The Call and Times, Column 32 – An Idea Most Will Sour On, But No Sugar…Not Even in Moderation

25 10 2015

(October 25, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

An Idea Most Will Sour On, But No Sugar…Not Even in Moderation

One of the great, shared human experiences is the love for all things sweet. Whether it’s finding some room for dessert after a big meal, or polishing off half of that leftover cake when you only really meant to have a bite, we’ve all been there. Sugar can take over our lives and diets almost as if it were addictive (spoiler: it is). There’s a good reason for this: sugar simply doesn’t exist in nature…at least, not in any significant amounts.

I want to introduce a concept which has drastically changed my own life, and which I believe will be heralded as the greatest and, arguably, one of the few, advancements in nutrition in the last century: the science of “evolutionary nutrition”, and the idea of an appropriate diet for our species.

I will talk a lot more about this idea in the future, and connect it to the naturalistic awareness that I hope I’ve fostered in this column. Here is a very brief introduction. We, like every living creature on Earth, evolved over a long period of time (in our case, from 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Age) to our present biological form. Over that time, our bodies became well-adapted to a particular type of diet, influenced largely by what edible, nourishing things were available in nature. Like cows, which suffer from health problems when eating corn and soy instead of the grass they are made to digest, human beings are the healthiest when we eat our natural diet.

With that in mind, back to what I said above: sugar (any concentrated source of carbohydrates, including grain flours) is very, very rare in nature. In the environment where we evolved, there was no way to act on a voracious sweet tooth, if such a thing even existed – no “cane sugar”, no “high-fructose corn syrup”, no grain flours, and even fruit, before we domesticated it, was small, sour, and very limited by season, more like berries than watermelons. Most of the carbohydrates that our ancestors ate came from these low-sugar fruits, nuts, and above all others, leafy greens. We were lucky to stumble upon a beehive once in a blue moon – and honey is so incredibly nutrient-dense, it’s a far cry from the refined sugars we eat today.

Yet, in what seems like a cruel joke, evolution has hard-wired us to seek out concentrated sources of sugar. Our bodies efficiently and easily store these sugars as body fat, which was a huge advantage when 10 pounds of stored energy meant the difference between death and survival in a particularly long winter. But the supply was limited, and our ancestors ate nowhere near as much sugar as we, in the modern Western world, eat on a daily basis. The best science we have proposes this huge change as the root of our widespread health problems. Let’s take a look at why that is.

On the molecular level, all carbohydrates (called “saccharides”) are simple sugar molecules, connected end-to-end like a chain. Every single carbohydrate we eat (with the exception of fiber and certain starches) is quickly broken down in our mouths and digestive tracts – the chain is unlinked. When they reach our intestines, they are already transformed into simple sugars – glucose and fructose being the most prevalent.

Glucose is passed directly into our bloodstreams, where it is called our “blood sugar”. When you eat carbohydrates that contain glucose (most of them), your blood sugar rises. In response, your pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, and secretes it into the blood in order to lower blood sugar. This allows your muscle cells to use the glucose as energy, and signals to your fat cells to convert the glucose into fat and, along with fat that was already in your bloodstream (triglycerides), store it into your fat cells – causing weight gain.

This cycle – eating sugar > spiking blood sugar > spiking insulin > crashing blood sugar – which, for many of us, happens three times a day, every day of our lives, is incredibly damaging to our bodies. It causes weight gain, as discussed above. It also creates that 2-hour hunger cycle (i.e. a breakfast of waffles at 8, and hungry again at 10) that we have come to consider normal, but which is actually very unhealthy.

Over time, this heightened insulin production causes problems. The beta cells in the pancreas, responsible for producing insulin, get worn down each time they have to do so. And each time insulin spikes, it makes our bodies less willing to accept the glucose, and in turn, it requires more insulin to do the same job – this is called insulin resistance. These two effects are intimately related. And because we are not made to eat anywhere near as much sugar as we all do, over time and for some people, they compound to make the body unable to produce sufficient insulin – an ailment called Type 2 Diabetes.

Also, some of the blood sugar gets converted to a gritty type of substance aptly-named AGEs, and deposited permanently into our body tissues. Over time, these compounds cause graying and sagging of the skin, graying of the hair, and other ailments that we simply blame on age.

