- Dina Cohen
Why I Agree With Mary Poppins
She's the one who said that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and I think the time has come to let her words sink in for a minute. The sugar we're talking about is table sugar, chemically known as sucrose. It's found naturally in all green plants, and in our food supply, it is harvested from sugar cane and sugar beets.
There is so much confusion around this much-maligned ingredient and I think a lot of people have a really conflicted relationship with it. People love how sugar tastes but feel guilty for having it, or feel afraid of what they believe it might do to them. They love to see a child’s face light up at the sight of a lollipop or cupcake, but feel like they might be doing something bad by giving the child a sugary treat. We read an article about the dangers of sugar on one page of a magazine and then turn the page to see a brownie recipe with plenty of that same sugar. If you're feeling muddled, please know that it's not just you; it's society! What's really going on here?
Sugar has long been used to improve the quality and taste of foods and is not inherently harmful. Actually, sugar has many benefits in food production and even nutrition. It really does help the medicine go down. Including sugar in nutrient-dense foods makes them taste good enough for people to actually eat them. Think of yogurt or whole wheat bread or cranberries. They can be pretty grim without any source of added sweetness. As stated in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020-2025), “Added sugars can help with preservation; contribute to functional attributes such as viscosity, texture, body, color, and browning capability; and/or help improve the palatability of some nutrient-dense foods.”
Digging into the research rather than just reading the headlines reveals that rather than the devil that popular media makes it out to be, sugar can be a very useful element in nutrition. And despite what you may have heard, Americans are actually not eating more sugar recently; they are eating less. Consumption of added sugars is on a 30% decline in the last twenty years. (If you’re interested in the mechanics of how sugar is used in the food industry as well as more information about consumption patterns, check out this podcast.)
So, if sugar actually has a useful role in nutrition and if our consumption isn’t skyrocketing the way we’re led to believe it is, why does it currently have such an awful reputation?
Our eating patterns have shifted over time and we now have a very large variety of foods to choose from, many of which are energy-rich but not necessarily nutrient-rich. (Note that I don’t use the term “empty calories”, as every calorie does something – it provides you with energy!) In a situation where people may be consuming more food than they need, it’s easy to pick on one ingredient that seems “extra” and to tell people to limit that ingredient. The problem isn’t necessarily the sugar; it’s that due to many, many factors, some people may be eating more than is healthy for them. Some of these foods may be foods that have large amounts of sugar in them, and reducing one’s intake of a food that is high in sugar but not high in much of anything else, such as fiber, protein, vitamins, etc. can be a logical step. BUT that does not mean that sugar is bad. It means we have to be wise about the quality of our overall diet. Where are we using sugar? How much are we using? How we use sugar requires thoughtfulness, just as meeting your overall nutritional requirements requires some thoughtfulness. But is overly simplistic to say that because some people eat more than they need to and some of what they’re eating is high in sugar and low in nutrition, nobody should consume sugar.
Back to Mary Poppins. I think that Bert summed it up wonderfully in his lines to George Banks:
“A spoonful of sugar, that is all it takes
It changes bread and water into tea and cakes
A spoonful of sugar goes a long, long way,
So, ‘ave yourself a ‘ealthy ‘elpin ev’ry day!”
How sad it would be to reject sugar based on misinformation when it’s something that can bring joy to life and even enhance our nutrition. Like anything else, it needs to be used properly, and yes, a little can go a long way. Understanding how sugar can be used within the context of a healthy diet can reduce a lot of anxiety.
If you'd like to know more about including sweet foods, please check out my related post, "Is It Ok To Eat For Fun?"