To Your Health
February, 2007 (Vol. 01, Issue 02)
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The Truth About Sweets

By Julie Engebretson

The average American eats far more sugar than they need, and often without knowing the health consequences. Here's your primer on the dangers of sweets.

I shouldn't.

How many of us have muttered these words while hovering over a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts or an Entenmann's strudel? Whether you were sitting in the office break room or standing on the sidelines at Timmy's 7 a.m. soccer match, temptation in the form of sugar is all around us.

Our culture seems to have divided sweet treats, and all foods, for that matter, into two categories: good and bad. Carrots = good. Carrot cake = bad. Brown rice = good. Rice pudding = bad. Cookies, candy, crumb cakes and sweets in general seem to top the list of bad foods; things that should be avoided at all costs. But this oversimplified model isn't necessarily the reality, nor does it encourage a very healthy attitude toward food. Although doughnuts and strudels should be avoided, it's important to know why. Simply labeling sugar or sugary foods as bad doesn't present the whole story.

Sugar: Simple Vs. Complex

Woman overfilling a coffee cup with sugar. - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Let's revise the good vs. bad dichotomy just a bit and instead look at sugars as simple vs. complex. Chemically, simple sugars are one, two or at most three units of sugar linked together in single molecules. Complex sugars - most often referred to as complex carbohydrates, and sometimes as "starches" - are hundreds or thousands of sugar molecules linked together. Generally, the simpler the sugar is, the sweeter it tastes, such as honey, table sugar or the high-fructose corn syrup in sodas. A complex carbohydrate, such as potatoes, tomatoes or whole grain breads and cereals, may not be sweet, but many people still find these foods pleasant to the taste.

Think of all sugar as existing in some stage of refinement: The simplest sugars have already been so heavily refined that the body has to work less in order to convert them into glucose, or blood sugar, once ingested. Complex sugars are the least refined and take longer for the body to break down. It would be easy to assume that less work for the body is better, but the refining process of simple sugars before they even touch your tongue has stripped away most if not all vitamins, minerals, nutrients and fiber, leaving a "food" of almost no nutritional value. The most complex sugars or complex carbohydrates are the least refined, retaining all original nutrients for the body.