Archive for Wednesday, April 3, 1996

SWEET NOTHING

April 3, 1996

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Getting sugar from natural sources, such as fruits and vegetables, adds nutrients to what otherwise would be empty calories.

In the American battle for a healthy diet, sugar -- particularly in its white, processed form -- has come away with a black eye.

That's not to say that our greater emphasis on nutrition has made sugar any less pervasive. We still sprinkle it on our cereal and use it freely in baking. We eat it unwittingly in processed foods, which often contain surprisingly high amounts of fructose.

But is it really as bad for you as many people believe? Is white sugar worse than other forms? Will eating sugar land your children in after-school detention?

To answer those questions, Lawrence nutritionists point to the top of the food pyramid and lump sugar and fat in the same category.

``They're what we call empty calories. They provide fuel but they don't pack any nutrients,'' said Ann Chapman, dietitian at Kansas University's Watkins Health Center.

Nutrition educator Melissa Nolte agreed. ``It takes more nutrients to digest than it gives you,'' she said.

That doesn't mean that eating sugar burns calories, though.

``If you've had all your calories for the day, sugar turns into fat,'' she explained.

As a source of fuel, sugar provides a quick energy burst. Nolte likened it to burning paper versus the more enduring energy fire produced by complex carbohydrates and other foods.

``Americans do eat quite a bit of sugar,'' said Midge Ransom, who teaches nutrition at KU. ``The problem is that it replaces foods with better nutritional values -- eating ice cream and candy bars instead of good food.''

Chapman said it's a myth that white, processed sugar is any worse in the diet than, say, honey.

``Sugar is sugar, whether it's brown sugar, honey or sugar in the raw,'' she said. ``They're all converted by the body into glucose and used for fuel.''

Blackstrap molasses and honey may contain some trace nutrients but probably not enough to make any difference. Turbanado sugar, which often is marketed as an alternative to table sugar, is just white sugar soaked in molasses.

The choice becomes one of where we get our sugar, Nolte said. ``I get it in fruits and vegetables. I like to get it in a form with other nutrients.''

As for other negative effects of eating sugar, ``the only thing that is conclusive is that too much sugar remaining in the mouth causes tooth decay,'' Ransom said.

And parents can rest easy about the effect of sugar on behavior, Chapman said. ``There is not good clinical evidence to support the idea that sugar produces hyperactivity in children.''

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