The taste for sweetness is a natural but an incredibly powerful sensation. You could easily say that life wouldn’t be what it is without it. In fact science teaches us that sugar goes beyond satisfying our desires. It is used by the body to generate energy that enables us to walk and accomplish different tasks. So besides being a trigger for happiness, help it is the fuel that runs our bodies. It supplies energy to the body’s cells that keep our vital organs functioning.
It is not surprising that multi-billion industries have been built around sugar or rather the sense of sweetness. From sugar producers to companies beverage companies that produce by-products of sugar such as sodas, confectioneries and drugs, many have found success simply by adding the sweet substance to their products.
But as society evolved from reliance on nature to the use of industry-made goods, not to mention synthetics, many things have changed. While our forefathers used to obtain sugar directly from nature’s factory of fruits, foods, honey and grass, the industrial revolution brought about processing and refining sugars.
But we have learnt that besides easing our lives, processing especially of food products comes with terrible consequences. Some researchers have blamed the use of chemicals in the food processing industries as the source of cancers and organ malfunction that complicate our lives.
Back to sugar. While we in Uganda don’t eat so much of processed foods the way westerners do, we are damn addicted to sugar. In fact sugar is a status symbol for many people. Holding a party with lots of soda will attract praise for you for many years, and the reverse is true; failing to provide sugar at home can send your wife away. But this ought not to be the case. Taken in excess, the way most Ugandans do is dangerous. Some experts have actually equated it to taking poison.
Is sugar poison?
I’d always heard it repeated that sugar causes diabetes and may be tooth decay. But my encounter with Julius Nyanzi, a young Ugandan researcher in natural herbs helped drive home the point about the dangers of sugar beyond causing diabetes.
According to Nyanzi, when one takes sugar, it ferments and causes excess gas in the stomach. This results into stretching of the intestines. Again, Nyanzi points out that when sugar goes into our blood, it makes it to thicken. Higher than normal quantities of sugar in the blood, can cause heart failure, besides causing dehydration.
Besides knowing that Nyanzi graduated with a bachelors degree in the science of extraction of substances such as medicines from plants, from Makerere University, I thought I would enrich this piece by looking elsewhere to validate his claims on sugar.
My google search landed me on an article by Gary Taubes in the New York Times website that was headlined; Is Sugar toxic?
Taubes’ article opens with an insight into a lecture that was delivered in 2009 by the celebrated American paediatrician Robert Lustig titled; Sugar: The Bitter Truth. Lustig posted this lecture on Google’s video sharing site Youtube.com and has gone viral since, amassing some six a half million views as per the writing of this article.
Taubes says that years of his own research on nutrition basically leads to the same conclusion as Lustig; that sugar is toxic and poisonous.
Taubes writes: “If I didn’t buy this argument myself, I wouldn’t be writing about it here. And I also have a disclaimer to acknowledge. I’ve spent much of the last decade doing journalistic research on diet and chronic disease – some of the more contrarian findings, on dietary fat, appeared in this magazine — and I have come to conclusions similar to Lustig’s.”
But Taubes raises a fundamental issue with processed sugar that distinguishes it from the fluctose we take in by eating things like sweet potatoes or bananas.
“We can eat 100 calories of glucose (from a potato or bread or other starch) or 100 calories of sugar (half glucose and half fructose), and they will be metabolized differently and have a different effect on the body. The calories are the same, but the metabolic consequences are quite different, says Taubes.
“The fructose component of sugar and H.F.C.S. is metabolized primarily by the liver, while the glucose from sugar and starches is metabolized by every cell in the body. Consuming table sugar (fructose and glucose) means more work for the liver than if you consumed the same number of calories of starch (glucose). And if you take that sugar in liquid form – soda or fruit juices – the fructose and glucose will hit the liver more quickly than if you consume them, say, in an apple (or several apples, to get what researchers would call the equivalent dose of sugar). The speed with which the liver has to do its work will also affect how it metabolizes the fructose and glucose.”
