“I quit eating sugar last April. Aside from a modest slip on Halloween, I haven’t had any “overt” sugar since then. It’s been an interesting experience.
In an increasingly industrialized food supply, sugar is the perfect industrial food. It’s moderately addictive or habit-forming, in that heavy consumption triggers cravings; it has a high perceived value despite being easy and cheap to produce (astonishingly, more than half of the huge corn crop in the U.S. now goes to the manufacture of high-fructose corn sweetener); it can be used to “enhance” a wide variety of foods as an additive; it’s easy to transport and store because it doesn’t spoil; and most people are genetically predisposed to find it appealing, even when they’re not aware that they’re eating it.
The reason I quit eating it is that I have a horrible sweet tooth, and was eating way, way too much of it. Large amounts of sweets were a regular part of my diet. I was so bad that I started realizing that many of the “foods” I ate were essentially “sugar delivery vehicles”—they either had sugar in them or needed sugar put on them. I suffered excessively from the “insulin spiking” syndrome that is now well-known in nutritional circles and well documented in recent diet books: eating so much sugar made me feel bad.
If you eat a lot of sugar, not eating it stimulates mild withdrawal symptoms—principally cravings. Sugar cravings are weird in that they can make you cravenon-sugared foods as well as sugary ones. Sugar cravings can make you anxious to eat more even when you’re painfully full. The good news is that sugar is not really technically addictive, and the cravings subside quickly. The first three days are hard, but by the time two weeks have gone past, you won’t crave it much at all any more. Especially if you’re consciously aware of how bad it makes you feel when you do consume it.
In most diets, there are, in practical terms, two kinds of sugar, known as “overt” (obvious) and “covert” (hidden). Overt sugar is, well, sugar and sugary things—candy, desserts, pastries, cakes, puddings, doughnuts, milkshakes, sodas—anything deliberately made to be sugary and sweet.
Covert sugar—now largely in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, fructose being the worst kind of sugar for you to eat in anything but fruit—is a good deal more insidious. Say you want to prepare and eat a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. Americans, at least, don’t consider a PB&J sandwich to be a sweet or a dessert—it’s food. It might be considered part of a normal meal—usually lunch. Especially for kids. Yet chances are good that unless you take deliberate steps to avoid it, all three ingredients in your sandwich are heavily laden with sugar.
Jelly’s the most obvious source. Most jelly or jam that comes in jars starts with fruit that contains sugar naturally, but sugar is an essential added ingredient in traditional jelly-making, and some commerical jellies are spiked with even more. What many people don’t realize is that most commercial peanut butters are also loaded with sugar. It’s possible to buy “natural” peanut butters in many stores now (some of which still add sugar), but the worst peanut butters are virtually sugar paste.
And then there’s bread. At our Farmer’s Market a couple of years ago, I bought a loaf of homemade bread from two Mennonite girls at their family’s stand. The girls looked unhappy to be there, as if the riverside market in our pleasant little town were the very heart of Babylon. Neither of them responded at all my my attempts at banter. Their bread turned out to be similarly stern and severe. I had been expecting an orgy of wholesome goodness, but the bread was bland and tasteless. The reason? No sugar. There were only four ingredients listed: flour, water, yeast, and salt.
If you buy bread in packages, chances are very good it contains sugar. The worst ones have the equivalent of more than a quarter of a teaspoon of sugar in every slice. And just try buying bread with no sugar in it. You might live in a “progressive” community with more options than we have here in the hidebound Midwest, but in most ordinary supermarkets, good luck. My supermarket has a whole wall full of breads, dozens of different brands and literally more than a hundred varieties. And not a single one with no sugar.
Most commercial breads, it seems, are “part cake.” The Mennonite girls disapprove.
Thanks to covert sugars, that ordinary peanut butter and jelly sandwich is really halfway between a food and a dessert. It can have as much as two tablespoons of sugar in it. Our ancestors before the era of industrial food would have considered that dizzyingly sweet.
Many foods are deliberately marketed to try to make you feel better about them, even though they’re bad for you. Yogurt, for example, is widely believed to be a health food. Not so if you’re avoiding sugars. Those little containers of yogurt you buy at the supermarket are loaded with huge amounts of sugar. Eating one is really very much like eating a similar-sized container of pudding. Even for people who are not trying to avoid sugar, a yogurt should be considered a dessert.
Many heavily sugared foods get away with it because in their pure forms they don’t have any sugar. Brewed black coffee contains no sugar, but many of the concoctions you buy at Starbucks—even before you dump yet more sugar into them—are more heavily loaded with sugar than ice cream. I’m not joking—that’s true.
Sugar, it turns out, is everywhere. The challenge in the supermarket is not in finding it hiding in unexpected places, but in finding anything without it. If peanut butter is a sugar paste, then ketchup is a sugar sauce: the typical ingredients in ketchup are tomato paste, vinegar, and sugar. (Vinegar and sugar go into sushi rice, too). Barbeque sauce is not quite like slathering your chicken in chocolate syrup, but it’s not that far off, either. TV dinners (in fact, most food that comes in boxes and has a name), canned soups—all are garnished with a little (or a lot) of sugar before you even open them. The general exception seems to be foods that are either plain ingredients, or else mainly fat, such as cheese and mayonnaise….”