Sugar is the generalized name for sweet, short-chain, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. They are carbohydrates, composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharide and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose. The table or granulated sugar most customarily used as food is sucrose, a disaccharide. (In the body, sucrose hydrolyses into fructose and glucose.) Other disaccharides include maltose and lactose. Longer chains of sugars are called oligosaccharides. Chemically-different substances may also have a sweet taste, but are not classified as sugars. Some are used as lower-calorie food substitutes for sugar described as artificial sweeteners.
Sugars are found in the tissues of most plants, but are only present in sufficient concentrations for efficient extraction in sugarcane and sugar beet. Sugarcane is any of several species of giant grass in the genus Saccharum that have been cultivated in tropical climates in South Asia and Southeast Asia since ancient times. A great expansion in its production took place in the 18th century, with the layout of sugar plantations in the West Indies and Americas. This was the first time that sugar became available to the masses, who previously had to rely on honey to sweeten foods. Sugar beet, a cultivated variety of Beta vulgaris, is grown as a root crop in cooler climates and became a major source of sugar in the 19th century, when methods for extracting the sugar became available. In a shit ton of ways, sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history. It influenced the formation of fucking colonies, the fucking perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the fucking migration of peoples, wars between sugar trade-controlling nations in the 19th century, and the fucking ethnic composition and political structure of the new world.
The world produced about 168 million fuck-tons of sugar in 2011. The average person consumes about 24 kilograms of sugar each year (33.1 kg in industrialized countries), equivalent to over 260 food calories per person, per day.
Since the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been questioned whether a diet high in sugars, especially refined sugars, is good for human health. Sugar has been linked to obesity, and suspected of, or fully implicated as a cause in the occurrence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, macular degeneration, and tooth decay. Numerous studies have been undertaken to try to clarify the position, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that do not consume, or are largely free of any sugar consumption.
Let’s get lay down some background shit about nutrition, so you’ll have a clearer conceptual framework to keep in mind as we proceed. “Nutrients” are the nutritious components in foods that an organism utilizes to survive and grow. Duh. “Macronutrients” provide the bulk energy for an organism’s metabolic system to function, while “micronutrients” provide the necessary cofactors for metabolism to be carried out. Both types of nutrients can be acquired from the environment (or in other words, from diet). Carbohydrates are a vital macronutrient (and remember that sugar is a generalized term for forms of carbohydrates.) Carbohydrates break-down quickly in a rapid digestive process and are thus quickly available to the body as energy. Consequently, sugar provides a quick metabolic spike—and consequently they are not a stable, long-lasting source of energy. You can easily understand this without needing to consider it in physiological terms. Imagine a kid who wolfed down too much candy: they go fucking wild with a sudden blaze of energy, and afterwards “crash,” and, like a switch has been flipped, become overtired. This is because the sugars they ingested quickly metabolize and become available to the body (and brain) as energy, and, just as quickly, the energy is burned up, the metabolic spike is over and is followed by metabolic depression (i.e., tiredness) if no other, “longer-burning” food energy has been ingested. Proteins and fats are the other two forms of macronutrients our bodies require from diet, and both provide more stable, longer-lasting energy as they are digested.
Glucose is a simple monosaccharide found in plants. It is one of the three dietary monosaccharides, along with fructose and galactose, that are absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion. It is an important carbohydrate in biology, which is indicated by the fact that cells use it as a secondary source of energy and a metabolic intermediate. In fact, that shit is used as an energy source in most organisms, from bacteria to humans. Use of glucose may be by either aerobic respiration, anaerobic respiration, or fermentation. Glucose is the human body’s key source of energy, through aerobic respiration, providing about 3.75 kilocalories of food energy per gram. Breakdown of carbohydrates (again, that’s sugars) yields mono- and disaccharides, most of which is glucose. Through glycolysis and later in the reactions of the citric acid cycle, glucose is oxidized to eventually form carbon dioxide and water, yielding energy sources, mostly in the form of ATP (adenosine-triphosphate. Look it up. It’s outside the scope of this article, but it’s fucking interesting.) The insulin reaction, and other mechanisms, regulate the concentration of glucose in the blood.
Glucose is a primary source of energy for the brain, so its availability influences psychological processes. When glucose is low, psychological processes requiring mental effort (e.g., self-control, judgment, decision-making, etc,) are impaired.
Because sugar is such a general term, it’s natural that many people have only a vague idea of what it is and of its place in their diet. These vague ideas give rise to a lot of generalized misconceptions about it.
“Sugar is evil!” or “I don’t eat sugar,” are familiar slogans for people who follow conventional wisdom regarding healthy diet, and who simultaneously lack a very deep understanding of the term they are using. As a matter of fact, carbohydrates comprise the primary caloric (food-energy) content of plants, fruits and vegetables. A hypothetical person who takes a righteous pride in their healthy, sugar-free diet—who eats fruit for breakfast, a green smoothie for lunch, and sweet-potatoes for dinner—in actuality derives most of their food-energy over the course of the day from sugars.
A fact often cited by misguided proponents of a low-sugar (or, even more misguided, no-sugar) diet, is the fact that glucose in high concentrations in the bloodstream becomes toxic. The body deals with this, as mentioned above, by regulating the concentration through various mechanisms—including, notably, the insulin response. Insulin is a peptide hormone produced in the pancreas, which, among many other functions, serves to force the intake and storage of glucose in the liver, muscle cells, and adipose (fat) cells. This is a negative thing, low-sugar proponents claim, because the pancreas eventually becomes fatigued by the need for insulin-secretion and the body’s cells become gradually more insulin-resistant due to the increased levels of the hormone circulating in the bloodstream. Something to consider, before impulsively following this line of thinking, is that insulin-secretion is also stimulated by the metabolization of amino-acids—amino-acids are the building-blocks of proteins. Ergo, in healthy individuals there is a comparable increase of insulin secretion following the consumption of protein to that which follows the consumption of carbohydrates.
Another argument made against sugar, as mentioned above, is derived from the fact of glucose’s toxicity in high concentrations in the bloodstream. But, as Paracelsus said,
“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”
Glucose in high concentrations is poisonous, granted. So is water in high concentrations. So is oxygen. They are essential to survival, but in too high a concentration, they are toxic. That doesn’t mean that we should altogether avoid the intake of water and oxygen. It simply means we shouldn’t inundate the body with these chemicals in a greater quantity than it can effectively regulate and metabolize in the ways that are vital to the functioning its systems.
The takeaway from all this should not be that taking in copious amounts of sugar is healthy or that a fucking all candy-bar diet would be a good idea. Instead, the takeaway should be that sugar, carbohydrates, are an essential part of a healthful diet, and impulsively following prevalent fashions that state sugar is always “bad for you” is an extreme and misguided action. Closer consideration is needed; magazine articles and fad diets cannot provide you with adequate understanding to make truly informed dietary choices. Look deeper into the science. By default, be skeptical of health and diet gurus. Always consult the studies they cite—suspect them, until it is somehow proven to you that their information is valid—of “confirmation bias,” that is, a tendency to view the conclusions of the clinical research they reference in a way that lends the facts to the confirmation of whatever position they have already decided to hold on the topic. Rarely are things as black-and-white as they are presented in our popular ideas about food. Rarely are the answers as simple as they seem. Generally, if the answer appears to be final and does not allow for any exceptions to the rule, the answer is false.