‘Tis the Season for Sugar

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The holidays are upon us, as are its assortment of treats in candy dishes at work, baked goods at the market, and around our homes in anticipation of visitors. Because these treats can be so small and seemingly inconsequential, it’s so easy to end up eating more calories than a full-sized candy bar by the end of the day!

Based on multiple scientific studies on human health, researchers found that excess sugar consumption can suppress your immune system, elevate your blood pressure, contribute to obesity, increase the risk for heart disease, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and can even give you wrinkles.

Our hefty sugar consumption

The American Medical Association (AMA), the FDA, and World Health Organization (WHO) all recommend limiting sugar. While the AMA is the most conservative at 24 grams for women and 36 for men, the FDA and WHO indicate that there are benefits to keeping sugar to less than 5-10% of your daily calories, or about 25-50 grams.

Yet most Americans unknowingly eat between 80-110 grams of added sugar a day. With the holidays upon us, it is far too easy to make that mistake with those obvious sugar traps of candy bars, festive drinks and baked goods. But less obvious sugar traps are often hiding in places where you might not expect it: ketchup, salad dressing, sauces, and yogurt.

For instance, a quick bowl of cereal at breakfast can provide you with your allotment of sugar for the day. Bran cereal with raisins has about 19 grams of sugar and some yogurts have as much as 17 grams of added sugar. Compare this with a candy bar that has just about as much sugar as these options at 20 grams. When you start your day with too much sugar, your body and your brain crave more.

What about the “sugar high”?

Let’s take a quick look at how sugar affects our brain. Sugar has a direct relationship to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When you eat sugar, it causes dopamine to be released and actually activates your brain’s “reward system.” This is what we believe to be the sugar high or buzz.

We’ve all experienced the phenomenon, “sugar high”, as we watch kids go bananas after wolfing down sugary treats and felt the rush ourselves after a handful of M&Ms. And we all know what follows: a sudden, crabby disposition and then, inevitably, a hard crash. Drooling and snoring are optional. But recent research indicates this “rush” may not be a reality.

In fact, the study shows how sugar actually has the reverse effect, making us more tired and lethargic. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews published a study which showed that consuming carbohydrates does not elevate our mood. They did 31 studies with 1,259 participants and found that there was no positive effect on someone’s mood following sugar consumption.

“In fact, sugar consumption was related to decreased alertness and higher levels of fatigue within the first hour post-ingestion.”

Sugar rush or sugar crash? A meta-analysis of carbohydrate effects on mood, Mantantzis, et al.

Sugar’s effect on insulin

As sugar rises in the blood, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin is responsible for glucose uptake into the cells, where it is used for energy. It also signals the liver and muscles to convert the glucose into glycogen for storage.

When your body produces too much insulin in response to high sugar and carbohydrates in the blood, your blood pressure increases. This is because high insulin causes magnesium stores to decrease. If magnesium levels are too low, the blood vessels will not be able to fully relax, thereby causing restriction of the blood vessels and increased blood pressure.

What is the difference between glucose and fructose?

Humans need glucose for energy. But too much glucose is stored in your liver and muscles and turned into fat.

The cells in the body do not use fructose for energy, so all of the fructose you eat is metabolized in the liver. Fructose is not used as an energy source. Instead, fructose is turned into free fatty acids, very low-density lipoproteins and triglycerides, which are then stored as body fat.

Too much contributes to obesity, elevated blood pressure, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

What about the natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables?

You are not going to become obese by eating fruits and vegetables. While the body handles sugars naturally present in fruits and vegetables in a similar way to added sugars, the benefits of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber make eating fruits and veggies worthwhile for your diet.

In addition, the fiber in fruit and vegetables fills you up and slows down the rate at which your body digests the sugar, thus decreasing the glycemic impact. Aim for at least 4 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables per day.

To learn the sugar content in different fruits, the USDA provides a searchable nutrient database.

There are a lot of different types of sugar.  What makes them different?

Sugar comes from many sources, but all sugars provide the same number of calories: 20 calories per teaspoon and 60 calories per tablespoon. The most common is from sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn.

Though agave has been touted as a “natural” source of sugar, be aware of its high fructose content, making it more likely to sit on your liver. However, some sugars, such as honey or coconut sugar, are marginally better because they have additional nutrients: honey has anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties and coconut sugar has minerals and antioxidants. But still, it is far better to limit all added sugars in your diet and depend on fruits and vegetables for their natural sources of sugar.

All sugars, except agave, have roughly the same ratio of fructose and glucose. Your body processes glucose and fructose the same way, no matter the source.

What are the sugar alternatives?

