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Is healthy sugar possible — and would you eat it?
Israeli food-tech company DouxMatok (Hebrew for "double sweet") has created a sugary product that uses 40 percent less actual sugar yet still tastes sweet.
- Consumers are fed a lot of nonsense about sugar and fad diets.
- Our bodies must consume sugar; the question is how much and in what form.
- Companies are trying to develop healthier sugars to combat our "sugar addiction."
Can we hack sugar to be healthy? www.youtube.com
Humans consume too much sugar. This is a refrain you've likely read for years, if not decades. As with any generality, that topline assessment misses nuance. While certainly true that we over-consume sugar in the Western diet — added sugar goes by at least 61 names and has been found in 74 percent of processed foods — sugar itself is a necessary carbohydrate. In fact, core metabolic processes, like glycolysis and the Krebs cycle, largely revolve around the processing of glucose.
This fact has caused some researchers to ask: can we create healthy sugar?
A primer on sugar and fad diets
Trying to make sense of the market for sugar substitutes is not necessarily helpful. Reading a nutrition label with terms like coconut sugar, xylitol, sucralose, Ace-k, or non-GMO dextrose leaves consumers scratching their heads. The aggressive agave nectar marketing campaign a few years ago caused many companies to market their products as having "real sugar." (As opposed to what? Fake sugar?)
The biochemical story of what happens to this carbohydrate inside of the human body is complex, however, and rarely will be answered by a company trying to sell its wares.
Monosaccharides, a.k.a. "simple sugars," are quite common. Galactose, glucose, and fructose fall in this category. Compound sugars, a.k.a. disaccharides, include sucrose (table sugar), maltose, and lactose. Then there are chemicals like sugar alcohols and glycerol, which are sweet but not actually sugar.
Most plants contain sugar. Fruit and honey also contain readily available simple sugars. Two common sources for processed food sugars are sugarcane and sugar beets. The cheapest to produce is corn syrup, which has been at the heart of the sugar debate for years. Due to farm subsidies, an overproduction of corn has led to this class of sugars being ubiquitous in the Western diet. Biochemically, believe it or not, high-fructose corn syrup isn't all that different from honey.
Historically, sugar was a rare and valuable commodity, often hard-won through gnawing on sugarcane. Fruits provide a quick and reliable burst of energy through their high sugar content, an especially useful trait for hunter-gatherers who relied on such fuel. As humans became addicted to sweetness, eschewing other flavor profiles to get right to the sugar rush, we figured out how to produce (and overproduce) it rapidly.
Thus, we got diet fads like "juice cleanses," which offer a rush of sugar without the fiber that slows its absorption into your bloodstream. Fiber is the most important part of the fruit. Detoxifying through such cleanses is a myth. Given the climate for sweet alternatives and nutritional shortcuts, however, we've grown susceptible to flashy marketing over solid nutritional science.
Israeli food-tech company DouxMatok (Hebrew for "double sweet") has created a sugary product that uses 40 percent less actual sugar yet still tastes like the sucrose that you would find in many products. The team noticed that our sweet receptors only detect about 20 percent of the sugar molecules that we consume, meaning the other 80 percent goes right into our bodies unnoticed by our mouths.
Health risks of sugar
Sugar science is constantly evolving. The WHO currently recommends a maximum of five to ten teaspoons (roughly 50 grams) of added sugar per day. To put that into perspective, Americans average 17 teaspoons (71 grams) per day — a whopping 57 pounds of sugar every year. One can of Coke contains nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar. Orange juice isn't much better.
This excess sugar leads to many potential health problems. A 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine states it bluntly: people who received between 17 and 21 percent of their daily calories from sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who consumed 8 percent of their calories from sugar. Harvard nutrition professor Dr. Frank Hu summarized his research with a simple assessment: "Basically, the higher the intake of added sugar, the higher the risk for heart disease."
The problems don't stop there. Sugar is metabolized similarly in the liver as alcohol — indeed, many alcoholic beverages contain high amounts of sugar — and the carbohydrates are turned into fat. As you gain weight, the health problems continue to escalate.
