15 Things to Know About Sugar

“The best way to deal with temptation is to yield to it,” as the late Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, once told me. Although he wasn’t specifically talking about sugar, such a devilish source is only fitting when talking sweet, sweet sucrose. No substance seduces us more, which is why it’s in just about everything you eat and drink. But what if you could get that sugar high without getting left high and dry? Witness some saintly sugars within, the kinds that could cure cancer, Alzheimer’s and even COVID. Plus, consider some tasty alternatives, so that next time your sweet tooth rears, you’ll be able to say, confidently: “Get behind me, Satan!”

science in, on and around the sugary stuff

Sugar vs. Alzheimer’s. About 85 percent of proteins, including those behind diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, have proven elusive to the drugs that could actually kill them. Enter a bunch of geniuses at Harvard who are using sugars to crowbar their way in, helping drugs stop deadly diseases on a cellular level. In their study, these scientists point out that sugar often gets a bad rap as “evil,” “toxic” and “poison,” but it is actually essential to the body’s process of determining what is friend or foe. Using a “pencil/eraser” tool to add or remove sugars from proteins, scientists are now able to put sugar under the microscope, which could help people better understand the sweet stuff’s potential medical uses going forward.

Sugar vs. Cancer. A team of crack researchers at Portugal’s Instituto de Medicina Molecular have figured out how to boost T-cell counts in their fight against cancer cells. Their secret ingredient? Sugar. It sounds like an answer the Willy Wonka lobby would cook up, but if it works, who are we to shove away the chocolate cake? But you’ll want to avoid adding fats while “fighting cancer,” as the scientists found these new avenues of sugar metabolism in gamma-delta T-cells are hampered by clogged arteries.

Sugar vs. COVID. Is sugar a friend or an enemy? Scientists still aren’t sure — although its potential damage to your liver is no laughing matter. That’s a major reason why the World Health Organization suggests eating no more than 25 grams, or six teaspoons, of it daily (the average American, the worst offenders by far, average 17 teaspoons per day). Researchers at the RIKEN Center for Computational Science simulated the COVID-19 virus invading human cells and discovered that glycans (sugar molecules) have something to do with the structural changes that make it both easy and possible for the coronaviruses to invade. If you can figure out how they got in, you can keep them out. So, friend or foe, we need to better understand sugar to combat the virus.

And the Winner Is … Supplant? A sugar substitute called Supplant, a name that now seems inevitable, is here. Made of plant waste material, it was invented in Cambridge, England, and funded by Silicon Valley with $24 million in seed money. It is ostensibly better for you than other sugar substitutes and better than sugar by far, the founders say. You can perform your own taste test, but Supplant has already gotten approval from the European Union’s notoriously strict version of the FDA — for use as a sweetener and as a probiotic with tangible health benefits.

taste trends for the tempted

Woman with lollipop

Allulose. Now Say It … Slowly. It’s human nature: As people are told to eat less sugar, demand for a similar sweetness will rise. Shares for substitutes in a potentially $100 billion market are anticipated to boom as the pseudo stuff replaces the real thing, which is less healthy primarily because it carries too many calories and wreaks havoc with your blood sugar levels. While the aforementioned Supplant seems like it could be an exciting competitor, Allulose and Tagatose have already hit the starting blocks (though it is still prohibitively expensive to produce them). Which is why Hershey and other candy bigwigs are investing in Bonumose, a Virginia-based startup with a technology that could pave the way for mass market adoption of sugary substitutes. Hoping to reach markets by 2022, all they need now is to put some distance between search results and questions about their safety.

Making Sugar More Efficient. Companies are under a lot of pressure to reduce the amount of sugar in what they sell. But Israel-based food tech company DouxMatok (and Nestlé) have gotten slick in a way that makes me smile: They’re just going to focus on maximizing the efficiency of the sugar they’re already putting in your food. Sort of like making a more potent heroin. “If you can improve the efficiency of the delivery of sugar within a cake to the taste receptors, you will be perceiving a lot more sweetness with less sugar,” said the CEO of DouxMatok Eran Baniel last year. So, don’t work harder, work sweeter?