You do have choices to satisfy your sweet tooth. There are two kinds of alternative sweeteners: natural, such as Stevia and Tagatose, and artificial, such as Splenda, Equal and Sweet’N Low. To read more about the differences of these sweeteners, check out our post, What is an Artificial Sweetener?


The FDA has now included ‘added sugars’ in the new labeling process. These are sugars that are added during food processing or packing. A study led by researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and the University of Liverpool estimated that the new FDA labeling could prevent or postpone nearly 1 million cases of cardiometabolic disease, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes over a 20 year period. For more on labeling, check out our D2D post on nutrition facts.

Superfoods: Super Healthy or Super Hype?

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Walking through the grocery aisle, there is an overwhelming number of new superfoods to choose from. Hemp hearts are full of alpha linolenic acid, an anti-inflammatory that can reduce heart disease and cholesterol. You can run for miles fueled only on chia seeds, which are also rich in antioxidants, fiber, iron, and calcium. Acai and goji berries are high in amino acids, antioxidants, and vitamins C, A, B1, B2, and E, all of which damage free radicals, boost your energy and support overall immunity. So I dutifully include all of these to my morning oatmeal and I feel energetic and ready to tackle the day!

But, with all this effort, I still don’t really know what a superfood is…

“Superfood” is not defined

The actual term, “superfood”, is not a term regulated by the FDA. While these foods are thought to be exceptionally dense in nutrition, they do not actually have their own food group. They are called ‘super’ because they contain superior nutritional benefits for the amount of calories they contain. Basically, more bang for your buck, but there is more to the story as it relates to its terminology.

The American Heart Association defines superfoods as “nutritious foods that, when added to an already balanced diet, can bring health benefits.” They reference Beans and Legumes, Berries, Dark Leafy Greens, Nuts and Seeds, Oats, Pumpkin, Salmon, Skinless Poultry, and Yogurt. Sounds a lot like the makings of the Mediterranean or MIND diet to me.

One thing the AHA states right off the bat, even before addressing specific foods, is that superfoods alone will not make you healthier.

Superfoods alone will not make you healthier? I thought that was the point of a Superfoods – they could do it all!

Unfortunately, no. So don’t throw out your groceries and stock the fridge only with hemp hearts, beans, and berries.

While they won’t turn you into a superhero, so-called superfoods are packed with nutrients with protective and combatant properties. What has become evident is that the foods labeled as superfoods are the ones that have ‘more’ nutrition. For instance, 2 tablespoons of hemp hearts have a bit more protein than an egg. Blueberries and blackberries have more antioxidants than pineapples and may help ward off cancer. Salmon has more omega-3 healthy fats and can help prevent heart disease. And, yes, dark leafy greens are healthier than iceberg lettuce. But that’s not all that’s happening here.

“Superfood” as a lucrative marketing term

The term “superfood” is an attractive word, no doubt an eye-catching phrase in your google search.

Ultimately, these super-terminologies really just mean super-sales. Marketing companies have taken note and capitalized on the viral effects of such catchphrases. According to a Nielsen survey, consumers are willing to pay more for foods perceived as healthy, and health claims on labels seem to help. Unsurprisingly, foods that already carry a “healthy” perception and carry certain beneficial claims on labels have shown the greatest sales.

The incentive to market superfoods as such has not been missed by the food industry. They know the term has no concrete meaning, but they know it will boost sales. According to Mintel‘s research, there was a 36% increase in the number of foods and beverages that were marketed with the “superfood”, “super-grain” or “superfruit” label since 2015. The U.S. was the leader in these product launches.

Beneath the comforting concept lies a disappointing reality of industry bias

Dr. Marion Nestle, nutrition and public health professor emerita at New York University, details the gimmick in her new book, “Unsavory Truth”. She uncovers the role of marketing and how highlighting special health benefits makes the products more appealing to customers.

“When marketing imperatives are at work, sellers want research to claim that their products are ‘superfoods,’ a nutritionally meaningless term,” she wrote.

“One of the things I noticed was that there were [studies on] all these foods that are demonstrably healthy. Why would you need to do research to prove that blueberries or raspberries or pomegranates or grapes are healthy? Of course they’re healthy. So the only reason they are doing it is because they’re trying to increase market share.”

– Dr. Marion Nestle

She calls out the fact that the U.S. Department of Health and USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans does not recommend focusing on a singular food or food group for better health, but instead calls for a variety of “healthy eating patterns” of various fruits, vegetables, grains and more. The inverse of how singular “superfoods” are marketed.

What we are suggesting is that the term is useful as a sales driver as well as an identifier of health. We simply would warn that the term can blind consumers to equally nutritious options that are not as hyped-up, thus depriving us of other nutritious choices.

