“Cane sugar” is having a little moment, especially in the beverage market. Several “health food store” brands of soda — the sort of thing that makes a mockery of the very term “health food” — proudly list cane sugar on their labels. And now the behemoth of the soda market, Coca-Cola, is getting in on the act with “Coke Life,” which they proudly advertise as being sweetened with stevia — great! — and cane sugar. Oh.
Cane sugar is sugar. It is sucrose, chemically a 50/50 blend of glucose and fructose. It is the same stuff sold in 5-pound sacks in the baking aisle of every grocery store in America, and very possibly in the entire world, although in the rest of the world they no doubt sell it by the kilo, not the pound. There is nothing special about it. It is not somehow more “natural” or “healthful” or even less damaging than plain old sugar — it is plain old sugar.
Cane sugar is chemically indistinguishable from beet sugar. Indeed, when I took chemistry at dear old Harry S Truman* Junior College in Chicago, my teacher, the estimable Dr. Gundega Michel, used sugar as an example of an extremely pure compound that most of us had in our homes — it contains nothing but glucose and fructose. Certainly no vitamins or minerals, antioxidants, or any other plant-derived thing you might think of as healthful. Sucrose is sucrose is sucrose.
(About that beet sugar we just passed: Since beet sugar and cane sugar are chemically identical, why is no one bragging that their product contains beet sugar? Aren’t beets one of those healthy vegetables your mother made you eat? Maybe it’s that “made you eat” part.)
It seems that the whole rehabilitation of sugar’s — pardon me, cane sugar’s — image is in contrast to high-fructose corn syrup. It is true that fructose is emerging as particularly bad stuff in quantity. I’ll go into that in another post, but the point is: How much more fructose does “high fructose corn syrup” have when compared to sugar — uh, I mean cane sugar?
There are a few varieties of HFCS, with varying levels of sucrose and fructose. The one most commonly used in the beverage industry is HFCS 55, which contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
That’s right. A big 5% more fructose than that oh-so-green**-sounding cane sugar. There is an HFCS 65, with 65% fructose, reportedly used in Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, high-tech touch-screen fountain dispensers that let the consumer mix their own beverages. But for the most part, the HFCS used in “regular” soda has a big 5% more fructose than cane sugar, beet sugar, or any other form of sucrose.
This, of course, does not in any way suggest that HFCS is benign; it is not. But its main faults are being cheap and plentiful, and therefore attractive to food processors, who have, more and more, laced every conceivable — and at times inconceivable — food product with the stuff. But it is the sheer quantity of sugars of all kinds — cane sugar, beet sugar, HFCS 55, HFCS 65, and yes, honey, coconut sugar, palm sugar, raw sugar, agave nectar*** — that people consume that is destroying health. Well, that, and all those “wholesome grains” people have been told to eat.
* Yes, Harry S Truman, no period after the S. President Truman had no middle name, but felt a middle initial added weight. So he was simply Harry S, and since the “S” isn’t an abbreviation, it does not properly take a period. I was pleased to see that Harry S Truman College did, indeed, omit the period from their logo.
** Coke Life has a green label, in a not-so-subtle shout-out to the health-conscious consumer. Cute. I assume the name is a call-back to the old “Coke Adds Life” campaign. The stuff does have less sugar than regular soda. Kind of like low tar-and-nicotine cigarettes, I guess.
*** Agave nectar actually is notably worse for you than either sucrose or HFCS, because its percentage of fructose is far higher than either. This accounts for agave nectar’s low glycemic index, but means it’s awfully rough on the liver, your waistline, your triglycerides, your joints, you name it.
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