food science

To ponder this Pongal: The funny business of sugar

Whether you get natural sugar from fruit or added sugar in processed food, you get the same amount of harmful fructose.

One specific type of sugar, glucose, is the primary energy source of the body although not the only one. Pretty much anything you eat has to be broken down into glucose before it can be used.

Glucose is the most important of the large family of sugars, all of which have names ending in -ose. Glucose is commonly found in nature attached to another sugar, fructose, the two of which form a disaccharide (“two sugars”) named sucrose, also known as table sugar, the stuff that’s in your kitchen.

Fructose is fruit sugar, the stuff that makes honey and fruit taste sweet. It’s the sweetest naturally occurring carbohydrate. Fructose is also the added sugar in many food products. Consider this pair of cereal packages found in your neighbourhood grocery store.

The one on the right makes no bones about containing sugar. The one on the left has a prominent label advertising “No Added Sugar”. It also has a ** against “sugar” in the nutrition facts that the fine print clarifies as “sucrose”. That is, 1.4% of the product is sugar in the form of sucrose.

But go back to the ingredient list. Notice the unspecified quantity of “Apple Juice Concentrate”. The nutrition facts for apple juice say it is 10% sugar. A research study on the exact composition estimates (in grams per litre) 9.30–32.2 glucose, 66.10–96.00 fructose, and 8.5–55.10 sucrose. The range is because multiple varieties of apple were tested. Apple juice is mostly fructose. And fructose is a sugar! Fructose is the sweeter half of the sucrose molecule! In other words, the “no added sugar” claim is a lie because it redefines sugar as sucrose for the purposes of this label, while also refusing to identify exactly how much actual sugar is in this product.

This is not an isolated incident. The sugar industry has spent decades misleading people about sugar and fat. A serendipitous chance for blaming fat was milked for all it is worth.

Conspiracy aside, what exactly is the problem with fructose?

Your muscles and brain are powered by glucose. They cannot do anything with the fructose in your diet until your liver processes it. Fructose taxes your liver similar to how alcohol does.

When you consume sucrose, which is table sugar, it gets as far as the duodenum – the first part of the small intestine – where the enzyme sucrase splits it apart into the constituent glucose and fructose. This is why eating sugar or drinking any sweet juice gives you a rush of energy – the glucose goes into your blood and from there to your brain and muscles. Fructose is absorbed into the bloodstream along with glucose (and galactose), from where it is processed and stored by the liver.

HFCS is “high fructose corn syrup”. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
HFCS is “high fructose corn syrup”. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This idea that different compounds are processed in different manners is called a metabolic pathway. There are multiple pathways around your body for the various components of your diet, and some of them are activated or deactivated based on certain conditions. Starvation, for example, triggers a metabolic state called ketosis wherein your body starts burning its own stored fat, using the produced ketone bodies instead of glucose for energy. This is the evolutionary purpose for which our bodies store fat: as a store for lean times. It is the same reason a camel has a hump, except their metabolism handles it differently.

There is something about the way fructose is metabolised in our bodies that has pretty nasty side effects. Dr Robert Lustig at the University of California has spent nearly two decades studying childhood obesity and is convinced fructose is the culprit.

He’s not alone.

Science author Gary Taubes has joined the fray with his new book The Case Against Sugar.

But do not just read press reports about sugar. Read Dr Robert Lustig’s paper or take out 90 minutes from your weekend to hear him as he takes you into a deep dive of exactly what fructose does to your body.

Play

That was in 2009. In 2013, Lustig delivered another lecture addressing the criticisms of the first lecture.

Play

Finally, we need to address the oft-stated refrain that it is only refined and added sugars that are bad for you while natural sugar is fine. This is false. Whether your fruit happened to be naturally sweet or you sprinkled some sugar on it, how does it matter to your digestive tract? The only distinctions that matter are the ratios of fructose and glucose, plus the role of fiber in slowing down digestion.

  • Fruit: 40–55% fructose (but sometimes significantly higher or lower)
  • Honey: 38–55% fructose 
  • Refined sugar (sucrose): 50% fructose
  • HFCS (used in industrial food products): 42%, 65% or 90%

You are getting about the same amount of fructose no matter where your sugar comes from. Obsessing over added sugar is pointless because the problem is with all sugar. This leads to an inevitable conclusion: don’t drink fruit juice. You’re getting all that fructose as one gulp of a sugar bomb with none of the fiber required to temper it. Eat the whole fruit instead.

Hands-up if you ever felt good about going to a fruit juice stall instead of getting a soda. Fruit juice may be revered as a health food, but you got the same fructose dosage anyway. Do you see how culturally ingrained our sugar habit is, and how hard it will be to lose?

This article was first published on Kilter.

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India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

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Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

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Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

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Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.