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4 highlights from Stanford's Human Behavioral Biology course, available online for free
From understanding human aggression to epigenetics, Stanford University offers all 25 lessons of this fascinating course for free on YouTube.
- Stanford's Human Behavioral Biology course explores the interconnections between physiology and behavior.
- Most of the course is taught by Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosciences at Stanford, and also an author and contributor to Big Think.
- Check out some highlights from the course below.
Imagine a 40-year-old man in the U.S. who is leading a quiet, suburban life. He's been married 15 years and has two kids and two pets. One day at the office, a coworker says something about a baseball team, and our man takes exception. He punches his coworker in the face. This, according to everyone in the man's life, was unusual behavior. Then, three months later, his wife discovers he's been having an affair with a much younger woman. Finally, he absconds with thousands of dollars that he embezzled from his company, and his family never sees him again.
How could you explain what happened? A few possible options:
- He's a bonafide creep.
- He's going through a very immature mid-life crisis.
- He has a rare mutation in one gene in his brain.
This scenario is posed at the start of Stanford University's Human Behavioral Biology course, available for free on YouTube. The course is led by Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosciences at Stanford, and also an author and contributor to Big Think. Sapolsky notes that the behavior described above is exactly what you'd expect in somebody with a rare neurological disease caused by one genetic mutation.
Over 25 lessons, most of which clock in at around 90 minutes, the college course explores how physiology and behavior interact — or, how our thoughts, emotions, and memories can influence seemingly unrelated bodily processes, and vice versa. The entire course is available on this playlist, but listed below are a few highlights to get you started.
The limits of categorical thinking
In the first lesson of the course, Sapolsky quickly reads a bunch of phone numbers, and instructs the students to write down as many as possible. For the first few examples, Sapolsky breaks up the phone numbers into the familiar "123-4567" pattern of which we're accustomed. He then starts reading them in unusual patterns — "1-23-456-7" — in an attempt to confuse and disrupt categorical thinking patterns.
Sapolsky says that categorical thinking helps us make sense of the world and store information more easily. But he uses this example to get the class thinking about how paying too much attention to the boundaries in categorical thinking can cause you to lose sight of the big picture. (Sapolsky elaborates at 16:45 in the video.)
The "worst urban myth of evolution"
In the first lesson on behavioral evolution, Sapolsky introduces the class to applying Darwinian principles of evolution to behavior.
"The first thing we need to do is unlearn something we all learned back when, on all those National Geographic specials that would consistently teach us something about this aspect of evolution, and would always teach it to us wrong."
Another scenario: A herd of 2 million wildebeest is migrating toward greener pastures. The herd eventually comes to a river. It's teeming with crocodiles. The wildebeest stop. Then, one elderly wildebeest steps up to the riverbank, jumps into the water, and gets eaten by the crocodiles, creating an opportunity for the rest of the herd to safely cross.
Was this a heroic sacrifice? Sapolsky says that popular science programs like National Geographic have long claimed that animals tend to "behave for the good of the species," an idea described by group selection. But this is the "worst urban myth of evolution," he says.
If you look closely at the wildebeest scenario, you'd see something decidedly less heroic, the professor says: the herd is actually pushing the elderly wildebeest up to the front of the line. "All of the other ones are saying, 'Yeah, get the old guy on the river!' Sacrificing himself, my ass."
"Animals behave in order to maximize the number of copies of genes they leave in the next generation," Sapolsky continues. "Remember: not survival of the fittest, reproduction of the fittest."
What to ask about any scientific study
In 2007, scientists published a major study showing that first-borns tend to have higher IQs than their siblings. The researchers controlled for nearly everything you might think of: differences in parental investment, parents who only have one child, age of the children when tested, etc. Media outlets ran with study, but lost in much of the coverage was a simple question: How big of a difference did the study find? The answer: 2.3 points.
"You sneeze while you're taking an IQ test and have to wipe your nose for eight seconds afterward, and that's going to cost you 2.3 IQ points," Sapolsky says.
The study was a great example of how the results of a study can be impeccable and statistically reliable, and also unimportant. At the 9:30 mark in the 8th lesson, Sapolsky uses a "Chutes and Ladders" experiment to illustrate how to better interpret the results and methodology of scientific experiments.
Near the end of the course's first lesson on behavioral genetics, Sapolsky discusses how early experiences can shape long-lasting behavioral dispositions. These dispositions might appear to be genetically inherited. But Sapolsky notes that epigenetic research on rats shows that environmental factors — like mothering style — can influence how likely a pup is to express certain genes. Such genes might be responsible, say, for making receptors for stress hormones.
"Your early experience is going to cause life-long changes in your brain, which will make you more likely to reproduce the same experience for your offspring," Sapolsky says around 135:15 in the video below.
What's especially interesting is that this kind of epigenetic programming is reversible. Noting research conducted by Michael Meaney at McGill University's Douglas Research Centre, Sapolsky says:
"You have a baby rat who spends the first of its infancy with some totally terrible, negligent, distracted mom," but if you put that pup with a nurturing mom, "you can change the epigenetic pattern."
Sapolsky notes how this kind of epigenetic programming looks and operates similar to genetics.
"All of this has two themes has two themes going on: Early experience causing really persistent differences in how this stuff works long after, and experience later on having the potential to reverse some of this. All of this stuff, once again, [could be] mistaken for genetic. What we have here is what appears to be a genetic style of what sort of mother rat you are, and it's not genes, it's the mothering style setting up the offspring for being a similar type of mother."