How do we determine truth from hype? 

The answer is in the whole picture! We are all fairly well acquainted with blueberries as a popular superfood. They are high in antioxidants, specifically anthocyanins, that have been reported to inhibit the growth of cancerous human colon cells, and they aid in protecting the body from free-radicals.

But the human body is complex. To truly examine the effect a food has on our body, we must consider not only our diet but our genetics, our lifestyle, our activity level—things that vary greatly from person to person. What might have super-effects on you might have inverse effects on me. Not from the food alone necessarily, but from the combination of our genes and other lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress, and love.

What’s a person to do about this super-vague label?

Each day, eat 5 to 7 servings of vegetables and 3 to 5 servings of fruit – whether they are ‘super’ or not. We need to ensure we have a balanced diet. And that means increasing our range of nutritious foods in our diets, rather than focusing on a handful of foods that claim to be ‘better’.

Carrots, apples, and onions, for example, have not been touted yet as a “superfoods”, however they contain beta-carotene, flavonoids, and fiber that we need. Whole grains found in cereals, bread, rice, and pasta are also high in fiber and fortified with vitamins and minerals, making it easy for many to consume to achieve recommended daily intake.

Are GMOs Bad for the Environment?


I have a lovely, peaceful vegetable garden in our backyard. Though I spend a lot of time weeding and watering, my very small garden is only for our friends and family to enjoy. If my tomatoes or peppers fail, then my back-up plan is to run to the grocery store or the farmers’ market. The entire vegetable garden experience is for fun, and also a lesson in patience for my children. I don’t depend on the food in my backyard to feed my family of five.

However, for those farmers whom we depend on to feed all 7.9 billion of us, there is no back-up plan when weeds and pests destroy their crop. Weeds strangle plant growth by stealing water, sunlight, and soil nutrients that crops need. Insects defoliate young shoots and leaves faster than you can say “pesticide.”

As a result, farmers must constantly manage the economic and environmental balance between overspending and over-spraying pesticides on crops. Fewer passes through the fields with sprayer equipment means burning less fuel, fewer carbon emissions, and less compaction of the soil. A win-win-win!

So, how does genetic engineering play a role on the farm? These technologies help farmers use less pesticide, less water and less landMatin Qaim and Wilhelm Klumper at the University of Goettingen, Germany completed a 2014 meta-analysis on the global impacts of GMOs.

  • They discovered that GMOs have made incredible changes to our agricultural performance:
    • Reduced agricultural chemical use by 37%
    • Increased crop yields by 22%
    • Increased farmer profits by 68%

Additionally, a 2017 report, Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996-2016, focused on the pesticide and greenhouse gas emission reduction from genetic engineering, primarily with canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans. Using these GM crops reduced the Environmental Impact Quotient by 18.4%. It also cut down on farm equipment fuel usage via fewer pesticide sprays and no-till farming practices. In 2016, this decrease was equivalent to removing 16.7 million cars off the road. To put this in perspective, this is more than all the cars registered in California!

Less Pesticides

In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of the food supply is produced by small-holder farmers – farms with 25 acres or less. Plant biotechnology is finally making it possible for them to feed their families and communities, improve profits and dramatically reduce pesticide use.

In India, farmers depend on brinjal, or eggplant, as a significant source of food and income, but it comes with a cost. A small-holder farmer growing brinjal needs 85-120 insecticide sprays during a growing season, harming both the farmer and the environment. Despite all this effort, the eggplant fruit and shoot borer insect can still destroy up to 80% of the crop.

Feed the Future, a global partnership of research and educational institutions, introduced the Bt eggplant by genetically-engineering four different eggplant varieties to produce a protein from an organic pesticide that targets the pests.

According to Tony Shelton, Cornell professor of entomology and director of the Bt Brinjal Project, these new varieties of GMO eggplant now only need about seven sprays a season to control the insects, resulting in pesticide reduction of 92%!

The engineered eggplant is no longer desirable to the pest, thus stopping crop loss. Even more important, the protein does not damage or kill the beneficial insects in the farmer’s field.

In Uganda, 300 small-holder farmers recently grew GMO blight-resistant potatoes for the first time in 2017. Without this technology, they would spend about 15% of their income to spray their crops up to 15 times a season with insecticides, while still losing close to 60% of their crop. Now these potato farmers can increase their income and put less insecticide in the air, soil and their clothing and skin – an environmental triumph.

