Sugar is the femme fatale of the food world. Equal parts seductive and evil, it whispers sweet nothings to our tastebuds and then does its damage once it slips past our lips. It has been linked to obesity and diabetes, it could be cancer-causing and it might even make us stupid.
Despite this, we are left begging for more of the sweet stuff even while it has its wily way with us. But as this villain du jour snuck its way into formerly healthy foods, it was caught red-handed in everything from bread to sauce to spreads and has been on public trial ever since.
Is it inherently evil or just empty calories that we eat too much of? This has been the subject of a vociferous trial, with experts equally pillorying or defending its saccharin charms.
It's toxic, tax it like booze, cried one group of prominent researchers. Sugar is not the problem. In fact, we're eating less of it than we were 30 years ago, Australian experts contested, in this controversial and strongly challenged claim. The problem is that sugar depletes leptin - our satiating hormone - and this means we don't know when we've had enough, argued Dr Tony Goldstone of the Imperial College in London. It's fine if it's in moderate amounts, countered the Department of Health and Ageing.
But, the question is always at what dose does a substance go from being harmless to harmful? How much, asked Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, do we have to consume before this happens?
While experts continue to bat that question out, some suggest we take our own stand on the issue.
In her recent ebook, I Quit Sugar, Sarah Wilson challenges readers to an eight-week sugar detox as an experiment in how sugar-dependent we've become and to see the effect it's having on our bodies and lives.
"We have a gnarly, deep-rooted resistance to quitting sugar," she writes. "We grow up with a full-on emotional and physical attachment to sugar. Just the idea of not being able to turn to it when we're feeling a little lost or tired or bored or emotionally bereft terrifies us."
In part, inspired by the popular and provocative Sweet Poison, by David Gillespie (which was criticised by Nutrition Australia in this open letter, it takes aim primarily at fructose.) Gillespie, and others, say that the problem with fructose is essentially that it is a liver-loader and that the way it is metabolised by the body is harmful. “Eating fructose is like eating fat that your body can't detect as fat … and makes us eat more fat,” he says.
So, as part of the I Quit Sugar challenge, fruit is out. At least to start with. "I don't think it's a good thing to demonise fruit," Wilson says. "I just found it helpful to cut it out for two months while my body rebalanced."
I lasted about two weeks on the fruit-free part of the detox, and fell off the chocolate wagon more than once too. But, like Wilson, after the eight weeks, even with a ramped up fat-intake, I certainly felt less foggy and puffy, my skin was smoother and I was more energetic. My immunity feels stronger as a result and I lost the sense of regularly teetering on the edge of illness. I also noticed how easy it is to use sugar as an emotional crutch - when you can't have it, you very quickly become aware of how often you want to reach for it to subdue stress, anxiety or sadness. Wilson encourages you to eat fat "For both psychological reasons (so we don't get depressed and frustrated from the deprivation) and for physiological reasons (so our bodies don't go into famine mode)."
Luckily, Wilson's approach is not rigid. "Diets don't work, forcing doesn't work. The human experience doesn't respond to 'restrictive thinking'. I've found that being kind and nurturing with yourself does work. You're doing this, not because you have to but, because it might make you feel better ... you don't have to commit beyond [eight weeks] if you don't want to." And when you fall off the wagon, you gently dust off the chocolate crumbs and jump back on.
But, Maria Packard, spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, questions quitting sugar in the first place. "From a dietitian's point of view we believe it's a bit simplistic to blame sugar alone [on health and weight problems]," she says. "Obviously it's a complex issue ... Look at the whole picture, not just one ingredient. Have a wide variety of nutritious foods and still enjoy small amounts of sweets - it's about lifestyle."
For instance, if having a sprinkle of sugar on your porridge makes you eat the porridge then it's well worth it, Packard says. "From a practical point of view we recommend a wide variety of nutritious foods ... We can only go on the evidence. Fruit has fibre ... it's not just sugar."
As for the various forms of sweetener, "They're all suitable choices as a part of healthy eating," Packard says.
But, again the jury seems to be out on that one. Agave, for instance, is low GI but, around 90 per cent fructose, so whether it's a good alternative to table sugar or not is debatable. Sticking to less of the sweet stuff in general, whatever its form, seems to be the key.
And until the experts come up with something conclusive about exactly how much that is and in what form, figuring out whether sugar and its aliases are really the devil in disguise might be a question best asked of your own body.
A guide to alternative sweeteners
After the eight weeks is up Wilson suggests alternatives to fructose/sugar to soothe a sweet-toothed craving. But, again what many in the anti-fructose camp favour is in contrast to what other health professionals suggest. Part of the reason for this is because of the Glycemic Index, which is how quickly the body will digest and absorb sugar, author and dietitian Tara Diversi explains. "Fructose is what makes [certain sweeteners] low-GI, because it is absorbed slower by the gut." She explains that, in processed foods, you can make something low-GI by adding fat or protein or vinegar. For this reason, she says "Low GI is a great concept, but it should be used for whole foods [where the GI levels occur naturally and not as a result of additional processing.]"
Rice syrup or rice malt syrup is made by culturing rice to break down enzymes. Wilson is an advocate. Diversi says, as with all sweeteners it "depends on how much you're having."
Stevia is a natural alternative derived from a leaf, it contains no fructose and gets the tick from Wilson and Diversi alike. "It's intensely sweet," Diversi says. "So, you don't use very much ... it's a good option."
Glucose/dextrose "Both types of carbohydrates but, dextrose not absorbed as quickly," Diversi says. Essentially dextrose without fructose, Wilson says. It's the only type of 'sugar' David Gillespie recommends.
Sucrose is cane sugar. It's 50/50 glucose and fructose so there's a moderate digestion rate. Not at all recommended by the anti-fructose camp, but Diversi stressed that "It's not evil and if parent give their children a little, they're not dooming them to a life of diabetes and heart disease."
Fructose is fruit sugar. As above, there are many who are questioning fructose, but even the anti-fructose camp say it metabolises differently when it's in fruit and tend to recommend a couple of pieces per day.
Honey, maple syrup and molasses (which isn't as sweet) are all natural alternatives with varying fructose and GI levels. They're good options, according to Diversi, but "having anything sweet is more likely to keep us wanting more sweetness, rather than getting our palates used to less of it."
Agave is similar to stevia. It's another good option and is sweeter than normal sugar, so we tend to use less. But, Wilson warns that it is around 90 per cent fructose.
Reports are conflicting about the safety of artificial sweeteners. But, they are "a good option if you're trying to reduce sugar," Diversi says. "The myths [about them causing cancer] aren't true, but they don't make people eat less sugar overall."