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Healthy sugar - is it possible?

Part 1 to: "Sugar alternatives - sweet without a guilty conscience?"

You want a sugar for your optimal energy supply and yet no side effects such as tooth decay and a fluctuating blood sugar level?

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Healthy sugar - is it possible?

You want a sugar for your optimal energy supply and still no side effects like tooth decay and a fluctuating blood sugar level?

An optimal sugar fuels your brain and muscles, tastes pleasantly sweet, without any aftertaste, and has no negative effects on your health. With most currently known sugars, or sugar substitutes, this is difficult to implement. Often the application is difficult, the taste is not convincing, or they influence the blood sugar level and our addictive behavior.

You would like to learn more about new and promising alternatives that can even have positive effects on your body? Are you also interested in an overview of conventional and brand new sugars?

»The best alternative to sugar is: less sugar«
• Stefan Kabisch, study physician at the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbrücke

This suggestion by Stefan Kabisch is difficult to implement in everyday life. Sugar can be found in every ready-made product, every drink and in most snacks.

Knowledge for your ears!

No time to read? Here you can listen to Claire's article.

In Germany, 32.5 kilograms of sugar are consumed per capita and year - that's 89 grams a day. The WHO advises limiting sugar consumption to a maximum of 25 grams per day, while the German Nutrition Society, the German Obesity Society and the German Diabetes Society set a maximum daily intake of 50 grams of sugar.

In general, the idea of minimizing sugar consumption is a good one - you still wish you had better alternatives to typical household sugar?

Table of Contents

• What is actually hidden behind the term sugar?
• The sugar paradox
• What happens in the body with sugar?
• Blood sugar and insulin levels
• Why we need glucose?
• Why sugar can make you sick

What is hidden behind the term sugar?

Sugar is immediately associated with sweet taste, but this can come from different types.
Most commonly, glucose (grape sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), or lactose (milk sugar) and of course sucrose (household sugar) are used as "sugar".
These types of sugar all belong to the carbohydrate group and have a similar chemical structure consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The molecular structure of the sugars differs depending on the type of sugar.

Carbohydrates are divided into different groups according to size:
• Simple sugars: The simplest sugars, such as glucose, galactose and fructose, are called monosaccharides (simple sugars).
• Dual sugar: Our household sugar sucrose is a disaccharide (dual sugar) and consists of equal parts glucose and fructose. Other disaccharides are lactose and maltose.
• Multiple sugars: Carbohydrates found in cereals and vegetables that are made up of three to nine simple sugar molecules are called oligosaccharides (multiple sugars).
• Polysaccharides: The longest carbohydrates do not necessarily taste sweet and are found in starch; they are called polysaccharides (multiple sugars).

The sugar paradox - why we need sugar and yet it is unhealthy

Our body needs energy to be able to function. This is obtained from food. The nutrients fats, proteins and carbohydrates contained in it serve as fuel.
In our evolutionary history, our food consisted mainly of fats, proteins and fiber. It was only with agriculture that there was a switch to a carbohydrate-rich diet. The metabolism of Central and Northern Europeans in particular has not yet adapted to this high level of sugar.

The paradox - we are not yet adapted to a high-carbohydrate diet[1], sugar in the form of glucose is nevertheless one of the most important substances for our body.

Glucose is essential in our body and must be available around the clock. For this very reason, we have our own energy stores and can produce glucose from fat and protein. A glucose supply through our diet is therefore not absolutely necessary.

The simple sugar plays an important role as a building material for our cells, is a signal carrier and is used for cellular repair. It is also an ideal fuel for our muscles and brain.

Another advantage of generating energy from sugar is its utilization. Unlike fatty acids, sugar can be burned with the help of oxygen and also fermented without oxygen. This was a decisive advantage in hunting and the fight for survival.

Meanwhile, many athletes, such as marathon runners, use this ability to run long distances. In sports, this can be an advantage. In various diseases such as mitochondrial disorders, cancer and chronic infections, the path of fermentation can become a curse. Indeed, sick cells often use this pathway to bypass apoptosis (cell death)[2].

What happens in the body with sugar?

In order for our cells to be supplied with sugar via the bloodstream, it must first be absorbed. Our intestines can only absorb simple sugars, so all other sugar compounds and complex carbohydrates are broken down with the help of enzymes. In some cases, this enzymatic splitting already begins in the mouth. You can test this by chewing bread for a few minutes. It will suddenly taste sweet. This is due to the enzyme amylase, which is present in our saliva.

