Thursday, March 12, 2015

Calorie is not a calorie! How can that be?

It is universally admitted that too much sugar consumption can be harmful to health, especially in the long term but today's obsession with sugar gives a new twist to the controversy with people taking extreme positions to justify their views, without giving a chance to moderates for stating a balanced view. It is a famous idiom that "consumption of any thing in excess can become a poison, even if it is an elixir" and it applies to all foods, whether sugar rich, protein rich, carbohydrate rich or salt rich. Giving a new twist to the sugar controversy, in a recent publication an expert food professional has propounded a theory that "calorie in not a calorie" to highlight his view that calories derived from different foods can have varying effects on human body and cannot be expected to be equal in its impact on body. Can it be true? Let us examine.

According to this pundit, certain calories cause disease more than others. "Eat less, exercise more.' has been the gospel truth for reducing weight during the last 3-4 decades. Recall the history of American citizen's journey through the times during the last forty years and it does not require a brilliant brain to see that the policy makers have been consistently barking at the wrong tree attempting to improve the health of the citizens. First there was this euphoria about their supposed discovery that too much fat contributes to undesirable weight gain and distortion of the body. The industry willingly got into this band wagon turning out hundreds of products with low fat or no fat and interestingly the consumers trusted that these foods are good for their health. Imagine trillions of dollars raked in by the industry during the last 30-40 years exploiting the under current of fear among the consumers regarding the danger of becoming too fat! Then carbohydrate became the villain of peace and the industry grabbed this opportunity to promote low carb foods which were supposed to prevent weight gain. But no one bothered to check whether all carbohydrates are equally bad.

It is now that many pundits are opening their eyes and there is almost a near unanimity that natural foods as they are, cannot do any harm if consumed in moderate quantities. If any single player is to be blamed for to day's unenviable health situation mankind has boxed itself in, it is the food processing industry which for its own reasons created unhealthy foods through more and refining techniques, losing in the process vital nutrient components like dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and many health protecting phytochemicals. In creating such a "Frankenstein", no doubt the food scientists, technologists and engineers aided the industry in developing processes and machinery that literally 'kill" the food and make it almost "toxic", to say the least! Testing the food for its nutritional value and health credentials cannot be done in isolated laboratories and values like PER, Digestibility, BV, etc can be only a rough guide for understanding the general characteristics of a food. These values for the same food can vary enormously among individuals and such variations according to ethnicity, region, environment, genetic history and many other variables can make significant difference in assessing foods and their health value. 

Coming back to sugar, the view that calorie derived by the body from white sugar is much more dangerous than that obtained from complex carbohydrates through its metabolic system, has some rationale behind it. The terrible obesity epidemic that confronts the US is not abating inspite of cutting down on fat, increasing exercise regimen and other recommended methods and in fact obesity rate seems to be increasing unabated. How an one explain a new born baby coming out as an obese one though it had neither the access to the so called bad foods or wherewithal to exercise while in its mother's womb? Naturally it pays for the sins of its mother who is obese herself! One of the most startling discoveries in recent years has been that sugar is an addictive substance and the human brain considers it as an addictive creating more and more cravings for the same like tobacco and alcohol products. Consumption of sugar products thus creates a vicious cycle of more and more eating whether the body needs it or not leading to uncontrolled weight gain.

The industry sensing an opportunity to rake in more money, knowingly or unknowingly, strains every nerve to develop more and more products containing more and more sugar and as the organoleptic qualities of these products are such that it is humanly impossible to resist consuming them as frequently as possible. For the last few years policy makers in many countries have realized the dangers of sugar, especially the added ones by the manufacturers, and have been advising the industry to cut down on added sugar to protect the health of the consumer. Unfortunately the action taken by the industry cannot be termed as responsible with many of its members continuing to indulge in sweetening their products excessively under the excuse that reducing sugar would affect the eating quality of these foods and of course their business too!. They use camouflaged terms like cane juice concentrate, brown rice syrup, fruit puree, corn syrup, high fructose syrup and many others to mislead the consumers about the presence of sugar in their products. Voluntary action can be effective only when all manufacturers collectively agree for a certain line of action which is not happening now. Probably mandatory restraint may have to be put in place to arrest this dangerous trend at national as well as international levels.

According to American Heart Association recommendations maximum levels of added sugar should not be above 24 g or 6 teaspoons per day for a woman, 36 g or 9 teaspoons a day for a man, 20-32 g or 6-8 teaspoons a day for children of 9 years and older and 12 g or 3 teaspoons for children between ages 4 and 8 years. If this is accepted imagine how much sugar is consumed through processed foods which are available in the market from a single serving?. For example yogurt is one of the most nutritious foods having very high probiotic properties and young children can considerably boost their immunity functions by consuming 1-2 cups of the same daily. But what did the industry do to this healthy product? Sugar, flavor and a host adjuncts have been added to create texture, color and texture of the product with the result that a single serving will supply about 7-15 g of sugar to a kid of 5 years old that is almost the entire day's recommended maximum! This kid will be ingesting more sugar through out the day when other food products like chocolates, biscuits, soft drinks, ice creams, pastry products etc and it is no wonder that such kids are right candidates for recruitment to the "obesity brigade" before reaching adulthood!   

Sugar's impact on the body is by now well recognized. It is known to alter the body's hormones and stimulate the need to consume more food. As with some recreational drugs, sugar spikes dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain's reward and pleasure centers and more demand is made, unconsciously, by the body to have more sugar with satiety not realized. Naturally one needs to consume more to get the same sugar high.every day. Sugar consumption, like alcoholism, is considered to be contributing to development of fatty liver, which in turn can cause liver failure, cirrhosis and ultimately liver cancer. At least this is the hypothesis that is being put forward by many health experts though clear cut scientific proof is yet to emerge. Nonetheless it is a possible risk and a warning that sugar must be avoided or restricted to the minimum. Body's energy needs can easily be met from other foods like food grains, plant oils and proteins which constitute the every day diet. Our palate enjoys sweet sensation and therefore this drives our desire to have more sweetened products to get the pleasure they provide in the oral cavity. Unless this urge is resisted with all the will power we have, sugar will continue to dominate our life leading us to our own extinction!  


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