Issues with overconsumption of sugar include:
- High blood pressure. A 2014 study suggests that sugar might be worse for your blood pressure than salt. Along with an increase in insulin, sugar elevates heart rate and blood pressure by activating the sympathetic nervous system. Sugar was also found to reduce the sensitivity of blood pressure receptors and deplete cellular energy stores (ATP), both of which increase blood pressure.
- Diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is the primary problem with excess sugar intake, given that your body becomes resistant to insulin, causing sugar to build up in your blood. Sugar intake is not the only cause (genetics plays a role), though excess belly weight is clearly linked to the development of diabetes.
- Fatty liver disease. Excess fatty build-up in the liver leads to this disease. While common in alcoholics, some research suggests that sugar also negatively impacts the liver.
- Inflammation. While inflammation is essential for our body's self-repair process, excess sugar has been linked to chronic low-grade inflammation. In fact, just 40 grams per day has been demonstrated to have adverse inflammatory effects. While this is problematic in itself, inflammation can trigger many other health problems as well.
- Dementia. The science is less clear here, though some research has found that sugar impacts memory due to increased bodily inflammation.
- Tooth decay. For healthy teeth, it is ideal to keep your sugar intake to under 10 percent of total calories. The WHO found that excess sugar intake is the number one dietary factor for the development of cavities.
Photo: aboikos / Adobe Stock
Common sugar substitutes
Regardless of negative health effects, people love sweet foods. The desire for sweet-tasting foods is biologically programmed into us. The problem isn't eating sugar-rich foods per se; it's excessive consumption. Public health advice to cut down isn't working, and so a lot of companies are trying to offer alternatives.
High-intensity sweeteners are the most common substitute. These compounds are much sweeter than table sugar, meaning you need less of them in order to achieve the same level of sweetness. In America, there are six FDA-approved sweeteners in this category:
- Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)
Other common sugar substitutes include Stevia, sugar alcohols, honey, and agave nectar.
Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K). Most commonly known under its trade names, Sunett and Sweet One, this potassium salt was first discovered in 1967. Two hundred times sweeter than common sugar, research has shown that Ace-K has no effect on body weight. Concerns over its possible carcinogenic effects were dismissed by the FDA, though as with all sugar substitutes, research is ongoing.
Advantame. This non-caloric sweetener is a whopping 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose and is commonly used in gum, drinks, and candy. It is approved in the U.S. as a flavor enhancer except in meat and poultry. It was recognized as safe by the European Food Safety Authority in 2013.
Agave syrup. This sweetener from the agave cactus was commonly used in health circles for years. It contains 56 percent fructose and dissolves quickly, making it ideal for cooking. Blue-agave syrup is between 1.4 and 1.6 times sweeter than sugar, though, and being over half fructose in composition, it also has many of the same detrimental effects as sugar.
Aspartame. As with Ace-K, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose. First approved by the FDA in 1981, this peptide is one of the most widely tested food ingredients and has been found to be safe. That said, people who suffer from a rare inherited disease, phenylketonuria, cannot consume aspartame, which is why any foods sold in America must list this ingredient with a warning label.
Honey. Foods featuring honey are often marketed as containing "real honey," though in reality, its composition is similar to sucrose (it contains fructose and glucose), and it is roughly as sweet as sucrose. Anyone consuming honey should heed the same warnings as with common sugar.
Neotame. The aspartame analog, created by NutraSweet, is 8,000 times sweeter than sugar. First approved by the FDA in 2002, Neotame is common in colas, gums, yogurts, cakes, and drink powders. It's also used to cover the bitter taste of coffee.
Saccharin. This well-known sodium salt is roughly 400 times sweeter than common sugar. While used in numerous drinks, candies, and even medicine, it produces a metallic aftertaste. Considered safe for diabetics, saccharin has no nutritional value and is generally safe — though, anyone with an allergy to sulfonamide could experience symptoms after consuming saccharin.