While several regulatory agencies in the United States and Europe such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) remain squirmish about setting the maximum limit to the amount of sugar an individual should take, the number of cases of diabetes, cancer and heart disease continue to soar each day. And so is the financial burden of caring for people with those diseases. Even the richest countries such the United States and the UK, the cost of these diseases is getting out of hand.
A 2012 study in the UK on the cost of diabetes alone showed that the country was spending about Ushs38trillion on the disease alone – almost double the size of Uganda’s total budget. But that this cost was set to double by 2035.
In comes Stevia
Sensing the dangers sugar has wrought on humanity, Nyanzi has developed a substitute for sugar from a natural plant that tastes sweet, without producing calories.
Nyanzi uses distillation to produce a variety of oils from natural herbs such as, Eucalyptus and Stevia. But it is Stevia that has attracted the greatest attention perhaps because of the promise it has for countering the rise problem of diabetes.
According to Nyanzi, Stevia, a South American herb that has been used as a sweetener for centuries. It is a non-nutritive sweetener that provides no calories to the diet.
But ordinary sugar, as we know it, as well as fluctose which we ingest through foods such as chapati, bread, maize floor, have lots of carbohydrates. So whereas sugar is essential for energizing us, when you supply your cells with lots of sugar, and fail to use the generated energy, say through productive work or exercise, the sugar ferments around cells and results into cancer, according to Nyanzi.
People like Nyanzi attribute the hesitation by regulatory bodies to set limits on sugar consumption, to the sheer commercial muscle of the food and pharmaceutical industry that so depends on sugar for their businesses.
But like other addictions such as alcohol or tobacco, no amount of education is sometimes enough to get victims to divorce those products. So it appears to be the case that some Ugandans would appreciate the adverse effects of sugar but continue to sip the toxic substance, anyway.
Realising the difficulty of abruptly breaking away from the sugar addiction, its probably safe to go for alternative sweeteners. Honey and Stevia have been presented as alternatives. But honey has calories as well, although it is loaded with antioxidants that lessen the adverse effects to the liver and body cells.
Stevia, which is a natural sweetener, therefore comes on top as the most likely remedy to our sugar addiction.
The popular website livingstrong.com evaluates stevia as the most suitable and healthy substitute to table sugar by looking at its glycemic index as well as its caloric content. The glycemic index of a food is a measurement of the food’s effects on blood glucose levels. Foods with a high glycemic index cause your blood glucose levels to rapidly rise, according to Livingstrong.
Livingstrong’s Adam Cloe concluded in his article titled; “Which Is Best: stevia, Sugar or Honey?” that stevia is the better of the three.
“Because stevia cannot be absorbed by the intestines and has no calories, it has a glycemic index of zero. Sugar, on the other hand, has a glycemic index of approximately 58, whereas the glycemic index of honey can range from 30 to 58, depending on the honey’s composition.”
Nyanzi says since introducing stevia oil and powder on the Ugandan market, he has registered a lot of success. And it shows by the number of telephone calls he receives from across the country inquiring about the product, among a long list of natural extracts that he makes.
Facing the prospect of failing to meet market demand, Nyanzi has started to promote the growing of stevia among his customers. Whoever buys stevia oil or powder, Nyanzi supplements with a stevia seedling to encourage people to grow it and possibly provide the raw material to him or other extractors that may come up. And the product appears to be gaining traction not just here but also in the west where companies such as CocaCola and Cargill have developed Truvia – a table sweetener made from stevia.
Because stevia is 200 times sweeter than sugar, one needs just a few drops of Nyanzi’s stevia oil in a cup of tea of coffee. A small bottle of Nyanzi’s stevia oil which costs Ushs5000 can last several days.
Julius Nnyanzi, the brain behind Stevia ‘green’ sugar can be reached on 070-206-1652 or at his shop Number 152 located on Level 2 Equatorial Shopping Mall, Kampala.