By: Charlotte Miller
What comes to mind when you think of sugar? Is it your favorite candy bar? Maybe it is your guilty-pleasure soda or iced coffee order. Whatever it may be, sugar is much more complex than a mere ingredient in your favorite late-night, sweet tooth craving. First and foremost, sugar is a carbohydrate. The white sugar – the main ingredient used when baking desserts like cakes and cookies -is sucrose. To chemists, sucrose is a disaccharide (two monosaccharides) formed by the combination of two sugars (monosaccharides): glucose and fructose.
The sugar that is in most sweets is high fructose corn syrup, which was only created in the past few decades by food corporations to make their products taste better. When the fitness and health industry started to gain popularity throughout the 1980s, people turned away from foods with fats on the ingredient labels. As a result, the food industry adapted to this social shift and made its products “fat-free” or “50% less fat.” This created negative consequences with how the food tasted: the food they were selling simply did not taste good without the fat in it. The question was how were food corporations going to diverge from fat while still making their products taste good? SUGAR. And with that, the sugar industry has been booming ever since. From soda to creamers to salad dressings – so many more products now have sugar in them to enhance flavor. Sugar by itself is not necessarily the issue; added sugar is the real culprit.
“But, fruit has sugar in it!”
This may be true, but the sugar found in fruit (fructose) is present in lower quantities than sodas and candies. It is also bound to the fiber in fruit, so it does not have the same negative effects as fructose does when it is alone, or as an alternative version of sugar like high fructose corn syrup (Bray, 2013).
Take generic apple juice for example. It is simply apple juice, right? Maybe it is if you juice the apples yourself. But most apple juice you buy in grocery stores, and all other fruit juices for that matter, are artificially sweetened, and include loads of added sugar and contain no fiber. This is similar to candy and sodas: they have no fiber, they contain a high quantity of added sugar, and they almost always leave people feeling hungry. The problem with food and beverages that only have fructose, or a form of fructose, is that fructose alone goes straight to the liver and is stored as triglycerides, also known as fat (Sizer & Whitney, 2013). This immediately raises blood sugar and does not promote satiety, hence why people call food like this “empty carbs”.
When fructose is bound to fiber, like in fruit, the fiber allows for a slow rise in blood sugar over an extended period of time, rather than immediately after eating it (Sizer & Whitney, 2013). This promotes the feeling of fullness which can be sustained for much longer.
The Brain & Sugar
To discuss how sugar affects the brain in the most factual yet most digestible way, I need to define some terms for you all. First, the cerebral cortex is a thin layer surrounding the entire brain; it is the site of neural integration, which processes various things including language, attention, perception awareness, memory, and most importantly for this discussion, TASTE. The cerebral cortex processes taste in multiple different areas (Sizer & Whitney, 2013).
Secondly, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has various functions; one includes being a vital part of the brain’s reward system. Dopamine is responsible for the feelings of pleasure and satisfaction (Bray, 2013). Dopamine receptors are not evenly distributed in the cerebral cortex, so dopamine “hotspots” are the main targets for pleasure (Sizer & Whitney, 2013). When sugar is consumed, receptors send signals to the body’s reward system where dopamine is then released, making us feel happy and wanting more. This is the course sugar takes to affect our brain and mood when we are eating it. No wonder brownies are the number one food that makes me smile!
All this information about sugar can seem overwhelming, especially if you have as big of a sweet tooth as I do! I like to remind my readers that my motto is: everything in moderation. If cookies are your favorite food, I am not discouraging that love affair! With that being said, chronic overconsumption of sugar (specifically high fructose corn syrup) is not good for your body. So, remember: everything in moderation! Fortunately, hol3health has many delicious recipes that use healthy ingredients, if you want to try some of your favorite desserts with healthier alternatives (like Remy Raccuia’s Berry Muffins)!
Bray, G. (2013). Potential health risks from beverages containing fructose found in sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Diabetes Care, 36(1), 11–12.
Sizer, F. S., & Whitney, E. N. (2013). Nutrition: concepts & controversies. 13th ed. [Belmont, Calif.]: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.