Sugar: The Deadly Toxin?

Bottles of Coca-Cola

Fructose is found in many carbonated beverages. (Image: HarryStilianou via Dreamstime)

Many health-conscious people tend to avoid sugar completely since they believe it to be damaging to the body. While sugar isn’t exactly healthy, it is not as “toxic” as some people tend to characterize provided that you do not consume it in large quantities.   

Components of sugar

Glucose and fructose are the two major components of sugar. In biology, glucose, a monosaccharide (simple sugar), is the most essential carbohydrate. It is a metabolic intermediate and source of fuel for the cells. And most importantly, it serves as the brain’s food. Without it, nerve cells and chemical messengers function poorly.

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Fructose is a simple monosaccharide (fruit sugar) found mainly in plants and fruits. Unlike glucose, fructose does nothing for the body, and only liver cells can break it down. However, the results from the breaking-down process, like triglyceride and uric acid, does harm to the body.

The bloodstream carries triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid). A high amount of triglycerides in the body poses health risks to the heart. On the other hand, uric acid is a waste byproduct that causes permanent damage to the bones, joints, and tissues, causing kidney and heart diseases and type-2 diabetes.

How glucose and fructose can be dangerous

Green cupcakes
Cupcakes look delicious, but how healthy are they? (Image: cegoh via Pixabay)

To understand how destructive fructose can be, let’s compare it with how the liver breaks down glucose. When you consume food that contains glucose, the cells in your body metabolize 80 percent of it; the remaining 20 percent goes to the liver. Glucose stimulates the pancreas to create insulin, allowing glucose to enter the liver cell. It executes a series of processes first before storing glucose as glycogen — an energy reserve of the body.

The unconverted leftovers are then metabolized into pyruvate, taken into the liver cell’s mitochondria, and burned to produce energy called ATP. After that, the remaining pyruvate turns into citrate. Then, a process called de novo lipogenesis converts the citrate into VLDL, which is ultimately transferred to the fat tissue. This VLDL is a major contributor to heart diseases. But because the liver only processes 20 percent of glucose, the small amount of VLDL created isn’t much of a problem to the body.

Now, compared with glucose, the liver treats fructose as a foreign substance since the body deems it unnecessary. The problem is 100 percent of the fructose goes into the liver. It comes into the liver cell, gets metabolized into pyruvate, and enters the mitochondria. Because the fructose does not get stored as glycogen, the mitochondria become overloaded.

The processed pyruvate turns into a bunch of citrates and is converted next into VLDL. If taken regularly, fructose increases the risk of developing heart disease. The development of visceral fat is guaranteed too. But the news is far from over. The citrates exit the cell as free fatty acid, which eventually leads to muscle insulin resistance. What’s worse is that trapped fats in the mitochondria increase the likelihood of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Too much sugar can lead to a wide variety of dysfunctions in the body.
Too much sugar can lead to a wide variety of dysfunctions in the body. (Image: cegoh via Pixabay)

Now, much of the negative effects of fructose only apply if you take it in the form of added sugars. When you ingest fructose as part of eating fruits like oranges and apples, the bad effects of fructose do not become applicable. This is because fruits have a lot of fiber and low-calorie density. It is almost impossible to suffer the negative effects of fructose consumption by eating fruits since you will have to consume abnormally high quantities of fruits for fructose to become harmful. Plus, the fiber in the fruits helps in diminishing the rate of intestinal absorption, which makes processing sugar bearable for the liver.

Benefits of sugar

Now that we have looked at how sugar can be bad for you, let’s look at how sugar can be beneficial. First, sugar can provide you with a burst of energy. After all, glucose is the fuel for your body. Without glucose, we wouldn’t have the necessary stamina to do what we want. And where can we get glucose from — sugar. When you consume natural sugars, which you can get from fruits, dairy products, etc., you not only ingest sugar into the body but also a host of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and so on.  You can go on a binge-eating spree of natural sweets without triggering an unhealthy spike of insulin.

A good source of natural sugar is dark chocolate. Eating dark chocolate also provides the body with cocoa flavanols that can boost your cognitive functions. Some studies have shown that cocoa flavanols can even improve thinking ability in people who suffer from cognitive impairment. Plus, sugar is also a good mood booster as it activates the pleasure center of our brain and releases a rush of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter.

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