Mad about Science:

Sugar

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Yes, please!

As anyone that has ever tried a sugar-free diet knows, this stuff is everywhere.

Literally everywhere.

Did you know they put it in all white bread? Even some wheat breads. Just about every granola bar, no matter how healthy, has a surprising amount infused into it. Even your favorite fruits are primarily sugar.

So what’s the deal with sugar? Can you escape the stuff?

Nope!1000x550

But fear not, because all sugar is not born equal, and not all of it is bad. It’s actually an extremely important part of organic life, but along with literally everything else: moderation is key.

So what’s the deal with sugar?

Sugars are formed by a collection of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, almost exclusively with the help of organic processes. It comes in a few different forms.

Fructose, as you can imagine, can be found in fruit. Normally, it’s perfectly okay and actually encouraged to consume fructose from fruit, because you’re getting the rest of the vitamins and fiber you need to help digest the fructose in the same bite, and there’s rarely enough of it to directly cause any harmful effects unless you’re plowing through fruit like some kind of crazed orangutan. Fructose is responsible for a recent dietary scare, however: High-fructose corn syrup.

Basically, we’ve specially bred and grown corn to produce large quantities of fructose to sweeten candy and drinks cheaply and efficiently. While people panicked about how detrimental HFCS is for your body, how it can be 16 times more dangerous and addictive than regular sugar, the real problem was just how much of it they could sneak into a single bite.

A gram of cane sugar is exactly the same as a gram of high-fructose corn syrup. But you can fit 33 to 66 grams of high-fructose corn syrup into a can of soda without having a soggy mess.

In case you were wondering how much 33 grams is, it takes 13.2 pennies to match the weight. In a less-condensed form, that’s about two fully fried and basted chicken wings, complete with sauce.

Glucose, sometimes called dextrose or grape sugar, is a byproduct of photosynthesis in plants. When you digest carbohydrates (think potatoes or grain), glucose is released into your bloodstream as a vital part of the digestion process. This is likely one of the reasons that people felt carb-free diets were effective for some time. However, if you’re avoiding potatoes and grain, but still drinking diet soda, you’re ingesting more sugar that’s much less beneficial for your health than if you were eating carbs without the soda.

Nutrition is a tricky balancing act.

Lactose comes from milk. It’s what happens when galactose mixes with glucose, and is used for supercharging the digestion of infants during a pivotal point in their growth. Babies and infants need a lot of energy, because their brains are growing and learning faster than they will at any other point during an animal’s life. In humans, some of you can enjoy milk and cheese freely throughout your lives. For some of us, myself included, we’ve hit a bit of a snag.

In order for humans to be able to digest lactose, our stomachs need to produce a special enzyme called lactase, otherwise our guts don’t know how to handle it and 24 hours of pure misery follows.

This is the user-friendly description of lactose intolerance. Luckily, we can still enjoy small amounts of dairy products with the help of lactase supplements taken with our food. What a time to be alive. As well, there are surrogates to milk such as coconut, almond or rice milk, but we’re skid-outta-luck when it comes to cheese. Nothing beats cheese from the cow.

What causes lactose intolerance? If you find out why my body quit producing lactase, let me know. It differs from person to person, but it happens most frequently to people in their mid-20s, like myself.

Sucrose is another common sugar, found in sugarcane. It is the most widely produced form of sugar in the world, with as much as 175 million tons or more being produced each year. On its own, it has absolutely no nutritional value, but remains an important part of the human diet as it tends to make other food taste better. You’ve seen its crystallized form before: The white stuff sprinkled on top of your donut or poured into the batter for your cookies.

Did you know it’s also highly flammable? Sucrose burns at a relatively low temperature, great for making Croquembouche, bad for massive refineries where dust is flying everywhere. Sugar dust in refineries can pose a significant risk in undeveloped countries, where the largest amount of sugar production happens.

Sugar plays an important part in all of our lives, but studies have shown that it can be detrimental in many ways. It has direct links to tooth decay and diabetes, and appears to be a significant factor in the obesity problem in America. While it’s impossible to avoid sugars entirely, moderation is key. Our bodies need some form of sugar to continue healthy brain and muscular activity; too little and our bodies will start pulling from reserves anywhere it can find it, too much and it will start storing it in excess and slow everything else down in the process.

If your diet is puttering, don’t jump to the next new trend without looking. Check your sugar intake, see what has the most. If you’re not eating grains, potatoes, corn or any starches, but you’re pounding energy and sports drinks to make it through the day, your body is trying to tell you that it needs sugars. It doesn’t know how much, so it sees this sudden drought as a need to store more in the event that you won’t be getting any more sugar from regular sources. Fat is stored as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen: the same three atoms that make up sugar in a much different organization. When you exercise and drink water, your body uses some of the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen from your natural fat reserves to power the cells of your body, and releases the excess waste as CO2. You literally breathe your fat away.

But don’t think that breathing heavily from the couch is going to help you slim up, there is a lot more at play here.

If you are suffering from winter weight that refuses to go away (much as I do every spring, summer, fall and winter.), re-examine your diet, exercise hard enough to get yourself breathing heavily for at least 20 minutes a day and see it start to melt away. Your body will thank you later!

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