I spent a wonderful weekend in Inverness, a small town north of the city with some girl friends from culinary school (The sole man in our group, Perry AKA the Prom King, he came too). We tended the fire, enjoyed the beach, sat in the hot tub while looking at the stars, and ate a lot of cheese from the local Cowgirl Creamery (see fun pictures below). It was one of those times that I believed I could live in California, tucked away in a little farm-house with some space and a garden.

I recipe tested at the cabin, experimenting with two healthy granola bar recipes and “carnival cookies.” This weekend I stuck to baking with my favorite natural sweeteners, honey and maple syrup. I have received questions about agave and today I am going to put out the debate for good.

Robert Lustid, M.D. and UCSF professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, gave a profound speech entitled The Bitter Truth. In summary, Lustid explores the damage caused by sugary foods. He argues that fructose (too much) and fiber (not enough) appear to be cornerstones of the obesity epidemic through their effects on insulin. I strongly recommend anyone interested in the effects that sugar, specifically fructose (meaning juice, pop, high fructose corn syrup from processed foods) has on the body, it is highly worth the two-hour investment to watch the video. I’ll start with the usual disclaimer that I am in no way, shape or form a science expert. All of the biologists and biochemists can answer the complex questions, but I am going to do my best by using the Keep It Simple Stupid theory.

In the last thirty years, Americans weight has increased by an average of about 25lbs. Some say it is genetics, but genetics don’t change in less than thirty years.  Decreased activity or increased caloric intake? Like most things, there is no one answer. Increased calorie consumption has increased (187 more per day for males and 334 for females), but that is not the only thing to consider. According to Lustid, the basic law of thermodynamics (if you don’t burn it you store it) is the biggest mistake. It is not just calories in and calories out, and people are not just becoming gluttonous. There has been a recent epidemic of obese six month olds, how does diet and exercise explain this? Our bodies have a built-in system to let us know when we have eaten enough. Leptin is a hormone from the fat cells that tell the mind “I ate enough.” Our biochemical system in place to give our body a negative reaction to food is not working properly. This feedback system that normally controls energy balance [energy in=energy out] does not work when fructose is consumed. If you are eating a 100 calorie pack of wheat thins or cookies that have clearly been processed, those calories do not equate to 100 calories of whole food such as spinach or a banana.

American’s carbohydrate intake has increased in the last thirty years because the American Medical Association, USDA, American Health Association said to reduce fat in 1982. That is when Edmonton’s fat-free cakes started. How did they do it? How did they make this packaged food still taste good, while eliminating the fat?

In 1915, the first standard Coke bottle started at 6.5 ounces. If you drank one a day, that would accumulate an average 8lbs of fat per year. By 1992, the 20oz was introduced and along with it, a daily coke at that rate of 26lbs of fat per year. In 1988 America said hello to the big gulp, hitting a whopping 44 ounces accumulating a total of 57lbs of fat per year if you drank one a day. What is with this conspiracy? In coke there is caffeine, a diuretic and stimulant. Caffeine pairs with salt, which tricks your tongue into thinking you are actually thirsty, and consequently drink more. What role does sugar play? Hiding the salt of course.

In the United States, the annual consumption of High Fructose Corn Syrup is 63 lbs per year. Keep in mind we were never exposed to HFCS before 1975. HFCS, 120 times sweeter than sugar, consists of 1 glucose and 1 fructose. Fructose does not metabolize like sucrose and this is why HFCS is so bad for our system, Lustid appropriately refers to it as poison, reminding us that it is NOT about calories.

Before food processing, we naturally got fructose from fruits and veggies, about 15 gm per day. When the sugar occurs in nature, it is often called “levulose” and is accompanied by naturally occurring enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. By 1978, fructose consumption increased to 37 gm per day (3 years after HFCS was developed). This consumption wasn’t an increase in fruit, but in the concentrated form of fructose that is created in refinement. By 1994, we had reached 54.7 gm of fructose consumption per day. It is estimated that adolescents consume 72.8 gm per day. Just ask teachers how this affects students in schools.

According to Lustid, the storm of what happened to our bodies is the result of three political winds:

  1. In 1973 Richard Nixon made food a non-issue for political campaigns because he was worried it would negatively affect his success. The USDA was created at this point to handle all food issues to keep the pressure off just in time for re-election.
  2. HFCS was introduced to American in 1975 from Japan, and was half of the price as sugar. Because it was so cheap, it found its way into everything.
  3. The USDA, AMA, AHA call for dietary fat regulation, telling us it would help to stop heart disease.

American scientist Ansel Keys used linear regression to prove that LDL was correlated with cardiovascular disease, which is what lead the “low-fat” movement. But the answer wasn’t that simple. His work is faulty because he didn’t do the other side of the equation, holding sugar constant to show that fat was still related to coronary heart disease. Yulkin ran his regression without a computer and died in 2004, so we cannot check his work but Lustid is convinced the answer lies in the fact that fat and sugar travel together. Fat was the scapegoat for the real culprit, sugar. The U.S. has based 30 years of education and policy off of this study.