Managing to Make Candy Manageable. How much of flavor is based on sugar in the first place? Apparently not enough to make a difference. Which is why confectionery trade mags are calling flavor innovations that eschew sugar on the way to your taste buds one of the top trends of 2021. The cynically minded will point out this high-minded shift may actually just be a response to market demands: 91 percent of consumers say they are “at least a little influenced” by sugar reduction claims, according to Innova Market Insights research.

And Protecting Yourself From Yourself. We all get weak, but handling what happens next is what it’s all about. The people who pay attention to such dietary temptations are bullish on alpha lipoic acid (ALA), and for good reason. ALA helps balance your blood sugar by supporting insulin sensitivity and how we use glucose, with researchers saying it may help with weight loss and diabetes. Our bodies already produce the acid naturally, but they could use a boost from dietary supplements that pack as much as 1,000 times more of the acid than is found in food. So, repairing the damage while you’re doing the damage. We’re in!

shutterstock_1940716246 copy

When Cannabis Comes By. You get high, you get hungry. But getting hungry and eating garbage is not necessary. And if you’re getting high via cannabis edibles, you don’t need to harm your health in the process. Which is why sugar-free cannabis edibles have become a thing, from Olala’s infused sodas to ZootRocks candies sweetened with sugar beets and Stevia. So now, you can get high and stay healthy … at least until you crack open that bag of Takis. The munchies win again.

 If It’s Made With Erythritol It’s Got to Be Good. Right? What is erythritol, outside of a sugar alcohol used as a sugar substitute? Well, the folks at Clean Plates have a few ideas, taking you for a deep dive into the food additive that delivers a cool, minty sensation, particularly at high quantities. Keto friendly, paleo friendly, even diabetic friendly, we’re starting to just think this is the friendliest sugar sub we’ve ever met. Plus, the name is tasty: All hail, erythritol, the Greek god of baked goods?

A Divine Answer to Sweet-Tooth Prayers. The monk fruit is a smallish, round Southeast Asian fruit. The sweetener made from it has no calories and is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar. Which sounds like a problem, not a solution, to me, but what do I know? That level of sweetness could seem saccharine, and perhaps it is — especially if people overindulge, as people tend to do. However, zero calories is still zero calories. Find the sweetener in products like PureLo, Purefruit and Monk Fruit in the Raw, among others.

Date Paste Is Not at All What I Thought It Was. My sophomoric self was laughing all the way to Trader Joe’s over this whole “date paste” thing, only to realize that it’s just a paste made out of dates. Medjool dates. Not nearly as funny. But still pretty sweet. Which is, after all, the point of any true sugar substitute. Delicious, and natural, add it to a piece of toast and call it a day.

the business of sweetness

Making of Colombian Panela Sugar, a way of life in Colombia during the COVID-19 pandemic

Are Sugar Cane Economies Suffering. With the sugar-alternative market swelling and populations of folks generally hip to the fact that less sugar is better, it seems like there would be consequences. Like, say, economic downturns in the American South and the Caribbean, locales that have typically fueled the growth and refining of sugar cane. But that doesn’t appear to be the case, as sugar is simply finding new uses and new markets. So if we’re not eating the sugar, where’s it going? Well, you’re reading the words of a man who just bought some sugar-based face wash.

Reminder: It Can Still Kill You. We’d be remiss if we didn’t remind you that sugar itself is still bad for you. Like really bad for you. Consider that those who took in 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those with less than 10 percent in their diets, according to a Harvard study conducted over 15 years. You may just forget that fact, given the way the sugar business has prevented the world from digging deep into its crystalline secrets. But even if we knew how bad it was for us, would it stop us from eating it?

And the Non-Sugar Based, Feel-Good Story. Sweet treats made without sugar or dairy. This taste-good tale is from Bon AppéSweet, a maker of artisanal, sugar-free gelato and chocolate, started by a woman of color who just won a massive award (and $700,000 in investment) for her creation. We’ll take two scoops!

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