Blog # 45 Andrew Siegel, M.D.=
Nature is ever so clever—look at our human species—amazingly engineered, evolved and adapted not only to survive, but also to thrive on this planet.
Whenever nature provides us with a nutrient that is potentially unhealthy, it protects us does by limiting our access to that nutrient. Take, for example, sugar—also known as sucrose or alternatively, 50% glucose/50% fructose—clearly unhealthy and a key contributor to the obesity epidemic. The major sources are sugar cane and sugar beets. Did you ever try to get the sugar out of a sugar cane or sugar beet plant? They are fibrous and unyielding and if we want to derive calories from these, it will require great effort and we will likely end up frustrated. It’s like chewing on a stick of bamboo!
However, because of the collective intelligence of mankind—standing on the shoulders of giants, if you will—we are now able to easily remove the protective fiber matrix and process the sugar cane or sugar beet into a pure, refined and powdery product. This process enables unrestricted access to the sugar and allows many “naked” calories to be easily consumed in a short time period. That is NOT the way nature intended, but humankind has prevailed over nature. Processing has allowed us to cheat nature by refining sugar, permitting consumption in immoderate and unhealthy amounts, contrary to nature’s design.
Now lets move on to a discussion about the processing of grains—specifically wheat, since these amber waves of grain are one of the staples of the American diet. However, this same line of thought is relevant to other grains including rice, corn, rye, oats, barley, etc. The bottom line is that processing leaves us with a very refined product—not unlike sugar—again cheating nature’s “natural” protective mechanisms. Unfortunately, when we cheat nature, we ultimately cheat ourselves.
Wheat needs to be processed to make it available and accessible to us. Threshing is the means whereby the chaff (the wheat husk) is separated from the wheat kernel, the diamond of wheat. Highly efficient milling enables the wheat kernel to be separated into the following three components—the bran: the outer covering of the wheat kernel; the germ: the embryo or sprouting section; and the endosperm: the source of the white flour that contains starch and protein.
White flour has the bran and germ removed, resulting in a pure, highly refined powder as opposed to whole-wheat flour that contains the bran and germ. By removing the fiber-rich bran and germ, the resulting product has a longer shelf life and makes for lighter and fluffier breads, as opposed to the darker, coarser, heavier breads made from the whole-grain wheat.
The removed bran and germ—the wholesome and healthy components of the wheat kernel—are often used to produce animal and poultry feed. Interestingly, the farm animals are fed the wholesome, slow-digesting grain components and us humans end up with the refined and unhealthy component! Go figure! In fact, the nutritionally depleted and deficient processed white flour needs to be fortified with vitamins and minerals to replace those that were lost with refining, hence the term “enriched” wheat flour.
What is the problem with enriched wheat flour? Simply, wheat grain that is hulled and stripped of the bran and germ results in a pulverized, super-fine, silky-white powder. This highly refined substance is very similar in appearance to cocaine or heroin. This pre-chewed, pre-digested, melts-in-your-mouth, adult baby food equivalent is absorbed extremely rapidly and is promptly transformed into glucose; it is not unlike getting an injection of intravenous glucose into one’s bloodstream. Insulin levels (remember that insulin is our “fat” hormone) surge in response and any glucose that does not need to be immediately used as fuel gets stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver and when that is maximized, any excess glucose gets stored as fat.
This quick fix of sugar is not particularly filling because of the absence of fiber; it is a short-lived satisfaction that begs for more consumption, establishing a vicious cycle. The result is a push in the direction of weight gain, insulin-resistance, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Furthermore, the refined product does not induce the “thermic effect” that many more substantive foods do, in which the body’s metabolism increases because of the energy expenditure it takes to digest a wholesome, fiber-rich product.
In contrast to the refined, enriched wheat flour product, whole-wheat flour is made by grinding up the entire wheat kernel. “Whole” refers to all three grain components used—bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole-wheat flour is brown in color and textured, as opposed to the silky-white enriched wheat product. Whole wheat is very nutritious because the bran and germ components contain abundant fiber, protein, calcium, iron and other minerals. Because of the fiber, absorption and glucose transformation occur in a slow, gradual and well-regulated fashion. Whole wheat is filling, satisfying and substantive and literally sticks to your ribs. Whole-wheat adds heaviness to breads or to whatever recipe it is used for and requires more flour to obtain the same volume of bread as white flour. Whole-wheat has a shorter shelf life than white flour because of its higher oil content—the source of the oil being the wheat bran, and the oil being a healthy one. Products containing oil will go rancid faster than products that do not contain oil. Whole-wheat flour is more expensive than white or enriched wheat flour. It is easy to understand why the Industrial Food Complex is enamored with enriched wheat flour.
