The possible link between Sugar, Weight Gain and Obesity

The EU, like so many developed countries, has little to crow about when it comes to obesity statistics. True the Americans have a higher percentage of obese men and women than Europe but some countries like the UK and Germany are not far behind.  Europeans, it would appear, are just as happy to munch their way through sugar at the same rate as Americans.

Indeed, in times of recession many Europeans are opting for energy rich, relatively cheap, processed food rather than real food.  The difference between North Americans and Europeans is that the former eat their sugar in the form of corn syrup (labelled in Europe as isoglucose) the later in the form of sucrose.

Sugar is a carbohydrate. All carbohydrates are made out of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen but are differentiated by their shapes and structures. Another simpler way to look at it is to divide carbohydrates into those that taste sweet and those that do not.  Toss a child, any child, a slice of brown bread during trick or treat and they’ll play a trick on you.  Toss a child, any child, a handful of sweeties and the chances are they’ll bless your house. Both the slice of bread and the sweeties are made up of sugars – but one tastes sweet and pleasing the other not.

Simple Sugars

The simple sugars, (or monosaccharaides) that concern us are glucose and fructose. Fructose, in many ways is a misleading word since it is associated with healthy “fruit”. Interestingly fructose used to be more commonly known as laevulose which may be more appropriate given the nature of this monosaccharide.

When the monosaccharaides glucose and fructose are linked together by a bond to form a whole (one part glucose one part fructose) it is known as sucrose or bog standard table sugar. The sweetness derives from the fructose not from the glucose.

Because of the simple composition of sucrose, enzymes in our body can easily separate the bond linking the glucose and the laevulose/fructose into their constituent parts. For the enzymes this is a simple task that takes less than a nano-second.  Once separated glucose is metabolised differently to fructose with glucose (according to Dr Robert Lustig) being the “energy of life” and fructose being a “chronic toxin”.

The exact way in which glucose and fructose are metabolised is what the current debate centres around. The glycaemic index, as the name suggests measures the rise in glucose in the blood. It has been designed with glucose, not fructose, in mind.   The fact that fructose is not measured by the index should not suggest that fructose is a benign nutrient that can safely be ignored. Quite the reverse, according to Lustig.

Increasing scientific evidence appears to indicate that fructose is the devil that has slipped in under the radar, and is running amok inside the digestive system. Fructose has the same effect on the liver as alcohol with the latter being metabolised by the brain and the former by the liver which explains why there is no outwards sign of intoxication.  For many an adult “The Hangover” is the wake-up call not to consume alcohol in excess at the next party and why no responsible adult would ever give a child a glass of wine. No such thing exists for fructose – other than the slow but certain creep of weight gain. Alcohol is fermented fructose. Isoglucose is non-fermented fructose. Both have the same effect on the liver.

In short, Dr Robert Lustig has put forward a compelling argument that it is the artificial increase in fructose consumption which, more than anything else, is aggravating obesity and metabolic disorder not glucose or gluttony. When you eat fructose, he states unequivocally, you eat fat.

Complex sugars

The more complex sugars  are commonly referred to as starch. Starch is  a soft, white, tasteless powder devoid of fructose so it does not taste sweet, which explains why a child will hex you if you offer them a slice of bread on Halloween and not some candy.

Isoglucose and crystalline fructose

Both of these sweeteners are artificial creations with isoglucose being the result of Japanese lab work in the 1960’s and crystalline fructose having been developed by scientists in the past twenty years. Both isoglucose and crystalline fructose stem from starches, which is why the starch industry – General Mills, Cargill, Galam and Unilver are lobbying hard for them to be recognised as a “healthier” alternative to sucrose.

Starch on its own, to recall, is a tasteless white powder made up of glucose. How then can it be converted into something sweet? The food industry processes the starch into fructose by adding enzymes that convert glucose into fructose.  The various constituent parts of isoglucose vary. The most common, HFCS 55 is 55% fructose, 45% glucose (note the higher proportion of fructose to that of  sucrose which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose).

Crystalline fructose

The industry website describes crystalline fructose as “brilliant white and of very high purity.”  This is confirmed by the codex definition of crystalline fructose as

Purified and crystallised D-fructose with a fructose content of not less than 98.0% m/m, and a glucose content of not more than 0.5% m/m.

With such a high level of purity crystalline fructose it would seem is the real deal for any sugary meal. One can only imagine that crystalline fructose is to the sugar junkie what crystal meth is to the late night techno clubber looking for a quick fix.

Fructose, to recall, is the sweetest substance known to man-kind. Sweeter that honey, sweeter than ordinary table sugar, sweeter even than high fructose corn syrup.  Little wonder then that pure fructose has the same effect on the brain as refined, white cocaine.

A substance as pure as crystalline fructose would never, indeed could never, appear in such purity in nature.  Such perfection, such purity, such artifice could only ever have been contrived by the fair hand of scientific researchers through refinement and chemical processing.

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