Fructose is instead processed directly by our livers. Some is used for energy, but much is converted into fats (triglycerides) to be passed into the bloodstream – the same fat that glucose tells our bodies to store. Fructose has the irksome effect of making us more insulin resistant, and forms those damaging AGE chemicals 10 times faster than glucose does.

Sugar is also likely responsible for unhealthy levels of cholesterol in our blood. It decreases the “good cholesterol” (HDL) and raises the “bad cholesterol” (LDL) and unhealthy triglycerides, as mentioned above. In addition, it converts the LDL particles from the larger type, which is benign, to the smaller type, which is more easily chemically-damaged, and therefore is believed to cause blockages in our arteries. All of these effects are directly associated with the development of heart disease. If this science interests you, you can learn more by reading the work of science writer Gary Taubes, specifically in his books: “Why We Get Fat” and “Good Calories, Bad Calories”.

Lest you think it is worth avoiding all carbohydrates, I have good news for you. Fiber slows and minimizes the negative effects that glucose and fructose have on our bodies. So foods which couple smaller amounts of other carbohydrates with large amounts of fiber (you guessed it: all vegetables, but specifically leafy greens, low-sugar fruit, and nuts and seeds) still have a huge net benefit for our bodies.

Let’s look at three actions you can take to minimize the negative effect of sugar on your body. The first is to avoid obvious sources of sugar. These are dessert, candy, and table sugar, to name a few. Know the foods that are entirely refined carbohydrates, and don’t eat them.

The second is to avoid the sneaky, hidden sources. Any ingredient that ends in “-ose” is a sugar, and should probably be avoided (except cellulose, which is fiber). Sugars also hide under other names – starches, fruit juices and concentrates, corn syrup, and grain flours. The internet is awash with more complete lists of ingredients to avoid.

Finally, make the sugars you do eat count. Some of the healthiest foods we eat – like vegetables – get a majority of their Calories from sugars. In any food, when sugar is coupled with some combination of fiber, healthy fats, micronutrients, and antioxidants, these things often outweigh the negative effects that the sugars have on our bodies. Honey is a great example of this.

Put differently, here is my second rule to eating more healthfully: Get your carbohydrates from the best sources possible – vegetables, low-sugar fruits, nuts, seeds, and nutrient-dense sweeteners.


My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.


The Call and Times, Column 31 – Processed Foods: A Recipe for Disaster

11 10 2015

(October 11, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Processed Foods: A Recipe for Disaster

Go into your pantry and pick up any box, or bag, or jar of food that you didn’t make yourself, and take a look at the ingredients. Chances are, there’s lots of high fructose corn syrup, “vegetable” (seed) oils, FD&C colorings, artificial flavors, and a whole slew of names of chemical additives that you don’t recognize. If you found vials of these ingredients sitting on a shelf, would you consider them food? If not, at what point do they stop being their individual “bad” selves – sugars, rancid seed-oils, carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), and toxins, many of them derived from petroleum – and start being nourishing food? I guess it’s when they’re put for sale on the supermarket shelf, for us to buy and consume. And that’s unacceptable.

My columns have often dealt with the environmental considerations of agriculture, both in our own backyards and on a global scale. Now, I want to change gears a bit. While agriculture’s effect on the environment is of the utmost importance, the benefits of ecological health are diminished if we don’t also consider the effects that the food we eat has on our own health. That is why today, and through many of my columns this winter, we’ll be discussing food from a very different perspective – human health and wellbeing. I want these columns to give you an idea of which foods to eat and which to leave on the shelf, to suggest my idea (and increasingly, the scientific community’s) of the ideal human diet, and to explain how this diet fits perfectly into the mold of local, sustainable agriculture.

Today, we’ll start on the topic of the unhealthy additives in processed foods (basically, every ingredient), which I think is a great kicking off point for this wider discussion. I want to thank my friend Amanda, who suggested this column in response to a recent food recall.