To be sure, epigenetics is a complex field, and this is just a simple example of how the environment can influence gene expression. Throughout the entire course, Sapolsky routinely emphasizes that studying human behavior, or any scientific field, can be incredibly complex — so much so that it may seem like it's impossible to solve anything. But "even though it's complicated, you gotta do something," Sapolsky says.
Part of studying a complicated field requires accepting the limitations of your era, as Sapolsky describes with an analogy about archaeology:
"A wonderful cool thing I heard about in archaeology...[is that] when you excavate a site, what you're supposed to do is excavate about half of it," he says. "You leave the other half for people in the future, with better techniques and better understanding, and leave something in tact there to keep from your, sort of, blundering hands."
The course ends on a message about the assumed dichotomy between being compassionate and being scientific: "Go and do both," Sapolsky says.
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Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.
- Autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades, but artificial intelligence is ushering in a new category of autonomous weapons.
- These weapons are not only capable of moving autonomously but also identifying and attacking targets on their own without oversight from a human.
- There's currently no clear international restrictions on the use of new autonomous weapons, but some nations are calling for preemptive bans.
Nothing transforms warfare more violently than new weapons technology. In prehistoric times, it was the club, the spear, the bow and arrow, the sword. The 16th century brought rifles. The World Wars of the 20th century introduced machine guns, planes, and atomic bombs.
Now we might be seeing the first stages of the next battlefield revolution: autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence.
In March, the United Nations Security Council published an extensive report on the Second Libyan War that describes what could be the first-known case of an AI-powered autonomous weapon killing people in the battlefield.
The incident took place in March 2020, when soldiers with the Government of National Accord (GNA) were battling troops supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (called Haftar Affiliated Forces, or HAF, in the report). One passage describes how GNA troops may have used an autonomous drone to kill retreating HAF soldiers:
"Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2... and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
Still, because the GNA forces were also firing surface-to-air missiles at the HAF troops, it's currently difficult to know how many, if any, troops were killed by autonomous drones. It's also unclear whether this incident represents anything new. After all, autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are weapon systems that can search for and fire upon targets on their own. It's a broad category whose definition is debatable. For example, you could argue that land mines and naval mines, used in battle for centuries, are LAWS, albeit relatively passive and "dumb." Since the 1970s, navies have used active protection systems that identify, track, and shoot down enemy projectiles fired toward ships, if the human controller chooses to pull the trigger.
Then there are drones, an umbrella term that commonly refers to unmanned weapons systems. Introduced in 1991 with unmanned (yet human-controlled) aerial vehicles, drones now represent a broad suite of weapons systems, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), loitering munitions (commonly called "kamikaze drones"), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to name a few.
Some unmanned weapons are largely autonomous. The key question to understanding the potential significance of the March 2020 incident is: what exactly was the weapon's level of autonomy? In other words, who made the ultimate decision to kill: human or robot?
The Kargu-2 system
One of the weapons described in the UN report was the Kargu-2 system, which is a type of loitering munitions weapon. This type of unmanned aerial vehicle loiters above potential targets (usually anti-air weapons) and, when it detects radar signals from enemy systems, swoops down and explodes in a kamikaze-style attack.
Kargu-2 is produced by the Turkish defense contractor STM, which says the system can be operated both manually and autonomously using "real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms" to identify and attack targets on the battlefield.
STM | KARGU - Rotary Wing Attack Drone Loitering Munition System youtu.be
In other words, STM says its robot can detect targets and autonomously attack them without a human "pulling the trigger." If that's what happened in Libya in March 2020, it'd be the first-known attack of its kind. But the UN report isn't conclusive.
It states that HAF troops suffered "continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems," which were "programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
What does that last bit mean? Basically, that a human operator might have programmed the drone to conduct the attack and then sent it a few miles away, where it didn't have connectivity to the operator. Without connectivity to the human operator, the robot would have had the final call on whether to attack.
Key line 2: The loitering munitions/LAWS (depending upon how you frame it) were enabled to attack without data conn… https://t.co/5u89cDDA60— Jack McDonald (@Jack McDonald)1622114029.0
To be sure, it's unclear if anyone died from such an autonomous attack in Libya. In any case, LAWS technology has evolved to the point where such attacks are possible. What's more, STM is developing swarms of drones that could work together to execute autonomous attacks.
Noah Smith, an economics writer, described what these attacks might look like on his Substack:
"Combined with A.I., tiny cheap little battery-powered drones could be a huge game-changer. Imagine releasing a networked swarm of autonomous quadcopters into an urban area held by enemy infantry, each armed with little rocket-propelled fragmentation grenades and equipped with computer vision technology that allowed it to recognize friend from foe."
But could drones accurately discern friend from foe? After all, computer-vision systems like facial recognition don't identify objects and people with perfect accuracy; one study found that very slightly tweaking an image can lead an AI to miscategorize it. Can LAWS be trusted to differentiate between a soldier with a rifle slung over his back and, say, a kid wearing a backpack?
Opposition to LAWS
Unsurprisingly, many humanitarian groups are concerned about introducing a new generation of autonomous weapons to the battlefield. One such group is the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, whose 2018 survey of roughly 19,000 people across 26 countries found that 61 percent of respondents said they oppose the use of LAWS.
In 2018, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons issued a rather vague set of guidelines aiming to restrict the use of LAWS. One guideline states that "human responsibility must be retained when it comes to decisions on the use of weapons systems." Meanwhile, at least a couple dozen nations have called for preemptive bans on LAWS.
The U.S. and Russia oppose such bans, while China's position is a bit ambiguous. It's impossible to predict how the international community will regulate AI-powered autonomous weapons in the future, but among the world's superpowers, one assumption seems safe: If these weapons provide a clear tactical advantage, they will be used on the battlefield.
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."
She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.