The Role of Sugar as a Toxin

Ask the Nutritionist

Q: I've read that sugar is a toxin in the New York Times article titled "Is Sugar Toxic?" Is this true?

Mike Duhigg, Littleton, Massachusetts 

A: The New York Times article argues that it is the specific way that the body metabolizes sugar, particularly fructose, which makes it so toxic. The high consumption of sugar in the American diet, particularly in sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods, has also been associated with the growing rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome.

Although the article cites numerous studies linking sugar in the diet to chronic disease and negative health outcomes, the bottom line is that a great excess of any one dietary component can have negative effects. Whether the risks of added sugar have to do with how it is metabolized or simply with excess calories that lead to obesity, it should be limited in a balanced, healthful diet.

However, that does not mean that fruits and other natural sources of fructose should be eliminated. Although an apple contains sugar, it is also a source of fiber and other phytonutrients that are key to a healthful diet. More information about the relationship between sugar and cancer can be found in Sugar and Cancer Cells.

The recipes that we post are all healthful meals that focus on whole grains, lean proteins, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. We avoid highly processed ingredients, as well as excess sugar and salt. However, if a recipe lists sugar as an ingredient, whether it is white, brown or maple syrup, we recommend omitting the sugar instead of using a sugar substitute such as Splenda (see Splenda vs. Sugar in Recipes). Natural ways to limit sugar in baking include using unsweetened organic applesauce, or fresh or frozen fruits, such as blueberries or baked apples with cinnamon. You can also use a touch of honey, preferably from a local farm, in place of sugar in most recipes.

Overall, excess sugar should be limited in a healthful diet. Brown sugar is only different than white sugar because it contains molasses, meaning that whatever type you choose to incorporate into your diet should be done in limited amounts. However, a small amount of added sugar in cooking or baking can be a safe addition to a balanced diet.

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