Remember I am not from the sciences, so I won’t get into the details of the argument because it is a lot of patterns of molecules, big words, and complicated diagrams. What I can point out is the processed food story. The addition of fructose to processed foods is what actually makes them palatable. The fiber has been removed, while hardening agents and large amounts of fructose have been added, increasing the shelf life of products. A reminder here is that fructose doesn’t suppress hunger hormones. The acute fructose consumption doesn’t increase insulin so leptin doesn’t release. There is no receptor for fructose, which is why the whole box is empty or the whole big gulp is sucked down without even knowing it. Lustid’s explanation is refreshing because instead of blaming  people and their lack of will power, it is pointed out that the substances we are consuming (at alarming rates) are actually interfering with our body’s natural processes that tell us when to stop eating.

According to Lustid, chronic fructose exposure on its own causes metabolic syndrome; a conglomerate of phenomena. To name a few: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, lipid problems, and obesity. The key to Lustid’s whole point is the way the body metabolizes fructose. During the metabolism of glucose, insulin increases, leptin releases, and the system of negative feedback for hunger works. Lustid compares fructose to ethanol, or alcohol. Alcohol is taxed to limit consumption. Our laws discourage consumption for public health issues. There are signs of acute exposure of ethanol, as you probably all know– depression, loss of motor control, etc. These signs are important because we are able to see signs of the metabolism of ethanol– our bodies warned us not too consume too much of the harmful substance.

On the other hand, only the liver can metabolize fructose. The body loses phosphates and fructose changes the way the brain works because of the insulin resistance, the pancreas works harder and cells are turned into fat. When we consume fructose, we are not consuming carbs, it actually turns into fat. Fructose does not show signs of acute exposure (like its friend, ethanol who makes it so you cannot walk the line if you have too much). In a study testing independent consumption of both fructose and ethanol respectively, out of 12 characteristics, fructose and ethanol shared eight out of the twelve characteristics for chronic exposure. Some examples: hypertension, obesity, fetal insulin resistance, habituation (if not addiction), pancreatitis, electrolyte abnormalities, and malnutrition.

Gatorade was developed in the 1970’s. In 1992 Pepsi bought Gatorade and started to include HFCS. If glycogen is depleted (say you ran a marathon and depleted it all), a sports drink with HFCS can replace glycogen faster than glucose alone, making it a good thing for your body. This means it is OK for elite athletes to use it post-race, but who are the people drinking Gatorade?

Bottom line, Lustid advises getting rid of all sugared liquids. Included in sugared liquids is also canned baby formula, which is consisted of a whopping 43.2% corn syrup solids. Fructose in the form of whole fruit is OK because it is fiber with carbs in a form that your body knows how to process it. When refined, fructose is a carbohydrate but it is metabolized like a fat. Approximately 30% of any ingested fructose ends up as fat. Turns out, the Standard American Diet encouraging low-fat isn’t really a low-fat diet after all because fructose turns out to be a high fat product once it metabolizes in your body. In short, fructose is a toxin. Even though the FDA says if food is an additive it needs to be safe, HFCS should be deemed to be adulterated in our food processing.

If you are sitting there freaking out wondering if you are going to get Type 2 diabetes because you know you’ve eaten food with HFCS, worry not. Your liver doesn’t get sick after one. If the USDA admitted fructose was bad for our bodies, it would mean our food in American is a huge problem. Currently food is one of the few things we still sell overseas (along with weapons), so it becomes an economic issue.

Sucrose is a mono saccharide and is a closer molecule to glucose than fructose. When choosing sweeteners, it is imperative that you choose healthy sweeteners: maple syrup, honey, dates, bananas, applesauce without HFCS, dried fruit, etc. Regardless of what you may have seen or heard that agave is a healthy sweetener, it is not. It does have a low glycemic index, meaning there is less of a spike in blood sugar, but the body metabolizes it as fructose and it remains a highly processed food. Always choose other sweeteners whenever possible. Written by Sally Fallon and Ramiel Nagel and posted on the Weston Price Foundation, the following is an excerpt further describing agave:

Agave “nectar” is not made from the sap of the yucca or agave plant but from the starch of the giant pineapple-like, root bulb. The principal constituent of the agave root is starch, similar to the starch in corn or rice, and a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which is made up of chains of fructose molecules.Technically a highly indigestible fiber, inulin, which does not taste sweet, comprises about half of the carbohydrate content of agave.

The process by which agave glucose and inulin are converted into “nectar” is similar to the process by which corn starch is converted into HFCS. The agave starch is subject to an enzymatic and chemical process that converts the starch into a fructose-rich syrup—anywhere from 70 percent fructose and higher according to the agave nectar chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites.