Sweet and Lowdown

Sugar production leaves the environment with a bitter taste.

By Lauren Tepper

July 2006

The first cafe to offer a cup of sugar-sweetened tea probably had no idea what a far-reaching trend it was starting. Once an exotic spice, sugar has rapidly gone from an expensive luxury item to a ubiquitous dietary staple. At first sip it may have seemed like a harmless treat, but sugar has now become an American addiction, contributing to health problems ranging from obesity to tooth decay to type 2 diabetes.

It’s no secret that too much sugar is bad for you, but did you know it can harm the environment too? Fueled by the collective cultural sweet tooth, mass production of sugar cane and sugar beet has become a major industry in many parts of the world, crowding out the natural diversity of native plants and animals. Scientists estimate that the Philippines, for example, has lost over one-third of its original species of snails and birds since the proliferation of sugar plantations. Florida panthers plummeted to the brink of extinction in the 1960s due to habitat fragmentation resulting from the sugar industry and other human development in South Florida.

White sugar is a highly refined form of sugar cane or sugar beet. Industrial processing strips away the natural complexity of the original food source, leaving very little nutritional value. Certified holistic health counselor Andrea Wulwick refers to white sugar as an “anti-nutrient” because the body actually consumes other nutrients in order to utilize it. Our bodies burn refined sugar very quickly, which causes the typical “sugar high” and subsequent crash. While particularly catastrophic for diabetics, this yo-yo effect is harmful across the board, causing mood swings and weakened immune systems. Meanwhile, sugar continues to weasel its way into many of our favorite foods, even those widely considered healthy, such as breakfast cereal and tomato sauce. One can of soda alone packs about 10 teaspoons of the sneaky sweetener. As demand for sugar only continues to increase, our bodies—and our environment—pay the price.

A Bitter Case Study

Hundreds of years ago in the heart of the South Florida peninsula, a 40-mile-wide shallow river crept slowly southward, teeming with wildlife. Flocks of wading birds, at times so thick as to block the sun, circled the skies in this unique natural treasure known as the Everglades. Enormous government subsidies in the 20th century made it economical to pull the plug and drain much of the Everglades, converting 450,000 acres into one of the country’s largest sugar plantations. Suddenly, areas that used to be dry became wet and vice versa. “The stresses of low water wreaked havoc up and down the food chain,” states Michael Grunwald in his recent book The Swamp (Simon & Schuster). Fresh water supplies declined, and the plants and animals once cozy in their familiar patch of swamp found that they were housed in the midst of a vast sugar bowl instead.

Unfortunately, sugar provides no better nutrition for wildlife than it does for humans.

Loss of valuable topsoil is another pitfall of large-scale sugar cane production. The conversion of land to sugar plantations removes native vegetation whose extensive roots hold soil in place. According to Juanita Green, conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades, erosion from sugar cane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area has washed away five feet of rich soils that formerly supported plants, birds and animals.

Sugar production is certainly not the only factor threatening the Everglades and other cane-growing regions; residential development, road building and commercial land usage also play a role. Specific environmental issues vary greatly with the diverse ecosystems that support sugar operations, but one constant remains: Large-scale sugar production stamps its footprint on the environment as well as increasing the average American’s clothing size. As a consumer, you can protect your health and the environment at the same time by choosing to reduce or eliminate refined sugar in your diet.

Sweet Nothings

There are many other alternatives to refined sugar that can be purchased in natural food stores including xylitol (which sounds like a toxic chemical, but is actually natural birch sugar), amazake (a fermented grain product from Japan), brown rice syrup and maltitol, a low-calorie sweetener used in a variety of diet treats, such as sugarless hard candies, ice cream and baked goods. Stevia, an herb in the chrysanthemum family which grows wild in parts of Paraguay and Brazil, contains vitamin C, potassium, niacin and magnesium. Unlike sugar, stevia extract doesn’t elevate blood-sugar levels, so it is safe for diabetics. Its concentrated sweetness makes it virtually calorie-free for use in beverages, cereals or yogurt.

Another sweet treat is agave nectar, made from the Mexican agave plant. A form of fruit sugar, agave nectar is also suitable for diabetics because it is more slowly absorbed into the bloodstream.
So don’t let a sugar daddy seduce you; let natural alternatives sweet-talk you instead. The results will give you more energy and won’t sugar-coat the environment. Now that’s a sweet deal.

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