Pure, white, and toxic?
Tiramisu, chocolate cakes, éclairs, pastries, and cookies filled the glass cabinets of Elysee Bakery, a small French-style café located in Westwood Village. These sweet treats have attracted customers for more than 20 years. Leticia Silva, a Santa Monica College student, is one of the café’s regulars; she visits Elysee at least twice a week. Her usual order is a mocha topped with whipped cream and five sugar cookies. The mocha contains 350 calories and 59 grams of sugar, and each cookie has 140 calories and 10 grams of sugar.
In total, Leticia’s snack has 109 grams of sugar, exceeding the 25 grams of sugar recommended by the American Heart Association.
“The taste of the cookies is worth the extra calories,” Silva says.
However, extra calories are not the only risk of eating sugar; several studies link the sweet substance to diverse degenerative chronic diseases, and consumers often wonder whether sugar can be consumed safely, even in moderation.
According to the studies of Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, sugar is responsible for many of the diet-related diseases and conditions that affect Americans today, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart diseases, and cancer.
Lustig considers sugar a “poison” that is killing people, and that should be considered as toxic as alcohol or cigarettes. Arguments like these may sound extreme, but numerous studies seem to corroborate the dangers of abusing sugar.
A recent study published by the Duke University Medical Center indicates that high consumption of high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener commonly found in sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks, is associated with liver scarring similar to the damage caused by heavy consumption of alcohol. Even though the Food and Drug Administration considers high fructose corn syrup a safe substance, the study highlights how difficult it is for the human liver to process it in high quantities.
Sugar, in all of its forms, is a carbohydrate, and according to Lustig, it is dangerous whether it is extracted from sugar beets, sugar cane, or cornstarch.
According to Yvonne Ortega, a registered dietitian and nutrition instructor at SMC, the only purposes of sugar are to add flavor to food, and to serve as a preservative.
“The human body does not need sugar, because there are no nutrients in sugar,” Ortega says. “We only sweeten things because that is what the palate likes.”
Although sugar contains the same amount of calories per gram as any other carbohydrate, the difference is that sugar calories are empty, according to Ortega.
“They do not provide any nutrients, and they do not produce satiety, so the body always wants more,” Ortega says.
Humans feel the need to eat sugar occasionaly because they have a “sweet tooth,” according to Ortega.
Ortega says that it is necessary to satisfy an occasional desire for desserts, rather than depriving the body.
“Instead of ignoring the need, it’s better to find a healthy replacement, like fruits or yogurt,” Ortega says. “That way, you satisfy the craving, but you don’t go overboard with sugar.”
Ortega also recommends more indulgent ways to curb cravings for sweets.
“Dark chocolate is a wonderful treat to have because it has many antioxidants,” she says. “However, it should be at least 70 percent cacao; the darker the chocolate the better.”
Sugar stimulates the brain to release endorphins, often causing mid-afternoon cravings, according to Ortega.
“Sugar gives us a physical and emotional boost,” says Ortega.
Any type of carbohydrate can also increase levels of the “feel-good hormone” serotonin, according to Ortega.
The food industry is filled with different types of sugar, including agave, maple and corn syrups, as well as white, brown, powdered, and raw sugars. Although some forms are more processed than others, they all have the same effect on the body, according to Ortega.
“Sugar causes a surge in blood glucose levels because there are no vitamins, minerals, fiber, or water accompanying the sugar to prevent that surge,” says Ortega.
For Ortega, the major health risk associated with sugar consumption is the increase of triglyceride levels in the blood, which can lead to heart disease.
“Triglycerides are fat in the blood; the higher the sugar intake, the more triglycerides there will be in the blood,” Ortega says.
But sugar is present in most of the foods that people eat daily. Some foods, such as fruit and milk, contain natural sugars. Other foods contain sugars added during preparation or processing. Although natural sugars are considered more nutritious than added sugars, both types are high in calories.
On average, Americans consume 23 percent of their calories from added sugar, according to Ortega.
“That is a lot of sugar, and most of it is coming from sodas, energy drinks, and sports drinks,” Ortega says. “It is unfortunate that we are drinking our calories, and not even getting nutrients from it.”
Many consumers may choose to reduce their calorie intake by replacing sugar with substitutes.
“Most of them are natural and calorie-free, and they add sweetness to food without adding carbohydrates,” says Ortega.
However, the nutritionist recommends consuming artificial sweeteners sparingly.
“I think they are safe, and the FDA has determined they are safe for us to eat, but some people do experience side effects with them, like headaches or diarrhea,” Ortega says. “Just like whole sugar, people should take sweeteners in small quantities.”
James Conroy, a personal trainer at L.A. Fitness, believes that sugar is an important source of energy. However, he recommends that his clients only eat natural sugars, such as the fructose found in fruit.
“Personally, I don’t keep track of the sugar I eat, but I try to stay away from it— especially processed sugar and artificial sweeteners,” Conroy says. “Sugar is stored in the body and it turns into fat, so I think twice before eating sugar.”
The trainer believes that exercise is the key to staying healthy for those who cannot resist eating sugar.
“As long as you are working to gain muscles and keep your metabolism up, you can eat whatever you want,” Conroy says.
Gloria Lim, president of the nutrition club at SMC, says that she is mindful of eating well because of her family history of diabetes, high blood pressure and stomach cancer.
“I am aware of what I put in my mouth,” Lim says. “I always try to make a conscious decision about the best food option for me.”
When it comes to sugar, Lim says she tries to avoid it whenever possible.
“I don’t drink soda or add sugar or sweeteners to what I eat or drink,” Lim says.
According to Lim, the extra-large portions in the United States are responsible for the excess sugar and lack of moderation in the American diet.
“Avoid sodas; it is one of the fastest ways to reduce calories,” Ortega says. “Avoid the added sugar found in fast food, processed food, juices, and fruit drinks.”
Despite its health implications, many nutritionists agree that sugar can still be enjoyed sparingly.
“If you need to have a sugary snack, eat it, but just a small portion,” Ortega says. “It is not the same to eat a small cup of frozen yogurt as it is to eat a Twinkie.”