Nigeria. After almost 10 years of study, Nigeria has approved its first genetically-engineered crop. Black-eyed peas, otherwise known as cowpeas, are an important source of energy, protein and fiber. Nigeria’s small-holder farmers grow about 58% of the world’s supply. Growing cowpea is not easy, as it is susceptible to multiple insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses, which can cause as much as 90% crop loss. The Institute for Agricultural Research in Zaria, in collaboration with a world-renowned institute in Australia, found that a protein from the soil bacterium can control the pest. This genetically-engineered crop reduced pesticide use and increased yields by about 20%.

Less Pesticides and Healthier Soil

What is often overlooked in the GMO debate is that genetic engineering can create healthier soil and a cleaner watershed next to the farms. How? Let’s go back to my home garden. When I have weeds surrounding my tomatoes, I can just pull them up or hoe them back into the soil. In a small garden, this works perfectly. On acres of land, when farmers till the soil, the water evaporates more quickly, and the soil can blow away.

When a farmer uses Roundup Ready crops, i.e., crops that are tolerant to Roundup herbicide, they can practice no-till farming. No-till farming means farmers do not have to turn over soil to rid it of weeds. This prevents the soil from water evaporation, puts nutrients back into the soil, and keeps the soil dense with organic matter to avoid the soil blowing away. Finally, fewer emissions are released since a tractor doesn’t need to drive back and forth to turn over the soil.

Source: www.GMOAnswers.com

Despite recent controversies regarding Roundup or glyphosate, it has been proven effective to dramatically reduce pesticide applications. Read here for more information on glyphosate safety.

Less Water

Globally, food and agriculture use about 70% of our fresh water supply. While there is the same amount of water today as there was millions of years ago, clean and usable water is not always available to grow crops. According to the FAO, droughts have affected more people worldwide in the last 40 years than any other natural hazard.

Certain GMO seeds can help agriculture use less water and grow more drought-tolerant crops. Scientists believe wheat, corn and soybeans can be genetically modified to require less water. For instance, by altering a plant’s stoma – the microscopic pores in leaves and stems – to save water, these food crops could be extremely resourceful as we attempt to feed our rapidly growing population.

Let’s illustrate this using rice, a vital crop for much of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. Scientists have taken a gene related to cabbage and mustard and inserted it into rice as a strategy for plant improvement. Why? Inserting this gene allows for drought resistance, salt tolerance and thicker leaf production, which then increases photosynthesis.

For corn, Monsanto has created a DroughtGard variety to help the plant resist drought stress. This allows the corn to maintain some water without needing to draw as much up from the root system. Drought-resistant corn could increase harvests in Africa by an average of 20%.

Just like my own garden, whether it is vegetables or flowers, it is much more cost-effective and less toxic to my watershed when I grow tomatoes or roses without chemicals. Genetic engineering helps large and small holder farmers around the world do just that.

The African Swine Fever Epidemic: Are We at Risk?

asf pig

Pigs are dying all across Asia. It is estimated that by the end of 2019, over 200 million pigs will have fallen prey to the African Swine Flu — that’s over 25% of the global pig population. Will the African Swine Flu (ASF) virus hit the United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom? Millions of pigs in Asia have died from ASF within the past year – and scientists and animal health experts warn of the need to pay close attention to the pernicious effects of this disease and its potential to spread to even more parts of the global food system.

Contending with disease is nothing new for anyone in animal agriculture. Modern medical and veterinary science has made remarkable progress in understanding many of the major health challenges to beef, pork, poultry and other forms of animal protein. Vaccines and treatment techniques have helped make diseases a difficult – but largely manageable – element of animal husbandry, thus providing the world a remarkably safe supply of wholesome foods.

But the specter of disease isn’t completely gone, as the current attention to a potentially devastating disease has made abundantly clear. Helping put an end to the threat posed by ASF will require a concerted effort by everyone in the pork industry – from producer to processor to marketer – with a bit of understanding and support from the consumer to boot.

What is African Swine Fever?

ASF is an especially vicious disease affecting only pigs and wild boars and is very similar to hog cholera. It’s caused by a virus in the Asfarviridae family and is characterized by a long list of very ugly symptoms and, within a few days, almost always death. The virus spreads very easily from pig to pig through direct contact or through contaminated fluids and food. Ticks, fleas and other pests can also transmit the disease by biting an infected pig and subsequently a new host.

As its name suggests, the disease was first identified in Kenya in 1921 and has been recognized in various parts of Africa for some time. It spread rapidly through Asia as agriculture moved from farmers with a couple backyard pigs to larger-scale hog farms.

As of today, there is no vaccine or cure. The only management tool is the quick identification of infected pigs and immediate isolation and euthanization. Even if a carcass of an infected animal is processed, the virus can survive for months in infected tissue – it’s simply too tough to be easily destroyed.

