I had a friend ask me this question the other day, and the only answer I knew off the top of my head was that white sugar causes a sharp spike in blood sugar levels, followed by a crash.
That was it. The full extent of my knowledge about white sugar. I've been really enjoying less refined sweeteners as a sort of side effect of going plant-based. Lots of the recipes call for sweeteners that are less refined and more healthful. And I've been feeling loads better, but I wanted to know why. So I dove down the rabbit hole of refined white sugar, and here is what I found.
Sugar causes inflammation | Inflammation causes disease
There's no disagreement among medical professionals on this. A systematic review from 2018 reported that several studies have linked consuming more dietary sugar — especially from sugary drinks — with chronic inflammation. People with higher sugar diets have more inflammatory markers in their blood, including a marker called C-reactive protein. – Medical News Today
You can find agreement on this everywhere. Refined white sugar causes inflammation.
What's so bad about inflammation?
Inflammation is the fast-track to:
In fact, when we reduce refined sugar in our diets, the markers in our blood from inflammation and the risk for all those other issues decrease dramatically.
Diets high in refined sugar also lead to:
high blood pressure
fatty liver disease
and are a suspected contributor to Alzheimers.
Cane sugar is often bleached and filtered with cow bones
They call it bone-char, and it's used by some, not all, US sugar refineries. There's currently no labeling required for this. Beet-derived sugar is not bleached in this way.
To manufacture table sugar from sugarcane, sugarcane stalks are crushed to separate the juice from the pulp. The juice is processed and heated to crystalize, and is then filtered and bleached with bone char, which results in sugar's pristine white color. ... In the U.S., sugar companies use bone char derived from cows for this filtering and bleaching process. To make bone char, animal bones are heated at incredibly high temperatures and are reduced to carbon before being used in a refinery. Huffington Post | Your Sugar Might Be Made with Animal Bones. Sorry, Vegans
Yeah. So, that.
Sugar plantations are destroying the environment
The US Florida Everglades' health is being compromised by the sugar plantations that surround it. There is no other place like the Everglades. It's a unique tropical wetland.
Most of Brazil's Atlantic Forest (a rain forest) has been clearcut to make room for sugar plantations.
Runoff from plantations along the Australian coast is poisoning the water around the Great Barrier Reef.
Sugar cane plantations tale up 60 million acres of our world
It takes 2000 to 4000 gallons of water to grow enough cane for a single pound of refined white sugar.
Sugar fueled the slave trade
I think when we put things into our bodies, we are not just devouring the fruit or nut or seed, but also absorbing the energy of what we eat. And foods' energy is made up of its experience, and that includes everything from origin story to how it wound up on my plate. Sugar carries an energy with it that I'd just as soon not make a part of my own.
How much refined sugar is too much?
The American Heart Association says the typical American diet contains 28 teaspoons of added sugar per day, and that it's too much. It's hard to say how much is not too much, because there is no daily requirement for refined sugar. Any amount is unnecessary. The Institute of Medicine, which sets Recommended Dietary Allowances, or RDAs, has not issued a formal RDA on sugar for that very reason.
But the American Heart Association decided on 9 teaspoons, or about 36 grams a day as the safe amount. That's about the amount in a 12 oz soft drink.
Both Coca Cola and Pepsico are major AHA donors.
What counts as refined or added sugar?
Brown sugar, white sugar, and corn syrup are the worst. On ingredient lists, look for words ending in "ose" like lactose (from cows' milk) fructose, sucrose, etc.
Less refined, natural sugar substitutes
The sugar substitutes listed below also count as added sugars. But they fall far lower glycemic index, and so are absorbed more slowly by the body. They don't hit the bloodstream like cocaine, the way the refined sugars do, and that hit and subsequent crash are what cause the chain reaction of health crises. However, for optimal health, I use them in moderation and buy organic and local.
Maple syrup (We have trees in the family.)
Ethically sourced honey (We have bees in the family.)
Very ripe bananas
Florida Crystals (Organic, raw cane sugar crystals farmed sustainably.)
What about stevia?
You get the same harmful effects from 0 calorie sweeteners as you do from refined sugar. Maybe worse. When our tongues taste sweetness, that sends an instant signal to the brain to prepare for sugar. The brain then triggers the pancreas to release insulin, which causes the existing blood sugar to drop with no new incoming glucose to replace it. The sudden drop in blood sugar, hypoglycemia, causes the glands to dispatch the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to see if they can harvest some glucose from our liver and/or muscle tissue to make up the loss.
Fake sugars trigger our bodies to digest themselves. Now, I'm no doctor, but that just doesn't seem good to me.
Going off refined sugar can be gradual and easy
Switching to a plant-based diet has been a sweet adventure for my hubs and I, where we go at our own pace and adjust as we go along. It's also an adventure. Our theme is not about perfection, because there's no such thing. We are not about restriction. We are about decadence. We love delicious food. We understand that our food choices are according to what feels better to us, and that's a moving target. We're learning as we go, and everything we learn inspires a new preference.
When we stopped buying most processed foods, a lot of sugar went away automatically, so that's a major first step.
I did not give up white sugar when I went plant-based. My entire focus was on getting off animal products. For me, that was plenty for the first two months.
As far as sugar, though the documentary that changed our lives, Forks Over Knives, recommended cutting it, I really wasn't all that concerned. I figured I would use up what was left in the bag while giving alternatives a try to see if that route was worth pursuing.
But our newly open-minded grocery shopping was scoring us all sorts of other sweetening ideas, and we were experimenting with all these recipes that called for those alternative sweeteners. Within a few weeks I realized that "what was left in the bag" of white sugar had not changed by a single granule, so I tossed it. (I couldn't donate an open bag.) It just sort of happened naturally.
I'm baking more than ever before
While my stated approach on added sugars and oils is to use them sparingly, I have a sweet tooth and a philosophy of bliss-following to consider, too. Since going plant-based, I've made muffins, cookies, breads, brownies, and a carrot cake with frosting, to name a few. Did I mention it's only been 8 weeks?
I've seen a rash of vegan chocolatiers flooding my newsfeeds lately. Panda Chocolates are my current faves but there are a dozen others. You can just do a Google search to find as many varieties as you can shake a stick at.
To sum it up, sugar
I'm glad I kind of naturally evolved away from using white sugar, and now that I've learned so much more about it, I'll be more aware of what kind and how much sweetener I'm putting into my body. But I find it interesting, and in keeping with my overall approach to life, that I didn't intend to give up sugar. I just found a whole bunch of substitutes that felt better to me and sugar fell away as a consequence.
That's the key to everything, really. Follow what feels better. We're always improving, growing, changing, evolving.
I vow, however, that I will never evolve beyond my love of sweets. Fortunately, there is absolutely no reason I should have to.