Now let’s go way beyond mere processing and separation of a natural product into its components and get into a real chemistry experiment—high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCSis a sugar substitute that is derived from corn via a complicated chemical process. Corn is milled to produce cornstarch, a powdery derivative. The cornstarch is processed into corn syrup, which contains glucose. Glucose is converted to fructose by using a process developed in the 1970’s by food scientists in Japan. Glucose is then added back in differing percentages to the fructose to achieve the desired sweetness. 55% fructose HFCS is used to sweeten soft drinks and a 42% fructose HFCS is used in baked goods. HFCS is abundant in processed foods and drinks.
Why does the Industrial Food Complex adore HFCS? It is less costly than sugar because of corn subsidies and sugar tariffs. It is easy to transport as the viscous syrup lends itself to huge storage vats within trucks. Fructose is the sweetest of all naturally occurring carbohydrates and does not crystallize or turn grainy when cold, as sugar can do in cold drinks such as iced tea. Because HFCS is highly soluble, its use makes for softer products and its ability to retain moisture allows for moister and better textured baked goods. Finally, it acts as a preservative to help prevent freezer burn as well as maintain the freshness and extend the shelf life of processed foods.
While HFCS may help preserve processed foods, it does not help preserve us; in fact, I would describe HFCS as killer sweetener. It’s not just about the “naked” calories of the refined, fiber-less carbohydrate but is all about the fructose, which can be thought of as “poisonous” carbohydrate that has unique and distinct properties. Fructose is remarkably similar to a carbohydrate that is very familiar to all of us—ethanol, a fermented sugar that is an acute toxin to the brain. However, fructose can only be metabolized by the liver and not by the brain, so in the words of Dr. Robert Lustig, fructose is “alcohol without the buzz.” While ethanol is an acute toxin, fructose can be thought of as a chronic toxin. The “beer belly” from alcohol is not unlike the “soda belly” seen in those who overindulge in products containing HFCS.
Fructose is metabolized entirely differently from the way glucose is. Every cell in our body can metabolize glucose, but only the liver can metabolize fructose. Fructose does not stimulate insulin release, as does glucose. Fructose does not stimulate thesecretion of our satiety hormone leptin, nor suppress our hunger hormone ghrelin, so that foods containing fructose, unless couched in fiber, do not fill us up and curb our appetites. Fructose much more readily than glucose replenishes liver glycogen, and once the liver is saturated with glycogen, triglycerides (fats) are made and stored. Thus, HFCS ingestion can readily lead to obesity, elevated cholesterol, fatty liver, hypertension, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. The bottom line is that excessive HFCS ingestion pushes our metabolism towards fat production, and it doesn’t take eating that much processed food to cross the excessive HFCS threshold.
Fructose is the predominant sugar in many fruits, hence the name fructose. The difference between this sugar contained within a piece of fruit as opposed to that within a bottle of cola is that fruit fructose is natural (not created in a chemistry lab) and the amount is significantly less than the load contained within the soft drink. Additionally, the fruit fructose is accompanied by a substantial amount of fiber, anti-oxidants, and other phyto-nutrients, all health-promoting ingredients not present in the cola.
Bottom line: Resonate with nature and literally think “outside the box,” can, package, bottle, etc., by eating whole, natural foods and not their refined by-products. Whole and real foods do not require a label because what you see is what you get. Leave the chemistry experiments to the chemistry lab and not for our consumption. Processing is a necessity to make some foods accessible to us, so read food and nutritional labels as carefully as you would read the ingredients in a medication, because when it comes down to it, food is medicine. The best diet is the “anti-processed-atarian” diet. Your body will thank you.
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food
Tags: bran, endosperm, enriched wheat flour, fiber, food processing, fructose, germ, health, high fructose corn syrup, insulin, metabolic syndrome, obesity, sugar, sugar beet, sugar cane, wellness, wheat