This morning I read this, Mark Bittman’s new editorial about the toxicity of sugar, and it made me anxious. And it made me think.
Bittman’s concise piece reports the findings of a new study that draw a clear, causal relationship between increased sugar intake and diabetes. The key point he pulls from the study:
“Each 150 kilocalories/person/day increase in total calorie availability related to a 0.1 percent rise in diabetes prevalence (not significant), whereas a 150 kilocalories/person/day rise in sugar availability (one 12-ounce can of soft drink) was associated with a 1.1 percent rise in diabetes prevalence.”
In other words: drinking just one soda a day raises your risk of diabetes by 1.1%.
The takeaway: sugar is toxic.
Cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup–doesn’t matter. What matters is the added sugar.
Bittman points out another key conclusion of the article, a fact which has been gaining ground in the media and our national consciousness: not all calories are created equal. Your body converts a sugar calorie differently than it converts, say, a protein calorie, and that difference is what causes a whole host of diseases–heart disease, diabetes, cancer–through a process called metabolic syndrome.
So, the question is, how much added sugar is safe?
And, what do we tell our kids? How do we feed them now? How do we teach them to eat sugar–or not?
I don’t really want my kids to have a life without sugar. Not completely, anyway. Just like I don’t want to live my life without wine. This week, I re-tooled Caroline’s nutty bars with agave syrup, hazlenuts (ground and whole), and chocolate chips. They were delicious. They were sweet. I do, on occasion, let my kids drink soda. Even more frequently, we make them (or they make) kidtinis. Not as much as once a week, but certainly not never. I do let them eat sweets: a biscotti or mini-cookie in their lunch box, biscuits and jam with dinner, cake and milk for an afterschool snack. Sometimes these things are homemade, sometimes they’re not. My daughter is on a cupcake-baking binge.
My concern here is not really their current health. They’re active, fit, athletic kids. They swim, they run, they play team sports at a high level, my daughter trains for strength and endurance, we spend half of most weekends at some kind of field. They willingly eat piles of fruits and vegetables. (Most days.) They are more or less able to manage their own portion control.
But they’re also kids. They like sweet things. Heck, so does their father. We have a hoard of candy leftover from Valentines Day which, if I really think hard about Bittman’s conclusions, is like having a stash of narcotics in the cookie bin. Me, I’ll take a glass of wine over cake most days. But you see where I’m headed.
I want to be able to give them sweet things. I want to let them have small tastes of delicious, sugary treats. But I don’t want to create a habit that will kill them. We all know we have to do this with alcohol. When they’re old enough, I’d like my kids to know how to enjoy a glass of wine with a meal, or appreciate a good cocktail. They’re going to have to learn to drink in moderation.
Maybe that’s the best analogy. I want my kids to grow up to be responsible drinkers. It’s clear now that they’re going to have to be responsible about sugar, too. Maybe it should be strictly regulated, like cigarettes. Or maybe not. Until we know for sure how much is too much, we’re going to need a new approach, and since federal regulation is not exactly going to happen tomorrow, the change is going to have to happen at home.
In my house I have bakers sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup sugar, turbinado sugar. I have real maple syrup and molasses. I have corn syrup for marshmallows. Should these go the way of partially hydrogenated oils? Should I dump them all? Probably. But I probably won’t.
Instead, I’m going to start down that hard road of discipline–which after all means to teach. I’m going to start from scratch, teaching my kids what sugar is and what it isn’t. The Prohibition didn’t work the first time around, and I don’t think a ban will work for my kids, either. How does a kid learn to eat sugar? And I mean really learn to eat it, so that when parental controls are removed, they don’t binge.
And now, dammit, every time I think about handing them a cookie, I’m also going to have to ask, the scariest question of all: How much is too much?
How do you feed the hunger without creating an addict?
How do you keep things sweet, and also safe?