Staying healthy in Japan

Features Health - June 12th, 1987

by Elyse M. Rogers

SUGAR

In chemistry the term sugar refers to a group of carbohy­drate compounds. In general conversation, we use the term “sugar” to refer to those granules that gleam in the “sugar bowl” and that we sprinkle on our corn flakes or dump into our coffee. Tech­nically, what we use on the table is sucrose, one of the general categories of sugars.

SUGAR, HEALTH AND BEHAVIOR

Lately, “sugar” (and I’ll use the general term here to mean table sugar or sucrose) has been getting bad press. Many people feel very strongly that sugar is bad for the body. In fact, in researching this topic I came across a medical journal that called this condition “Sugar Dread.” Hmmm. Seems like a pretty big, bad label for a simple substance.

Certainly in the last decade sugar has been blamed for a multitude of sins, including violent behavior. You may re­member the sensational murder case in 1979 when San Fran­cisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were killed by former Super­visor Dan White. White was found guilty of manslaughter (rather than murder) after his attorney pleaded that he had “diminished mental capacity” because of his addiction  to candy bars and junk food. In legal circles, if you can believe it, this has become known as the “Twinkie defense.”

Lesser behavior problems have been blamed on sugar, in­cluding hyperactivity in children; moreover, health-wise, su­gar has been blamed for con­tributing to acne, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Until last year there’s been no real scientific evidence that sugar is indeed as bad as some believe, or on the other hand as innocuous as the Sugar Association ads would lead us to conclude.

THE FDA REPORT

Then last October the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with its 229-page study which basically stated that sugar doesn’t hurt most people and is not the cause of any diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, hyper­activity or even obesity. Or, in more technical terms as stated by co-author of the re­port Dr. Walter Glinsmann, “. . .(critics) have not provided evidence for a hazard at present levels of consumption.”

And present levels of con­sumption of sugar are pretty impressive. The per-capita-consumption waters get muddied a bit by a new kid on the block— corn syrup. Actual “sugar” consumption per capita (the white granules from sugar cane or sugar beets) has dropped from a high of 102 pounds per year in the U.S. to 67.5 pounds per year. But it’s not that we’re ingesting less calories from caloric sweeteners.

Corn syrup just gives us sugar in another form, which was made possible, by the way, when Japanese scientists made a technological breakthrough in the mid-1970s on processing syrup from corn. Since corn is easier to grow than cane or beets it’s a lot cheaper to produce and at present is priced at 30 percent below refined sugar prices. Both corn syrups and granulated sugar are bro­ken down in the body to form glucose, so basically their final effect is the same. Therefore, adding the consumption of corn syrup and granulated sugar together will give us the more precise total, which amounted to 130 pounds per capita in the U.S. in 1986.

SUGAR & TOOTH DECAY

I said that the FDA has exonerated sugar from causing disease, but that’s only if you consider tooth decay a non-disease state. For if there is one thing that everyone agrees upon, including FDA scien­tists, it is that sugar does cause tooth decay. In this case granulated sugar is more of a prob­lem than corn syrup, mainly because the granulated form tends to be used in more pro­ducts that “stick to the teeth.”

The proverbial “spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down” may make the antibiotic or flu prescription more palatable, but it makes dentists wince. Sweetened drinks, such as juice punches and soda pop, on the other hand, pump just as much sugar into the body but are easier on the teeth be­cause as a liquid they basically pass through the mouth with only minimal teeth contact.

Just to prove that nothing is ever absolute, however, sweetened drinks can be a problem if they stay in the mouth and therefore contact the teeth for a period of time. Most adults don’t tend to rinse out their mouths with pop or cocktails, of course, but babies and children may do just that. The biggest culprit in this category is the “baby bottle.” I’m not just referring here to bottles filled with sweetened I water or sweet­ened liquids, although those are often popular. Milk is probably the biggest prob­lem of all.

That brings us to more forms of sugar: those found in foods and called “natural sugars.” Two examples of natural sugars are lactose in milk and fruc­tose in fruits and honey. As to whether or not such naturally occurring sugars are better for us than the processed variety is a subject still under hot dis­cussion.

But, in the case of tooth decay, all sugars can be harm­ful, including lactose, the na­turally occurring sugar in milk. That is why both pediatricians and dentists warn parents not to put the baby to bed with a bottle of milk; teeth will quickly rot if allowed to soak in a milk bath.

