All About Sugar – Interview with ISMA

According to you, what is sugar ? Is the term “sugar” only used for Cheeni or Shakkar or does it represent other foods?

There is sugar from sugarcane which we use as cheeni or mishri or khand. This is not just something sweet, over the centuries it has been used as medicine, a source of dietary carbohydrates, a sweetening agent, and a preservative for food and medicines. Sugar finds its mention in Hindu scriptures with the first description of a sugar mill found between 100 and 350 A.D. while evidence from Indian texts and scriptures indicates that refined sugar was being produced in India by the 4th and 3rd century BC. So when I say sugar, this is what I mean. Then there is jaggery and honey which too have their own therapeutic properties and culinary uses but are not equal to sugar in their function.

Now, in the food and dietary guidelines published worldwide for the USA, Canada, Europe, and India, the definition of sugar or free sugars extends to food sources including fruit, its juices, jams, and other products, sugar syrups like the high fructose corn syrup which is an artificial sweetener added packaged processed products. It also includes all carbonated beverages and sodas and alcoholic drinks.

This, I would like to point out is the major reason for food confusion and fear around sugar. What you should be avoiding in your diet is any and all of the hundreds of euphemisms available for sugar that are present in all ultra-processed and packaged foods and beverages. Cheeni, as we know it, is not only harmless but actually beneficial and an important component of our diet.

You recently presented your research titled ‘In Defense of Sugar’ at the International Conference by USFN. Can you share your research findings? And if I may ask why your title says “In Defense of Sugar”?

To answer the second part of your questions first, sugar is defamed to such an extent today that a word as strong as ‘defense’ is also not powerful enough, I feel, to do justice and to support the attempt of educating our population about sugar. As I mentioned, today there are 100s of euphemisms and terms and products which are easily passed as sugar. Nevertheless, ‘in defense of sugar’ is what I want to voice.

The objectives of my research were –

  1. To study the impact of cane sugar on clinical and metabolic health parameters such as blood sugar response, inch loss, gastric health, migraines, sleep quality etc.
  2. To validate the traditional use of sugar in our diet and to throw light on its many benefits.

The subject size for the research was 115 participants. To begin the study, weekly guidelines were given to be followed cumulatively by subjects through one-on-one interactions on video calls, for 4 weeks. Through the course of the study, we tracked blood sugar levels, waist circumference in inches, changes in energy levels, sugar cravings, acidity, bloating, headaches and sleep quality for all the participants.

I am happy to report that there was a 100% improvement in blood sugar response, recorded and tracked through fasting sugar levels. We also observed positive changes in all the 5 metabolic health parameters. Furthermore, by the end of week 4, close to 80% of the participants reported a loss of up to 3 inches from the navel. The results of the study conclusively suggested that Eating sugar (from cane), as included in traditional foods and beverages, is essential to regulate blood glucose response and for overall health. 

Most of the research on Sugar & Health is based on Western countries while in India merely few studies have been conducted on sugar consumption. But still sugar has gotten a bad reputation. As a clinical nutritionist how do you respond to this knowledge gap?

We live in a global village today which is a product of industrialization, capitalism and commercialism. This, as we all know has its own pros and cons. When it comes to food and sugar specifically, I am afraid, the cons might outweigh the pros. The research that makes headlines and is flashed on our screens is more often than not skewed in the interest of the political model, the media systems and the industry.

As a clinical nutritionist, through my consultation programs and other work that I do, I try to educate and spread the right, unbiased information to the masses. The foundation of a belief is in understanding the reason and logic behind it. We have in-depth conversations about not only what to eat but why, when, how, and how much of it to eat. Today, majority of the people who get in touch with me drink their tea and coffee black and eat their mithai sugar-free. We are so scared of sugar that we will compromise on our taste palate but not eat sugar. This is sad.

It is important to know that sugar in our kitchens is not to be blamed. It is not just empty calories. It is has a myriad functions and magical properties.

