Throughout human history, sweets have always been eaten, but until recently, have come in more complex forms, such as molasses, honey, and other naturally occurring foods. In earlier times, these foods were hard to find, and usually came with beneficial byproducts-such as vitamins-since they were typically found in fruits or leaves. With the growth of industry and advances in food processing, it became possible to refine sugar and put it on every table…and also in many foods.
Because sugar was so hard to come by, evolution has taught us to get it wherever we can. As such, we are programmed to want it…and now we have it—everywhere. Unfortunately, with the increase in sugar production and distribution, also has come an increase in diseases and illnesses as a direct correlation.
Sugar’s effects are similar to those of many drugs, and can become an addiction. Many times the addiction starts in childhood, as we are offered candy as rewards, and so the mind begins to associate sweets with pleasure and other positive emotions at a very early age.
As it is metabolized, sugar bypasses many parts of the digestive process, and is absorbed directly into the bloodstream, raising the blood sugar level. It also produces a sharp rise in insulin, which is used by cells to absorb the sugar. Not only this, but sugar also causes the brain to release the chemical serotonin, boosting a person’s mood, and causing a mild feeling of happiness. As humans, we have been doubly reinforced to sugar; once by behavior-receiving it as a reward, and second, in the fact that it actually does produce some physical feelings of euphoria. Our bodies know that when they taste the sugar, the rush is coming.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average American eats approximately 43 teaspoons of sugar per day. That’s 140 pounds per year! That’s more than 10X more than is recommended. Is it at all surprising that such illnesses as diabetes, obesity, depression, panic attacks, and mood swings are rising? Is it any surprise that people are fatter than ever before? We set ourselves up for these problems by raising out blood sugar levels many times per day, only to have the bottom fall out and have to repeat the same process again. Just as quickly as the sugar high hits, it passes just as quickly, and we are left feeling tired and wanting another ‘fix.’ A catch-22 to this situation is that even though sugar produces a serotonin boost, too much sugar depletes this chemical, leading to depression. This bears out a vicious cycle in which the body begins wanting more sugar, more serotonin, all the while depleting the serotonin, making the cravings worse.
Many people on diets, or suffering from illnesses like diabetes, choose to use artificial sweeteners in place of sugar, but these also pose health risks. Aspartame, saccharin, and Splenda (sucralose), although approved by the FDA, still pose many dangers. In many places in the world-Japan the best example-a leaf is taking the place of sugar, in the form of stevia. It is a plant that has been in use in many parts of South America for centuries, and poses no health risks. Unfortunately, in the United States, stevia has been blocked from mass production by the sugar industry, and has yet to be accepted by the FDA. It has been approved for use as a food supplement, not as an additive, meaning that it can only be found in specialty stores. Perhaps, once more testing is done, stevia can be accepted as the norm-as it is in Japan, Brazil, and many other countries-and sugar will once again become the hard to find, delicious treat, to be enjoyed on special occasions.