However, most long-chain sugar compounds are broken down in the small intestine by the enzymes found there. After the carbohydrates from pasta, bread, potatoes and rice have been broken down, individual glucose building blocks remain. For the cleavage of the double sugars, our body uses specific enzymes such as; lactase for milk sugar, maltase for malt sugar and trehalase for trehalose. These resulting simple sugars are absorbed in our digestive tract and converted into glucose and then released into the bloodstream.
We call the glucose contained in our blood blood sugar.
Blood sugar and insulin levels
Our blood sugar levels, as well as our insulin levels, rise and fall with our meals. Our blood sugar is affected by all carbohydrates in the form of sugar, fructose, starch, etc. This level rises with the ingestion of sugar. The glucose is then transported into our cells with the help of insulin. Then the blood sugar level drops again. The glycemic index tells us how foods affect our blood sugar level. It consists of a scale from 1–100, with glucose with a value of 100 serving as a comparison. Thus, a low GI stands for a slow and low increase in blood glucose levels. The value always refers to 50 grams of the carbohydrates contained in the food and does not take into account the composition of the individual ingredients.

Why do we need sugar?

+ As energy supplier
Our system constantly needs energy. Glucose is used as fuel so that this can be released. Our brain and nerves love sugar. Our brain alone burns an average of 142 grams of glucose a day, the equivalent of about 14 tablespoons of sugar. Our muscles also need quick energy in the form of glucose. This has a great advantage over fatty acids because it can be used as an energy source in two different ways: through combustion and fermentation (advantageous during sports).

+ Sugar makes happy
Our brain rewards us when we eat sugar. The taste buds trigger the release of the body's opioids and the happiness hormones serotonin and dopamine. Another effect of a high amount of sugar in the brain is a stronger activity of our nerve cells. Thus, we can perceive pleasant feelings more intensely. This reward system leads to the fact that we like to eat sugar very much.

+ As cell building blocks
Some sugars are an important component of our cell structures. These include ribose, as a component of the DNA strand and our energy molecule ATP. Together with proteins, galactose forms glycoproteins, which are responsible, among other things, for the exchange of information between cells or the reception of hormone signals.

+ Sugar helps with stress/b>
Our brain cells need a lot of energy when they have to work a lot and fast and are under stress. Sugar not only serves as fuel, but can also reduce stress in the form of cortisol. If you consume sugar in a stressful situation in which a lot of cortisol is released, this can demonstrably lower the cortisol level. This also explains why stressed people often have an increased need for sweets[3].

Sweetness - how sweet does sweet taste?

How do you describe the sweetness of sweeteners? For this purpose, the relative sweetness of a sugar substitute is compared to sucrose, the household sugar. The resulting value is called the sweetening power.

Why sugar can make you sick

Sugar was essential for survival for our ancestors, but only available in small quantities.
Meanwhile, it is difficult to eat meals without sugar. The large oversupply and the associated high intake of sugar leads to many health problems[4].

As a result, the negative aspects of sugar clearly outweigh the benefits for our bodies. The best-known consequences of sugar are obesity and diabetes, but unfortunately there are far more negative effects of too much sugar consumption, some of which go undetected for a long time.
Our intestines get out of balance as "bad" intestinal bacteria get the upper hand. Tumor cells are also "fed" by sugar. Other symptoms include: Addictive behavior, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and impairment of neurocognitive functions [5].

You don't want to give up sweets? How is "sweet" measured in the first place? And what are the signs of too much sugar in your diet[6]?

Would you like to learn more about sugar?

That was part 1 on the topic of sugar and sugar metabolism. Part 2 is about sugar alternatives and which ones are promising.


[1]: Dr. Johannes Coy. 2019. Fit mit Zucker. GU Verlag.

[2]: Lu, J., Tan, M., & Cai, Q. (2015). The Warburg effect in tumor progression: mitochondrial oxidative metabolism as an anti-metastasis mechanism. Cancer letters, 356(2 Pt A), 156–164.

[3]: Ulrich-Lai, Y. M., Ostrander, M. M., Thomas, I. M., Packard, B. A., Furay, A. R., Dolgas, C. M., Van Hooren, D. C., Figueiredo, H. F., Mueller, N. K., Choi, D. C., & Herman, J. P. (2007). Daily limited access to sweetened drink attenuates hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis stress responses. Endocrinology, 148(4), 1823–1834.

[4]: Freeman, C. R., Zehra, A., Ramirez, V., Wiers, C. E., Volkow, N. D., & Wang, G. J. (2018). Impact of sugar on the body, brain, and behavior. Frontiers in bioscience (Landmark edition), 23(12), 2255–2266.

[5]: Beecher, K., Alvarez, Cooper I., Wang J., Walters, S. B., Chehrehasa, F., Bartlett, S. E., Belmer, A. (2021). Long-Term Overconsumption of Sugar Starting at Adolescence Produces Persistent Hyperactivity and Neurocognitive Deficits in Adulthood. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 15.­10.3389/fnins.2021.670430/full