“Sugar and me? We go way back. I love sugar. LOOOOVVVVVE it. I love everything about it: how it makes little occasions special and special occasions fabulous.”
When I read these first few lines of Eve Schaub’s recently released book Year of No Sugar: A Memoir (Sourcebooks, 2014) I felt an immediate kinship. After all, in my cookbook Sweet Home I claim that “dessert is in my DNA.” I grew up with access to some homemade foil-covered treat in kitchen at all times and sweets were a part of every celebration.
It seems Eve, like me, believed home-baked goods are a form of love. In her book, Eve relays a time when a fellow mom asked about the ingredients of her cupcakes. Eve rattled off the ingredients, which included vanilla. “Oh, vanilla…Ariella can’t have vanilla. It has corn syrup in it. It makes her crazy,” the mom replied.
Eve was silently skeptical, “After all, this [her cupcakes] was not some Day-Glo impostor from the ‘bakery’ aisle at the supermarket; this was home baked! Made with love! As far as I was concerned, homemade food was health food. Period. Wasn’t that what Michael Pollen had effectively said?”
A year ago I would have nodded my head enthusiastically in agreement, “Yup, absolutely Eve. What is wrong with a little vanilla?”
I have grappled with the idea of sugar since the publication of my book—a collection of family dessert recipes—two years ago. As I passed out samples of chocolate Kahlúa pound cake and deep-fried rosettes at baking demos, more than just a few would pass and say “I’m cutting down on sugar.”
“But what’s a little bite,” I would think. After much reading and research though, I am beginning to understand, and Eve’s book confirms many of my thoughts: sugar is everywhere.
My awareness of sugar has grown exponentially in the past few years. Just try cutting it out. It’s not the sweet treats that are difficult, well at least in theory because they’re the obvious candidates for elimination, it’s the foods like bacon, the condiments like mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce, and are you ready, even the chicken salad at Panera. The unsuspecting Chicken Cobb Salad has sugar listed in the first 8 of more than 20 ingredients (and that doesn’t include the dressing!).
Throughout her book, Eve amusingly shares the trials and tribulations of eliminating sugar from her family’s daily diet. Her girls, ages 6 and 11 at the time of the “project,” promptly cried when she told them about her Year of No Sugar plan but they did come around to the idea and participated willingly.
There were some exceptions to the no-sugar rule, which eventually included the use of dextrose in baking. It took me a little while to get my head around this—why exactly was dextrose okay? I had the pleasure of speaking with Eve over the phone for a Babycenter interview (read more here) and she said there was no doubt that learning about sugar molecules got very scientific, and she tried to explain the concept to me again, “ dextrose and powdered dextrose are from corn, not fructose, which is the bad sugar that produces toxic by-products.”
What she said in her book, and was saying again, is that fructose, NOT dextrose, really is the culprit when it comes to sugar. Andrew Wilder, on his blog Eating Rules, does a really good job of explaining the six key types of dietary sugar molecules. He also cites a Time magazine article from 2009 that outlines how our body’s respond differently to glucose than fructose.
Okay, you ready? Take a deep breath. I’m going to try and give you the thirty-second explanation: sugar (sucrose) is made up roughly of half glucose and half fructose. Sucrose is found in sugar beets, sugar cane, corn, and other plants. When sucrose is extracted and refined, it makes table sugar (Skerrett, Harvard Health).
So the half of sucrose that is important is glucose, which is what provides our body with energy and is needed by every cell and organ in our body. Glucose comes from food we eat. It is broken down in our stomachs and absorbed into our bloodstream.
Fructose, on the other hand, is the bad half of sucrose. Fructose occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables. Now this is where it gets slightly confusing because you may be wondering like I, “but aren’t those things good for you?”
Eating fruits with naturally occurring sugar is okay because the amount of fructose is so little, and the fiber and nutrients of the fruit itself are so beneficial.
However, when fructose is added to things like beverages and other processed foods, too much of it at once can overwhelm our body’s ability to process it and the liver starts to produce triglycerides (fat).
When the low-fat trend of eating took hold, sugar in many forms was added to foods to better their taste. It’s hidden, and has many different names, some which sound more appealing than others but really are all the same:
High-fructose corn syrup
Fruit Juice Concentrate
This list is just a very few of the dozens of names for sugar.
But what about dextrose? Where does that fit in? Well, biochemically glucose and dextrose are the same so dextrose can be considered a better sweetener based on how it’s processed in the body. It is usually derived from grains, most often corn in the US.
Now the question may arise how something made from corn can be better for you since high-fructose corn syrup is reputedly so bad for you? Naturally corn syrup does not have fructose in it. It’s when a particular enzyme is added that glucose-only corn syrup turns to fructose and becomes what is known as the evil high-fructose corn syrup.
Corn itself is not bad for you. In fact, an ear of corn has about the same calories as an apple and less than one-fourth the sugar. And don’t hesitate to pick up an ear of sweet corn in fears that it’s genetically modified. Only 3-4% of sweet corn grown in the US was GMO (Estabrook, Eating Well).
So after much research, Eve felt dextrose was safe to include in her diet. Ultimately, it was only fructose (the bad sugar) she was eliminating. After mulling her explanation over several times, I finally understood.
And now I understood why just a small piece of something sweet is an issue for some people and not for someone like my grandmother, who just turned 93 a month ago—and enjoyed dessert every night. Unlike many today, my grandmother does not buy processed foods. When raising her family, she prepared dinner every night: a protein, a starch and a vegetable—and dessert. She cooked with butter, and got many of her vegetables from the surrounding farms in her Wisconsin town. She even baked her own rolls.
My grandmother was a farm-to-table gal before farm to table became a buzzword—sugars weren’t hiding in the foods in her cabinet and fridge. The only sugar she ingested was what she knowingly put into baked goods. So for her, desserts worked. For our generation, perhaps not so much so. We’re getting sugar without even knowing it.
Eve Schaub has certainly heightened my awareness of sugar. After reading Year of No Sugar, I haven’t been able to walk in the grocery store without reading a label (which I always did, but now it’s really consuming). If you’re looking for an entertaining read, pick up a copy and see if you can’t help but avoiding the sweet stuff—even that can be addictive. Check out Eve’s Year of No Sugar blog too.