If there is any good news in this, it’s that the virus doesn’t transmit to other animals or to humans. The virus has no effect on people – or cows, or chickens, or pets, or fish, or any other animal species or component of our global food supply.

While humans may not contract the disease, we can play an inadvertent but critical role in its transmission. Given the long life of the virus, any direct contact with an infected animal – even one not yet displaying symptoms – can make the human a carrier of the virus. The virus may quite literally travel around the world on a human host, especially those visiting farms, if proper hygiene/sanitary and biosecurity protocols aren’t followed.

ASF and the China connection

ASF is most pronounced in Asia, especially China. China produces about half of the world’s pork and constitutes 60% of their consumed animal protein, and imports still more to meet a steady expansion of demand for animal protein by the economically growing nation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture pegged China’s 2019 pork production at more than 55 million tons. China is expected to import another 2 million tons of pork, the majority from the European Union. And with the highest headcount of almost 450 million pigs, triple the headcount of the next leading country, Chinese consumers clearly like pork.

But since ASF was first reported in China in August 2018, Chinese officials have been circumspect in estimating the total number of pigs dead as a result of the disease. But some reports place the figure as high as 40 million, with media reports of reductions in the sow breeding herd of as much as one third. And regenerating pork productive capacity after such devastating animal losses could take two to three years.

ASF is not just affecting hogs…

The disease also has magnified the stakes involved in the lingering trade dispute between China and the United States, with America soybean and feed grain exports to China rising in parallel with the expansion of the Chinese pork industry.

Pigs are fed mostly soybeans, corn, and micronutrients. Trade patterns undoubtedly will shift as pork-producing nations jockey for the opportunity to meet China’s import needs, and as oilseed and feed grain markets adjust to find a new home for products displaced by lower animal numbers in Asia.

In fact, China’s hog feed consumption is expected to drop by 40% in 2019, according to Rabobank’s ASF report.

The effects of ASF will ripple throughout large parts of the entire global food system for some time.

So how big is the ASF problem?

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that as many as 5 million pigs already may have died or have been culled as a result of ASF. Cases of ASF have also been detected in such countries as Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Mongolia, and Laos, representing more than 10 percent of their pig population.

In recent weeks, reports of ASF also have surfaced in Thailand and as far away as South Africa, Russia, and several locations in eastern Europe among wild pig populations. In the United Kingdom, Farming Minister George Eustice prompted a great deal of attention when he urged an even more aggressive approach to prevention and warned that ASF could be expected in the UK “within a year.”

Eustice’s warning comes after authorities in Northern Ireland in June identified meat products contaminated with ASF from the luggage of international travelers. That single report shows the ease with which the disease can rapidly spread to distant parts of the world. It also explains the extraordinary international effort underway to educate people about the risks posed by ASF to agricultural interests everywhere.

“If infected meat got past the authorities and into the pig herd in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else in the UK, it would have devastating implications,” said Alistair Driver, editor of Pig World. Northern Ireland isn’t the only country facing such devastation.

Dirk Pfeiffer, a veterinary epidemiologist at City University of Hong Kong and an ASF expert quoted by the UK’s Guardiandescribed the epidemic as “probably the most serious animal health disease [the world has] had for a long time, if not ever.”

What is to be done?

Where ASF has been detected, efforts center on containment and eradication. Herds are being culled, and efforts made to reach into the countryside to educate and assure the proper action by smaller pork producers, often located in the countryside. Commercial operations in China and throughout Asia are acting aggressively to identify sick animals and take the necessary steps to stop the spread of ASF. Commercial operators in the United States and other markets also are taking extraordinary steps and investing large amounts of money, time and work to guard against the introduction of ASF into their operations.

International health officials are stepping up biosecurity efforts, centering on import prohibitions from products originating in areas where ASF is known to be present.

USDA has increased the number of health inspectors by 179 at key sea and air entry points, augmented by specially trained beagles focused on sniffing out imported meat products like those detected in Northern Ireland. Efforts to educate people within agriculture on how to identify infected animals also have increased, and advisories issued to reassure consumers of the safety of the nation’s pork supplies. Officials acknowledge the enormity of the challenge but say they have no choice but to act aggressively. There is just too much at stake.

Should U.S. consumers be worried?

Unwarranted fear of U. S. pork – and a reluctance to make pork part of a sensible family diet – can adversely affect the 60,000 pork producers in the United States and the 550,000 jobs that the pork industry helps create. There are 73 million pigs in the United States. While there is ample evidence of the need for everyone to be vigilant in the fight against ASF and the prevention of its entry into the U.S. food system, there’s equally ample evidence that there is nothing to fear in the U.S. food supply.