I’m not sure I ever quite be­lieved that “teeth will rot” prediction until I saw a two-year-old in the dentist office with a row of black front teeth. Those teeth were not only ugly to behold, but heart­breaking in the sense that their early loss will probably cause jaw problems to that child when he becomes an adult. So, it’s best to give the baby the bottle of milk before he/she goes to bed (and to hold him/her so that a dose of love is also delivered) and then let a sugar-free pacifier provide fall­ing-asleep comfort.

Sticky foods that harm the teeth can be from the “natural” side as well. Figs and raisins, for example, can do far more damage than many sugar-coated foods if allowed to ferment on the teeth. If you still don’t believe it, consider the fact that a quarter of a cup of raisins contains almost twice as much sugar as a Mr. Goodbar (candy bar).

‘EMPTY CALORIES’

Perhaps the most popular criticism of sugar by doctors and nutritionists is that it contains “empty calories.” In other words sugar adds to the total calorie consumption without providing any of the necessary nutrients. There is no doubt sugar is caloric, as we all know, but it may be less so than many people think. The fact is that sugar contains only 16 calories per teaspoon. So, one teaspoon in a cup of coffee could be okay, but combine that with the 10 or 11 teaspoons of sugar added to the average can of soda pop, and the 3.9 tea­spoons in a Milky Way (plus fat). . .

The “empty calorie” accusa­tion is based on the fact that sugar does not contain protein, vitamins, fats or fiber; it’s a pure carbohydrate. But it does provide energy or fuel for the body, which the body certainly needs.

The problem arises when sugar or sugary products be­come too much a part of the total diet. This can be a par­ticular problem for people who need to limit their calories or have a low calorie body re­quirement.

Older people, for example, need fewer calories than do younger, more active adults, but often eat cakes, cookies or ice cream instead of the meats, fruits and dairy products they need. Teenage girls are also tempted to overeat the more pleasurable sugar-laden foods and then undereat the more healthful ones. If this situation persists, the body can actually become significantly “under­nourished,” even though the person is of normal weight or becomes obese.

SUGAR AND LIFE-STYLE

So how do we resolve the problem of sugar in our every­day lives? Does it mean that we must give up Hobson’s ice cream or Godiva chocolates? That we bypass Amos or Mickey’s cookies? That we drink our morning coffee bitter?

Not necessarily. Balance or moderation is the key here, as it is in so many aspects of health and life-style. Everyone is different not only in the physical sense but in emotional make-up as well, so it’s im­portant that each work out his/ her own program for moderate sugar consumption.

Some suggestions that might help:

• Reduce sugar usage gradu­ally. Our “sweet tooth” can be re-trained a bit to appreciate foods less sweet. Most home recipes can stand a reduction of sugar up to about half and still “work,” and most of us can learn to enjoy coffee with less sugar, or our corn flakes without added sugar.

• Substitute other foods. I’m not going to suggest that a half a grapefruit (even if you could afford it) would be as satisfying as a chocolate sundae, but it does have a lot less sugar. Look for substitutions that please you, or at least are ac­ceptable sometimes.

• Use artificial sweeteners. I say this with caution, since I know many readers are uncertain about their safety. Most experts agree that in moder­ation, for most people, artificial sweeteners are not a problem. So, you might try substituting Coke Light for “regular” Coke, or perhaps the new Dannon LB 41 sugarless yogurt that contains aspartame instead of sugar (available at National Azabu Supermarket).

• Exercise. Running around the block, or hoofing it to the subway isn’t going to directly affect your sugar consumption, but it may keep you too busy to eat that second donut and it definitely will help to burn any sugar calories you do con­sume. As an added benefit routine exercise will keep your cardiovascular system perking along and reduce your risk of many of those very diseases in which sugar is suspect.

As a chocolate lover with a cookie-hungry shujin, I know only too well how delightful sugar can taste on the palate. But as a medical writer I also believe that proper diet and a moderate life style are the best ways to promote good health for today and tomorrow.

So, I still treat myself to an occasional candy bar, some­times buy Mickey’s Cookies for Ed, but stick for the most part to less sugary foods and treats. And if I do overindulge, I keep running around and around Arisugawa Koen. . .