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Sugar: History, use and misuse

Suezette Olaker, M.D.

Suezette Olaker, M.D.

By Suezette Olaker, M.D.

Sugar is known to have been domesticated and used in New Guinea since approximately 8000 BC.

During worldwide travel by the ancients, its cultivation spread to the hot, moist climates of southeast Asia, China and India. It was transported throughout the Muslim world, and later Europe. During the centuries of European colonization, sugar was cultivated in many Caribbean colonies, often using slave labor.

Cultivation was a lengthy, labor intensive process. Initially, the heavy, tough, fibrous sugar cane was chewed to express the juice. With later processing, the juice was extracted — by crushing the heavy sugarcane — and drying it until granules formed. The granules were added to various food and drinks. Cane sugar was extremely expensive, and used sparingly — by the wealthy, in medicinal preparations and some sacred rituals.

Mechanization in the late 18th century increased the efficiency of juice extraction, and decreased drying time, such that sugar became increasingly affordable to the masses and an important economic commodity. Uses expanded from teas to baked goods, confections and so on.

Beet sugar (sucrose) was discovered in 1747, but was not manufactured until much later.

How “sugar” became damaging to health

Processed sugar acts more like a toxic drug of abuse than a food. During the early 20th century, the average American consumed approximately 1/3 less sugar than in recent years. Sugary foods were served as treats — consumed in smaller quantities in fewer foods. Drinks were not laden with sugar.

People ate fresh, not processed food, so sugar was usually associated with dietary fiber. The average person also ate smaller quantities of food. Obesity was the exception. More active lifestyles were associated with better glucose metabolism overall.

Recent economics, government subsidies

In 1977 America, a series of tariffs on sugar decreased availability and raised the cost of sugar in the U.S. Government subsidies on corn created an economic incentive for farmers to grow corn. Corn syrup had been developed in 1957, but processing was not industrialized until approximately the mid-70s.

High fructose corn syrup was 5 – 6 times sweeter than cane sugar, and cheaper. It swept through the market in soft drinks and processed foods. Americans consumed increasingly more sugar as buying and eating habits changed.

Many convenience foods retarded spoilage, made meal preparation faster and simpler, tasted good and were inexpensive. People more dependent on the growing cash economy, could afford more of what they wanted to buy, ate more, snacked more and firmly established sweets as part of that American dream.

The food industry played a part in creating increasingly sweeter taste preferences. In many foods, where fat was decreased, sugar was added.

By the 80s, high fructose corn syrup accounted for almost half of the “sugar” consumed by Americans, and being cheaper, became preferred by the sugar industry in America.

Fructose, glucose or sucrose

Physiologically, fructose has approx. 1/5 the glycemic index of cane sugar (a lower glycemic index means less effect on blood sugar and insulin). However researchers disagree about whether high fructose (as in high fructose corn syrup) is more damaging than other sugars.

Fructose and glucose combine to make sucrose. Fructose is the sugar found in cane, corn, beets, and other plants. Glucose is the body’s preferred fuel, and is vital for life. It must be kept within certain ranges for normal function. Notably, the brain needs twice as much glucose as do other cells.

Excess sugar creates myriad problems in every organ system of the body

Too much sugar contributes to insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, lipid (cholesterol) abnormalities; nervous system abnormalities in the fetus; brain abnormalities (some studies link memory loss, mood changes, depression, slowed learning, and Alzheimer’s dementia); heart disease; numerous cancers; antisocial or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; behaviors in children, and cellular death.

The list seems endless, but the bottom line is excess levels of sugar are toxic to the body, and can cause prolonged periods of chronic disease conditions prior to killing the individual.

Where do sugars hide?

The majority of refined sugar is in processed food. Molasses, maple syrup, sorghum are obvious sugars. Less obvious sources are some peanut butters, crackers, breads and spaghetti sauces. When reading labels, look for ingredients ending in “ose” (ex. – dextrose, maltose) or “ol” (such as mannitol, sorbitol).

American versions of some Asian sauces, frozen foods, low fat foods, light or fat free foods, processed cereals, flavored yogurt, bottled teas and other drinks are other hidden sugar sources.

Are you a sugar addict?

Consider your answers to the following, as seen in Prevention magazine:

– Difficult to refuse or stop eating sweets, and overeat when under stress;

– Intense cravings when trying to cut back;

– Mood elevation right way, with a “crash” or hunger 1-2 hours later;

– Guilt or shame after consumption;

– Eating sugar as a reward, or to avoid unwanted feelings;

– The more you eat, the less satisfying, but the more you “need” it.

How do you counter sugar toxicity?

Educate yourself on sources of sugars. Reduce consumption by avoiding processed foods and sugary drinks, including high quantities of juices. Pay attention to portion size. Read labels. Learn to recognize and avoid hidden sugars. Make fresh fruit your primary source of sugar.

Stick to a well-balanced diet, and avoid stress eating. If you can prevent, you don’t have to cure.

Dr. Suezette Olaker is a Detroit based physician who serves as chairman of the Detroit Food Policy Council. She can be reached at


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