Before we begin, I want to make something very clear: I’m not asking you to be afraid of “chemicals”. Everything that we see, touch, and eat – everything that exists in the universe – is some mixture of chemicals. This is true of the safest things we consume: water is dihydrogen monoxide; air is a mixture of chemical gases (mostly nitrogen and oxygen); we use esters of butyric and oleic acids (butter and olive oil) as cooking fats, and long-chain carbohydrates called cellulose are responsible for the physical structure of vegetables.

Everything on Earth, from the geochemical cycles that move water, air, and minerals, to the processes that generate topsoil, and indeed all of life on this planet, is an intricate set of wonderful, sustainable chemical reactions. And considering the huge number of chemical compounds that make up the bodies of vegetables, fruits, nuts, animals, and fungi – whole foods that we’ve been eating safely for our 2.5 million years on Earth, that our bodies know how to process in order to get energy and nutrients – we shouldn’t fear “chemicals”.

But, as they say, the devil’s in the details. We shouldn’t be afraid of chemicals “that our bodies know how to process”. Sadly, however, in the last century or so, we went from eating primarily locally-grown, minimally-processed, whole foods, to consuming what food writer Michael Pollan expertly calls “edible food-like substances” – processed foods, with ingredients that won’t kill us instantly, but which are totally foreign to our bodies.

I broadly categorize these ingredients into two groups – highly-concentrated forms of otherwise neutral, “natural” ingredients, and artificial, potentially-toxic ingredients.

An example of the first is fructose – a short-chain sugar, present in very small amounts in fruits like berries, and in much larger amounts in both table sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup, common sweeteners in almost all processed foods.

In berries, fructose is rendered basically neutral by the fiber and micronutrients, as the small amount of harm that it can cause is far outweighed by the health benefits of the whole fruit. However, when highly concentrated in sweeteners (sugar and HFCS), the consumption of fructose causes insulin resistance (precursor to diabetes), high blood triglycerides (precursor to heart disease), weight gain, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

The second group is a little harder to define. This includes artificial chemicals that do not exist in significant amounts in nature, and which our bodies are therefore not really able to process healthfully, or that are otherwise actually toxic to us. These include additives like artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and various “agents” (anti-caking, emulsifying, thickening, etc).

These are added to processed foods in order to make whatever raw “food” ingredients they contain (though I would hardly call bleached wheat flour and soybean oil “food”) shelf-stable for long periods of time, and to make them appear, taste, smell, and feel more like actual food. There is a Wikipedia page, “List of Food Additives”, which gives a concise breakdown of these various types of ingredients, and a pretty exhaustive list of specific additives.

Many countries have regulatory agencies which (at least on paper) determine whether any particular food or cosmetic additive is safe for public use. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is tasked with this job. Shockingly, they often rely on research performed by the manufacturer of the additive (and in a related case, the companies responsible for a genetically engineered variety of seed) in making their assessments of safety.

Between these food additives, cosmetics, and agricultural chemicals, there are thousands of chemicals that are banned by the food safety departments of the European Union for failing to meet health standards, but which are not banned by our own FDA.

There are far too many additives to give a complete list here. But a good starting point is the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives”, a list of the worst of them, which it has deemed worthy of avoidance despite the FDA’s approval ( This list includes: nitrates and nitrites, potassium bromate, propyl paraben, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, theobromine, secret flavor ingredients, artificial colors, diacetyl, phosphate food additives, and aluminum additives.

To quote a meme that I’ve seen floating around Facebook, “there are too many people counting Calories, and not enough counting artificial chemicals.”

This statement frames the issue perfectly. Governmental (that is, politics-driven) nutritional advice has been to view Calories – the measure of energy in food, which is the most basic reason we eat it – as evil. We must eat as few Calories and as little fat (another unscientific sham, which I will discuss in the future) as possible, and in doing so, we will be healthy.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. This advice leads to low-fat “cheez” crackers and reduced-calorie margarine being considered health foods, while minimally processed whole foods, like olive oil, eggs, coconuts, and high-quality meats are demonized as being unhealthy.

In light of all of this, my first suggestion to eating more healthfully: shop on the outside of most grocery stores. Here, you will find fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, dairy, and eggs, and will minimize your exposure to the harmful food additives that have somehow become part of a healthy diet.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.