Column: Shobha Kaul

Sugary stuff: Taste the facts

The food that we ingest contains different types of sugars. These sugars taken in any form ultimately get digested and converted into its simplest form i.e. glucose. Just like the role of petrol in an automobile, glucose acts as our body fuel, entering our blood stream as energy. It plays a vital role in proper functioning of the liver, the central nervous system, and the heart and muscle contraction.

The story of sugar starts with the mixing of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the nature to form a group called `saccharides'. The saccharides in singles and multiples form different types of sugars. Simple sugars like glucose, fructose and sucrose and complex sugars like starch and glycogen. 
They have different sources, advantages and disadvantages. Digestion of sugar begins in the mouth, continues in the stomach and ends in the small intestine. In its downward journey, it gets broken down into simpler forms by various enzymes at different levels.
One teaspoon of sugar has 20 calories; 3 cups of tea a day with 1 teaspoon sugar adds up to 250 grammes of fat by the end of a month

Sugar starts getting absorbed into the bloodstream in the small intestine itself. The normal sugar level in a person is 60-100 mg per 100 ml of blood. When its level falls below 60 mg, as it happens in fasting or delayed eating, we get symptoms of hypoglycemia i.e. feeling of weakness, palpitation, sweating, hunger and nausea. On the other hand, if taken over and above our daily requirement, sugar is converted and is deposited under our skin as subcutaneous fat. The result: we gain weight. About 750 extra calories get converted into 100 grammes of body fat. Sugar also converts into glycogen and is stored in the liver and muscles. This stored glycogen gets consumed first and supplies over a half day’s stock of calories in the hour of need. After consuming the body’s glycogen, the fats come into action and supply energy to a fasting body.

Sugar in nature is found in a variety of forms. Sugar found in grapes is called D-glucose or dextrose. Sugar found in fruits is called fructose. It is also found in honey and some vegetables. Sugar found in sugarcane and sugar beet is a comparatively cheap source of energy and is used as household sugar. One teaspoon of sugar has 20 calories; 3 cups of tea a day with 1 teaspoon sugar adds up to 250 grammes of fat by the end of a month.

Sugar found in human and animal milk is lactose. Most Indian sweets have a base of milk and milk products and household sugar. One piece of Indian mithai like kaju barfi gives about 200 calories. Just imagine the amount of calories we consume during our festivals.

Maltose is the sugar formed during the breakdown process of starch like barley and is used in alcoholic drinks. Whisky which is 42% alcohol gives 140 calories per 50 ml and beer which is 7%, gives 110 calories per 250 ml volume.

Sorbital and manitol are the alcoholic forms of sugars. Alcohol reduces liver glycogen and damages the liver if taken in large quantity without adequate food.

Starch is the stored complex sugar found in the vegetable kingdom, cereals, pulses, potatoes and sweet potatoes. This form of sugar is good as it is mixed with fiber that gives bulk to our diet and keeps our bowel cleansed.

Glycogen is the complex sugar found only in the animal kingdom. Liver and muscles are its stores. Cellulose is another form of complex sugar found in the cell wall of vegetables, fruits and cereals. It cannot be digested by humans but is frequently used as a bulking agent by people with constipation. A liberal use of cellulose containing foods like wheat bran, brown bread, leafy vegetables and fruits is helpful.

Isogel (Isphgul) husk is cellulose that has the capacity to absorb 25 times its weight of water, creating bulk that stimulates intestinal peristalsis. Using isphgul is a better way to treat constipation than using purgatives that irritate bowels.

Herbal sugar or stevia, derived from the leaves of the herb stevia rebaudiana, is about 10-15 times and as extracts is 100-300 times sweeter than common table sugar. The best part of it is that stevia does not affect blood sugar metabolism. It is now available in the market.

—The author is managing director of Personal Point and an acclaimed fitness expert

December 2006

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