The Myths and Facts About Sugar

Some people have phobias about heights, spiders, and snakes. Some people are afraid of performing onstage, or using a public restroom. Equally pervasive in our society is the fear of sugar. There are people in the world who are deathly afraid of sugar. Some people demonize it, claiming it makes children hyper, makes everyone fat, and generally wreaks havoc on the American population. Is this sugar-hysteria fact or fiction?

I have done considerable research on this topic, curious myself as to the answers to these burning questions and anxieties. I’ve never been particularly afraid of sugar myself, but recently I saw an article in a magazine claiming sugar is so unhealthy, experts are petitioning the government to regulate it like a drug. The article accused sugar of being as damaging as alcohol and drugs, and stated that we should consume as little sugar as possible, ideally none.

It turns out that this is not true at all. Many reliable sources state that sugar is nowhere near as bad for you as many people believe. Here are a list of sugar myths, and the true facts about sugar.

Myth #1) Consuming sugar makes kids hyper.

Actually, this is not true. The American Dietetic Association, as well as the Food and Drug Administration have concluded that sugar does not affect behavior in people of any age. The reason for the myth that sugar causes bad, hyper behavior is probably because kids act this way at birthday parties and other events in which there is a lot of stimulation from excitement and other children. The fact that the kids eat sugary foods at birthday parties has led parents to believe that sugar is responsible for wild behavior.

Myth #2) Eating too much sugar makes you fat.

Well, eating too much of anything can cause weight gain. If you eat 3,500 calories above what your body needs to function, you gain one pound. These calories could be from cupcakes, or from carrot soup. Foods that contain sugar are not higher calorie than low-sugar foods. In fact, sugar contains 4 calories per gram, while fat contains 9 calories per gram. This means that foods which are low in sugar, but still high in fat, are more calories than foods which are low in fat but high in sugar.  Research has shown that overweight people generally eat fats to excess, rather than sugars.

Myth #3) All sugar is equal – and equally unhealthy.

There are different types of sugar in food. Many processed foods are made using refined sugar, which is just white sugar like you’d find on your table. White sugar is not the worst thing in the world, but it doesn’t have as many health benefits as other types of sugar. Brown sugar is also commonly used to sweeten baked goods. It is very similar to white sugar, but has a darker color and richer taste because it contains molasses, which have been stripped out of the white sugar. Brown sugar has marginally more nutrients in it than white sugar due to the molasses in brown sugar. But unless you plan to dump a huge bucketful of sugar on your oatmeal, the amount of those nutrients you will be getting from using brown sugar is trivial. Therefore, it’s really just a matter of which type of sugar tastes better to you.

Myth #4) High fructose corn syrup causes weight gain.

As long as I can remember, I’ve seen propaganda in stores and on t.v. commercials about how unhealthy high fructose corn syrup is. High fructose corn syrup is a cheap sweetener used in many processed foods such as store-bought granola bars and sodas. It is made of liquified corn starch with added acids and enzymes. The reason it has a bad reputation is because many people have spread the rumor that the consumption of foods containing high fructose corn syrup makes the consumer hungrier, so they end up eating even more food because the high fructose corn syrup does not fill them up and leaves them with artificial hunger. I’ve believed this myth for years. However, scientific research has thus far not found any unique connection between high fructose corn syrup and obesity. That isn’t to say that high fructose corn syrup is necessarily good for you; it’s actually no healthier or less healthy than white sugar. There is considerable debate as to whether high fructose corn syrup could be considered “natural” – the FDA has proclaimed it natural, however the process used to make it involves adding enzymes to corn starch that are not naturally there. So I guess the verdict on this issue depends on how you as an individual define “natural.” There are many foods available in stores that boast their absence of high fructose corn syrup; I often buy these products because they do tend to be organic and healthy in general. But I wouldn’t say high fructose corn syrup is the devil in edible form.

Myth #5) Sugar substitutes are a better choice than sugar.

Many people who are on diets or who have diabetes use sugar substitutes instead of real sugar in order to cut calories from their diet. Sugar substitutes can also be found in sugarfree or diet foods. They are highly controversial, and research suggests that many common sugar substitutes are actually dangerous to consume. For example, saccharin has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, though there is no concrete proof that it has the same deadly effect on humans. Another artificial sweetener called aspartame is not even a food: it is entirely composed of chemicals, which break down into formaldehyde and methanol once eaten. That’s the same yucky stuff they use to preserve ancient fish in the Museum of Natural History. I sure wouldn’t want that goop inside of me! Furthermore, aspartame has been linked to diseases such as brain cancer and attention deficit disorder. Sucralose is another common sugar substitute that has been shown to cause health problems, although it is not quite as harmful as aspartame.

On the other hand, some natural alternatives to sugar really are better for you. One example is organic honey. Honey can be used in place of the granulated sugar called for in a sweet recipe, though other ingredients may have to be adjusted to accommadate the texture change between granulated sugar and honey. A reason to choose honey over regular sugar is because honey contains natural antioxidants. Also, some research has shown that the long-term use of honey promotes healthy digestion, a strong immune system, and lower cholesterol levels.

Another well-known natural sugar substitute is stevia. It is a sweetener extracted from an herb. As long as the stevia you are using is pure stevia, with nothing added, it has a glycemic index of zero, meaning it has no effect on blood sugar levels. It is also even sweeter than traditional sugar. Yet another sugar  alternative is agave nectar. It comes from the same plant that provides tequila. It has a very low glycemic index, and so is good for people with diabetes and other health problems that require one to consume low amounts of sugar.


I would also as always like to thank my dietician, Kerri Shwartz, MS, RD, for helping me with this article.


4 responses

  1. I enjoy reading some common sense, for a change.

  2. I’m using something called ‘stevia blend’ in coffee. Do you agree that honey doesn’t taste like sugar? I wouldn’t want honey in coffee.

    1. I wouldn’t want honey in coffee either… especially since I don’t like coffee at all to begin with! 🙂

  3. I forgot to mention, this is an interesting article.

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