  1. Sugar is nutritionally abundant in fiber, B vitamins, iron, and other minerals. Everybody who avoids sugar has to rely on supplements and pills for iron and vitamin B12.
  2. Sugar regulates our body’s temperature and helps us cope with the current harsh as ever climatic conditions an changes.
  3. You avoid sugar and the body is burdened with gastric discomfort like acidity, bloating, and constipation.
  4. We know from historical texts that sugar has always been used to treat digestive ailments and infertility in both men and women. Author Gulia Enders, in her book “the gut” talks lengths about sugar as a prebiotic food and its many uses.
  5. Sugar naturally has glycolic acid, the same which is sold as a USP in many cosmetic products as a cure for blemishes to tanning to wrinkles to skin damage to improving complexion.
  6. For everybody who exercises – sugar puts your body in a positive nitrogen balance which means you do not sacrifice on muscles to meet the energy demands and you progress faster in your workouts without any injuries . Here comes the sugar in shikanji that you all must sip on and no the packaged energy drinks do not work.

So stop fearing and avoiding sugar. It is an indispensable food for any and all of us to main good health and stay away from sickness. But this is all about the real sugar – which is cheeni in our kitchens. Not the sweet or artificial sugars from the packaged processed foods.

It is a well known fact that Indian food culture is very rich and includes diverse food items and sugar is one among them. How do you see the consumption of sugar in Indian context?

Yes, this is absolutely true. Indian food culture and heritage has always been very strong. We may not pop and publish articles to circulate in journals but our wisdom has a strong foundation in science. From north to south and east to west, each state and each region has its own food wisdom which helps the people of that area to survive the climate, be sustainable in their food choices given the crop produce and to celebrate the priceless treasures they decorate on their plates during festivities.

Up north, we use sugarcane juice to make a ‘gatte ka meetha’ which is a sweet quite similar to the process of jaggery. This gives the body warmth in winters. We make kahwa with sugar and spices which naturally helps the liver to detox. We go eastwards and sweets made with coconut and sugar are found in each home and each shop. Mishti doi and sondesh are staples. These are prepared with the foods available locally, and hence these are sustainable to health and the environment.

Westwards in Gujarat and areas of Rajasthan – sugar is not only added in mithais and sherbets but also in dal and kadhi which is the main course. Why ? because sugar cools. When it is scorching hot and the heat is unbearable, this sugar maintains the body’s electrolytes, hydration and lets you get out of the house and gives you the energy and resilience to work. Down south, you may go to the richest persons home or you may visit a humble nobleman and you will be offered mishri with a glass of water. Have this and the body is rejuvenated and re-energised and your friendship and relation grows sweeter.

We spoke of westernization and urbanization earlier, I think it is more important to focus on culturalization and climatization to ensure good health and prosperity through food and yes, our sugar.

Last question, Can you tell us how we can accommodate sugar in a healthy lifestyle? And what are your suggestions for people struggling with PCOS, Thyroid, Diabetes, Heart Health and other lifestyle diseases?

Now, this is the thing. Sugar is healthy. It is only after we have abandoned it that we will need to accommodate it. Use it how your ancestors used it. The famous journalist and author, Michael pollan, advocates that we eat the way our grandparents did and their grandparents did. Rujuta Diwekar, India’s leading nutritionist and my guru, seconds this.

If we speak specifically of PCOS, Thyroid, Diabetes, Heart health and liver function – meta research studies show NO CONCLUSIVE LINK between sugar consumption and the occurrence of lifestyle diseases. But the increased consumption of processed foods like biscuits, colas, ice creams, breakfast cereal, etc. is positively associated with diabetes and heart health. In my recent research presented at the International USFN conference, my work “in defense of sugar” is an initiation to bust the myth that sugar is the culprit.

For PCOS, thyroid, PMS and to cure any hormonal disturbance in the body – you can have coconut barfi or simply a combination of fresh coconut pieces and mishri. This will nourish you, re-correct any hormonal disturbance and reduces symptoms of hirsutism, acne and help you reverse the condition. For heart health, do the coconut mishri snack in the evening and eat a spoon of gulkand at bedtime. This improves blood oxygenation, blood circulation and make your heart happy – literally. For diabetes, eat the coconut mishri as your snack, take gulkand at bedtime with some milk and do not miss a glass of fresh shikanji with sugar and salt around noon. These will improve your insulin sensitivity and keep your blood sugar levels well regulated.

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