By Ric Coggins
The USDA’s first nutrition guidelines were published in a farmers’ bulletin in 1894. As science expanded and food lobbies became involved, the guidelines also evolved over the years. Growing up in the mid-1900s, I was introduced in grade school to that era’s USDA guidelines—the newly updated “Four Food Groups.”
I was taught that milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and grains were the necessary staples, and any other foods were basically there to “round out meals and satisfy appetites.” However, in my childhood home, we had a fifth food group to “satisfy appetites.”
It was the sugar food group.
My Dad had a sweet tooth, and our family culture was so interwoven with sugar that I still struggle with a sugar addiction to this day. As a child, holidays and birthdays brought lots of sugary treats. The winter holidays brought multiple one-, two-, and even three-pound boxes of chocolates and bags of hard candies. These lasted well into February, at which time the Valentine’s Day candy wave replenished our sugar inventory.
Depending on when the spring holidays appeared on the calendar, we were sometimes still munching on leftover candy hearts when the chocolate eggs and bunnies arrived with the marshmallow chicks to carry us until the next sugar-based holiday or family event.
Candy dishes were always out, and we could always wash the candy down with a pitcher of heavily sugared Kool-Aid or a jug of sugared iced tea, which were never missing from the family Frigidaire.
In addition to the candy, there were sweet rolls, fried pies, and sugared cereals for breakfast. And even though we ate healthy organic food from our one-acre garden for dinners, the wholesome meals were nearly always followed by sugared pies, ice cream, cookies, or cake for dessert.
By the time I learned to ride a bicycle, I figured out that I could pick up pop bottles and take them to 7-Eleven, exchanging them for, you guessed it, candy! Why would I want pennies when I could have candy?
While my family’s culture may have been more sugar- centric than some in the ’60s and ’70s, based on visits to my friends’ houses, we were not all that different from the other “sugared” families in the neighborhood.
The History of Sugar in the U.S.
In the grander scheme of time, sugar-centric diets have not been with humankind for all that long. Perhaps that’s why our bodies have not yet adapted to our high-octane sugared diets. While dates are debated by experts, it’s believed that sugar was not produced from sugarcane until sometime between 350 BCE and the 1st century CE. It’s also thought that this developed in India and that our English language word sugar has its roots in Sanskrit. As a result of the Crusades in the 11th century, Europeans became aware of sugar, and it made its way to England by 1069. Columbus is said to have brought some sugar cane to the New World from the Canary Islands in 1493, but it was the Dutch who brought sugar cane in large scale to the Caribbean in hopes of responding to the high demand for sugar in Europe.
Unfortunately, it was this same demand that first kicked off and then became the engine for the new world slave trade that exploded in the 17th century. From this limited commercial sugar beginning, processed sugar has moved from being a luxury of the European wealthy, to completely permeating our Standard American diet on a daily basis.
Today, the United States grows and processes about nine million tons of sugar annually, but that is still not enough to feed our collective sweet tooth. An additional two to three million tons must be imported each year to allow us to consume our now annual average of 77.1 pounds of processed sugar per every man, woman, and child. And to help us all afford our sugar fix, the same USDA that warns us against processed sugar consumption subsidizes the United States sugar industry with as much as $4 billion annually in the form of price supports, guaranteed crop loans, and import tariffs. By some estimates, that amounts to about half the retail price per pound of domestic sugar.
Sugar and Your Body
Sugar has been linked to diabetes, obesity, and yes, cancer. CDC figures show that over the last 30 years, the percentage of Americans who are overweight and obese has grown from 56% to over 71% of the population. Diabetes rates have tripled for the overall population in that same 30 years, with Black women’s rates increasing at twice the rate of white women’s, and Black men’s increasing at one-and-a-half times the rate of increase for white men.
I had to come to grips with my sugar addiction when I learned I had advanced cancer and that the cancer literally gorged itself on my feeding it with processed sugars. I did not hear this from my American allopathic oncologist, though… it took my leaving the country and visiting alternatively trained oncologists for the word that if I wanted to live, that the first thing that had to go was processed sugars, in any shape, form or configuration.
I received classroom training in Mexico on specifically how to read food labels to look for hidden processed sugars, which were listed under a myriad of benign-sounding names as innocent as rice syrup. Simply stated, my Mexican and Italian doctors told me that if I wanted my cancer cells to stop growing, I needed to stop feeding them. How simple is that?
Now, it’s not that my American allopathic oncologist somehow was not aware that my cancer cells dined on sugar. In fact, in an offhand way, he sort of told me that fact himself, if not intentionally. It was when he told me I needed a PET scan to see just how many places the cancer had set up shop and how severe the infestation was.
In describing the process of the PET scan, he told me that I would first be ushered into an anteroom where I would be given an IV which would contain a radioactive agent.
He said that this agent would be injected with sugar water, and then I would be left to relax while my bloodstream circulated the sugar water and the radioactive agent. The cancer cells, he explained, would eat the sugar, and along with it, they would ingest the radioactive agent causing the cancer cells to light up like a Christmas tree in the subsequent image. This would show him exactly where the cancer was, and how much of it we were dealing with. So it made perfect sense to me a few weeks later, when my Mexican doctors told me I must avoid ALL processed sugars if I wanted the cancer to die (and if I wanted to live).
What did not make perfect sense to me was when I returned to the States for a short chemotherapy regimen, was that the “chemo room” of the cancer center was full of sugary drinks, sweet rolls, candy bars, Krispy Kreme donuts, and other sugary food items… all courtesy of the house.
And since we were all tethered to our IV bags, the attending nurses were kind enough to carry them around the room, offering them to us as we could not easily get up. Even stranger to me was that in an information session with the chemo nurse, I was advised against taking vitamin C when I was undergoing chemo. Imagine how little sense this made to me! I’m being advised to NOT take vitamin C—which research shows blows up cancer cells by oxidizing them— while being handed a sugar-glazed Krispy Kreme donut to feed the cancer the chemo is trying to kill. I passed on the donut and doubled down on my vitamin C IVs.
And as if our 71.1 pounds of annual sugar consumption wasn’t bad enough for us itself, thanks to Monsanto, most of the sugar we have access to today is from the genetically modified sugar beet industry.
Since 2018, over 98% of the sugar beets now grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Now you may ask, just what are sugar beets genetically modified to do or be? One might think that perhaps they are genetically modified to grow bigger. Nope! Perhaps to grow faster? Nope! Maybe they are modified to grow with less water? Nope! How about that they are genetically modified to produce a higher sugar content? Nope! (But I do like that one.) Store longer? Nope! Resist bugs? Nope again!
All of those might be interesting arguments to put forward to justify the genetic manipulation of sugar beets, but none of them are remotely true. In fact, some research on GMOs suggests the exact opposite to be true in some of these areas. Instead, there is one and only one reason that sugar beets are genetically modified… they are genetically modified to resist the chemical herbicide called glyphosate, also known as Roundup. “Resist” means that farmers can spray Roundup weed killer directly on our food without the plant dying as it should.
So now, if we eat sugar, not only does our body have to deal with all of the negative effects of metabolizing the sugar itself, but the body has to try to process genetically modified food molecules that have never existed before and are perhaps even unrecognizable to our immune system. On top of that, we get to eat a good dose of the weed killer that has caused Monsanto and Bayer to be liable for up to $14 billion in judgments in favor of cancer victims shown to have been negatively impacted by the weed killer.
To me, that’s three strikes against eating processed sugar—and that’s just the sugar that’s actually labeled sugar.
In today’s world, where items are marketed to consumers, processed sugars are a master of disguise. Just because we don’t see sugar clearly spelled out on the FDA-approved nutrition label does not mean the food is sugar-free. In my class in Mexico, I learned that there are at least 56 different names that various processed sugars are hidden under. I have since learned that over 68% of all food items with a barcode contain added sugars under one name or another. In some cases, there are multiple listings of different names of sugars in the same food. And, don’t let the claims of “organic,” “natural,” or “healthy” fool you either. Those claims have nothing to do with sugar content, although at least with organic you are assured you are not getting dosed with GMOs or doused with Roundup.
FDA-Approved Sugar Pseudonyms
The following are FDA-approved sugar pseudonyms you will find on nutrition labels. Consider any of these just as you would consider eating a heaping tablespoon full of processed white sugar. To be fair, some may have different glycemic index values and for those purposes may have different considerations, but cancer doesn’t know that and loves to eat them all the same.
Lactose, maltose, sucrose, fructose, galactose, glucose, dextrose, beet sugar, brown sugar, cane juice crystals, cane sugar, castor sugar, coconut sugar, confectioner’s sugar (aka powdered sugar), corn syrup solids, crystalline fructose, date sugar, demerara sugar, dextrin, diastatic malt, ethyl maltol, Florida crystals, golden sugar, glucose syrup solids, grape sugar, icing sugar, maltodextrin, muscovado sugar, panela sugar, raw sugar, sucanat, turbinado, yellow sugar, agave nectar/syrup, barley malt, blackstrap molasses, brown rice syrup, buttered sugar, buttercream, caramel, carob syrup, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, golden syrup, high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS), honey, invert sugar, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, rice syrup, refiner’s syrup, sorghum syrup, and treacle.
Whether you are looking to improve your health or avoid cancer, diabetes or heart disease in the future, or especially if you are fighting a known ailment, cutting out the sugar will take a load off of your immune system, help you lose or maintain a healthy weight, and allow your body to do what it was designed to do… thrive!
Keep up with all articles from this series by visiting our website.
Ric Coggins is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who grew up on a one-acre garden tended by his father, who was a regular contributor to Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening and Farming magazines. Ric continues his father’s “green” traditions on a one-acre organic garden urban homestead in Mesa he calls The Fool on the Hill Farm.
Photo by Adrienne Andersen from Pexels