Stevia. Derived from the South American Stevia rebaudiana plant, it's "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA. Up to 150 times sweeter than sucrose, stevia is a common additive in many health food products, though some consumers don't like its bitter aftertaste. The plant itself has been in use for at least 1,500 years as a tea sweetener and medicine.
Sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols have been all the rage in keto products over the last few years. Otherwise known as polyols, they are actually less sweet than sugar, marketed for not spiking blood glucose levels. Common sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, and lactitol. This family of sweeteners is considered safe.
Sucralose. Six hundred times sweeter than sugar, sucralose is the most common artificial sweetener in the world. Deemed safe by governing bodies in America, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Europe, it is appropriate for diabetics and does not cause tooth decay. The most common iteration of sucralose is Splenda, which is mixed with maltodextrin and dextrose and sold worldwide.
Can sugar be good for you?
The question of whether sugar can be good for you is common but based on an incorrect assumption: we must consume sugar. Our bodies rely on carbohydrates for energy, and carbs are all ultimately turned into sugars. If you were to only eat protein and fat, you would quickly encounter numerous other health problems. The question isn't whether sugar is good but how much and in what form it should be consumed.
For example, glucose and maltodextrin are high glycemic additives, whereas sucrose is moderate and agave syrup and fructose are low. High glycemic foods are known to give you a "sugar crash," which is a spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid fall in levels. High glycemic foods should generally be avoided.
But what about for people who exercise a lot? If you don't exercise often, sugar will be turned into fat, leading to a cascade of health problems. For endurance athletes, however, sugar is a necessary fuel for training.
Athletes and people who regularly exercise can benefit from high glycemic foods because our bodies recognize the intake as fuel for the activity. Whereas you would mostly want to consume low glycemic foods when not exercising, using a mix of maltodextrin and fructose during or after exercise is a smart choice. In fact, consuming low glycemic foods while exercising can cause stomach bloating.
Photo: veineleissa / Adobe Stock
What is the daily recommended sugar intake?
As mentioned above, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sugar caps at 10 teaspoons for adults. The latest edition of federal dietary guidelines offers a bit more detail, however.
- Americans older than two years should cap their added sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of total calories. "Added sugar" is important because, as mentioned, all carbohydrates eventually turn into sugar in your body. Eating whole fruit doesn't count in this total; soft drinks and fruit juices do.
- Children under age two are advised to avoid foods with added sugars.
How is DouxMatok trying to create the healthiest sweetener on the market?
As mentioned earlier, our sweet receptors only recognize 20 percent of the common sugar we consume. Israeli food-tech company DouxMatok was founded by Professor Avraham Baniel, who in 2014, at the age of 96, applied his 75 years of industrial chemical research experience to create Incredo® Sugar. While the start-up aspires to create tastier and healthier variations of a variety of foods (including salt), sugar was the most pressing issue Baniel and his son, Eran, wanted to solve.
DouxMatok is not alone in this quest. For example, global food giant Nestle produced its own sugar reduction in a "healthier" candy bar called Milkybar Wowsomes. The experiment didn't end well as the company had to pull the item from shelves due to low consumer demand. Matching the flavor profile, density, and texture of sugar is harder than it sounds.
Nestle hasn't abandoned the quest for sugar alternatives, however. Companies realize their bottom line depends on offering healthier sugar without sacrificing taste and affordability — the same quest that meat alternative companies have been facing for years. While stevia and aspartame are widely used, for example, some consumers recognize the metallic taste and opt for what they know best. This will remain a real barrier until scientists can dial in an alternative that performs well in blind taste tests.
Incredo® Sugar is a sugar reduction created from cane or beet sugar. As the video at the top of the article shows, at least one anecdotal study in the Freethink office scored favorably for DouxMatok. The race is still on. DouxMatok's initial creation doesn't work well in liquids, at least not yet. Also, you can't cook with it on your own; the company is focused on using their sugar alternative in consumer food products first.As Dr. Robert Margolskee, Director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, says of the possible timeline, "I think within five years we'll be able to reduce 80 to 90 percent of the sugar in a food and still get pretty much the full sugar sensation. It's not an impossible dream."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.