrease of added sugars and refined (or all) grains. But remember, it’s a lifestyle change, not a diet, because health is for a lifetime, not a two week preparation for a vacation to the beach.
I don’t normally include this in blogs, but I spent so much time researching this specific article that I thought I should share my sources:
Sorghum syrup nutrients: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2012/02/15/sorghum-a-sweetener-with-actual-value/
Dr. Lustig’s works:
High fructose corn syrup and cane sugar fructose content:
A blog summarizing and critiquing Dr. Lustig’s presentation:
Other sites I consulted before writing this blog post: