Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

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Test Your Sugar Knowledge?


Sugar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


A short quiz on how much we know about sugar in the diet.  It’s always a surprise when we realize how much sugar we actually consume every day.    For added sugars, look  on the ingredient labels.  In addition to sugar, look for high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, dextrose, brown sugar, fructose, lactose, fruit juice concentrate, honey, invert sugar, malt syrup, maltose, and molasses, glucose, and raw sugar.  Ingredients are listed by weight, so if sugar is listed as the first few ingredients, that product is loaded with it. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar every day. And men should consume less than nine teaspoons per day.


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Sugar? Really?


Public relations of high-fructose corn syrup

Public relations of high-fructose corn syrup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Really??  This is a blatant marketing gimmick. As far as I can tell both sweeteners contain 4 calories per gram.  So what’s so good about using sugar over high fructose corn syrup?  Taste will tell.




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Where is the Sugar?


This is a bowl of white sugar.

This is a bowl of white sugar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following article is a very comprehensive and informative review of the sugar content of our diets.   Bottom line:  It is recommended that we consume no more than 13 teaspoons of sugar a day.  It would help a lot if the much needed revised nutrition fact labels would  include added sugars.  For now, the labels have grams of sugar  as total sugars in one serving.  Divide that number by four to determine how many teaspoons of sugar that product contains.

Most of the studies on sugars and health  has concentrated on diabetes and obesity.   Check out this previous post on the seldom mentioned effects of carbohydrates  on cancer risk.  These studies for obvious reasons are cell or animal studies, but it is nevertheless interesting.


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Food Addict?

Position of the nucleus accumbens and Ventral ...

Position of the nucleus accumbens and Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea that food (at least some types) are addictive has been debated  for quite a while and up to now mostly rejected by both nutrition and addiction researchers.  Based on some recent research however, it is being discussed more seriously that food and drug addictions have much in common in how they affect parts of the brain associated with pleasure and self control.

What’s the evidence?  Studies from Princeton and the U. of Florida found that when rats were allowed to binge on sugar and then the sugar was taken away, they showed opiate-like withdrawal symptoms including teeth chattering, forepaw tremors and the shakes.

There is a paradigm called the conditioned place preference.  Rats are given a choice between two rooms and the rats become familiar with both of them.  For example, inside one room, the rat is given injections of morphine or cocaine and in the other room, he/she is given a placebo of injected saline. Guess which room the rats hung out in most of the time – of course, the drug room – they had learned to prefer the effects of this room compared to the other (boring) room. This phenomenon continued even after the injections were discontinued.

In a study based on this paradigm at Connecticut College last year, rats were trained with Oreos in one room and in the other boring rice cakes.  They spent just as much time in the Oreo room as they had spent in the cocaine or morphine room in previous studies.  After that experiment they examined the nucleus accumbens (a part of the brain’s pleasure center).  They measured the expression of a protein located there (c-Fos) that  tells us when that brain center has been turned on or not in response to a behavior.  They found  a greater number of neurons that were activated in the nucleus accumbens in rats given the Oreos compared to animals conditioned to cocaine or morphine.  This raised the question – do foods high in fats and/or sugar affect the brain in the same way as addictive drugs?

In a study published in Nature Neuroscience (2010), rats that spent 40 days eating bacon, sausage, cheesecakes and frosting became addicted by continuing to eat despite given electric shocks.  Rats who were not addicted did not.

So much for the rats. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at how food intake is associated with dopamine-containing pleasure centers in the brain. Dr. David Ludwig from Boston Children’s Hospital  and colleagues measured blood glucose levels and hunger and used MRI brain scans to look at brain activity during a four-hour period after a meal.  This time span helps to influence eating behavior at the next meal.

Two identical milkshakes in calories, taste and sweetness were  given to 12 overweight or obese men.  One of the milkshakes contained a high-glycemic carbohydrate causing a rapid rise in blood glucose; the other contained a low-glycemic carbohydrate that takes longer to digest, thus a slower-acting blood glucose response.

When the volunteers consumed the high-glycemic shake, they experienced an initial surge in blood glucose levels that was followed by a sharp decline four hours later. The subjects also became extremely hungry.  Brain scans showed activation of the nucleus accumbens  which is also triggered by addictive drugs and even behaviors like gambling.  These results may help to explain why some people overeat (however, all obese people do not exhibit this behavior) and provides a biological reason rather than just blame it on a lack of willpower.

Dr. Ludwig said: “Beyond reward and craving, this part of the brain is also linked with substance abuse and dependence, which raises the question as to whether certain foods might be addictive.  These findings suggest that limiting high-glycemic foods such as white bread and potatoes could help obese people reduce cravings and control the urge to overeat”.

Dr. William Davis, writing in “Wheat Belly (a provocative book) has also proposed the theory that wheat is addictive. But remember, diet books often make bold statements to help them sell.  He makes many claims that often are not supported by proper references, in my opinion.

From his  book:  “ It has been known for a century that opiates, when administered to lab animals and humans increase appetite.  It was discovered about 30 years ago that the gliadin protein of wheat is, in effect, an opiate, as it yields digestive breakdown products that bind to the opiate receptors of the brain.”
For a critical review of this book:


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Some Good News?


Juice (Photo credit: hepp)

At Last – people appear to be getting the messages about healthier food choices.  Still many  of our food choices continue to consist of  sugary carbohydrates – fruit juice,  soft drinks, snacks and even yogurt (many contain a lot of sugar) and some cold cereals.  But it does appear to be a slight improvement.  I would like to know what kinds of vegetables are being consumed.

A lot of the choices are based on cost and convenience and a lot of these foods are often processed, however.    But it’s trend in the right direction.


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A spoon containing breakfast cereal flakes, pa...

A spoon containing breakfast cereal flakes, part of a strawberry, and milk is held in midair against a blue background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

FYI:  I’m sure you all have noticed the cereal section in the supermarket – so many choices, so little time.   We really should rename this aisle – SUGARLAND!!!


The television breakfast cereal ads appear to be dominated by HONEY NUT CHEERIOS.™  It seems like there is a commercial about every hour or so.  Upon checking,  there are 9 grams of sugar in a 3/4 cup serving.  The original Cheerios only contain 1 gram.

But shame on the cereal companies!!!  For an eye-opening review of cereals marketed to children:


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