Sweet balance

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Few of us can resist a sweet treat. We're drawn to biscuits, chocolate and cake like bees to honey and experts believe we're hooked.

A study at Connecticut College found Oreos were just as addictive as cocaine for lab rats - and, like most humans, rats ate the middle first.

The researchers concluded it supported the theory that high-fat/high-sugar foods stimulated the pleasure centre of the brain in the same way as drugs. Predictably, rats in a control group didn't get much joy out of eating rice cakes.

"Sugar is the thing the food industry uses to make processed food sell," University of California paediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig told Fresh.

Yes, he's looking at you, tomato sauce, mayonnaise, toasted muesli and flavoured yoghurt.

Lustig went viral with his 2009 lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth, which was posted on YouTube and has had more than 4.7 million views. He leads the field with his warning that calories and carbohydrates are not equal and that sucrose, or table sugar, is not metabolised the same way as, say, flour.

Sucrose is made up of equal molecules of fructose and glucose. Glucose is readily converted to energy but fructose is "poison", according to Lustig.

It's metabolised by the liver and, he argues, too much turns to fat. His bete-noire is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is widely used in the US and popular in low-fat foods. "Fresh fruit is fine; it has fibre," Lustig said. "Juice is not fine, even fresh-squeezed. You need both the soluble and insoluble fibre - and juicing removes the insoluble fibre. Yes (I eat birthday cake), but it had better be damned good birthday cake for me to spend the calories on it. My wife bakes and she has learnt she can cut the sugar by one-third (in recipes before it affects the texture and flavour). You just have to watch the dose."

The World Health Organisation suggests we cut the amount of sugar we eat from the current recommended limit of 10 per cent of a person's calories - about 12 teaspoons - to five per cent (six teaspoons) to help combat obesity and tooth decay. "It's targeting added sugars in food and that includes honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates," LiveLighter nutrition and physical activity manager Steve Pratt said. "Fruit in its natural form is not included because, like vegetables, it has a net benefit to our health."

Former journalist Sarah Wilson went cold turkey three years ago and says she has never felt better. With two top-selling I Quit Sugar books to spread the word, she's swapped careers to launch an online business to help people shake the habit and uses rice malt syrup and stevia as sweet substitutes in dressings and jams.

It doesn't always work, according to Melbourne nutritionist Cassie Platt, author of Don't Quit Sugar. A masters degree graduate from Deakin University, she went sugar-free while living in the US four years ago, first by eliminating highly processed foods, then high-sugar fruits and ended up paleo, replacing greens with nuts and seeds. She felt fantastic - at first - then things went awry. "Initially, I was cold all the time and that's a big red flag for metabolism," she said. "I was having trouble sleeping, my hair and nails started deteriorating, I ended up with acne and my menstrual cycle got messed up.

"What people don't realise is that sugar is the preferred form of energy for every cell in our body. If we want to stick to natural foods, then we need to have some sugar in our diet, and that includes fructose because it occurs naturally in fruit and vegetables. A lot of the studies that find fructose evil use isolated fructose in unrealistically huge quantities on rats."

Wholefood cook Jude Blereau maintains it's a matter of balance, with nutrient-dense "real" food being the best option for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "Sweetness is not a dirty word," she said. "If we look back at my mother and the CWA generation, the difference is that they had the basics in place and did not exist on refined carbohydrates all day."

Her favourite refined sugar substitutes are maple syrup, which is rich in calcium, rapadura sugar and brown rice syrup.

Dietitian Glenn Cardwell doesn't focus so much on sugar as the quality of what we eat, even though he acknowledges "balance" is difficult to sell. "I can assure you that when I make some muffins or fruit cake, I am going to use sugar because I know there's going to be some whole grains, some dried fruit, probably some seeds and nuts, so the sugar is not a problem," he said. "But if I wander down the street and buy a donut, what am I getting? Just sugar and flour. It may have the same sugar content (as my muffin) but the quality of the food is different.

"Sugar in itself is not evil, only in excess of what you require. A lot of athletes will consume jelly beans at half-time and that's OK too, but I wouldn't want them to be sitting down watching TV and eating jelly beans. You have to put all this into perspective.

"At the end of the day, it's fine to have a piece of birthday cake. Wouldn't it be a shame if we toasted people with a glass of water and celery sticks?"

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