We finally come to the end of this trilogy of articles about the 5 White Poison foods and their possible dangers.
Today is the turn of the last two suspects: wheat flour and sugar. We assess them together because they have many aspects in common, as they are grouped under the name of Refined Carbohydrates.
So let’s see what is myth and what is evidence regarding their toxicity.
As explained in the post about the Paleo Diet, the last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago. A consequence of this, perhaps the most relevant, was the emergence of agriculture.
In the case of wheat, the archaeological record reveals that different varieties had started to be cultivated in the Fertile Crescent region in the Middle East around the years 7,500 to 9,500 B.C. (source) (source).
Like rice, wheat is a type of grass. The typical flour we consume is obtained from a process of grinding the spike’s grains, where almost everything but the endosperm is removed. For more details of what is grass, spike and endosperm check the previous post.
Although many foods can be prepared from flour, we will focus the analysis on only one, due to its historical significance.
Our daily bread …
Undoubtedly, bread is an iconic food in various cultures and the first thing that comes to our mind when we think of flour.
It has an important place in many religions and also represents a metaphor for the minimum subsistence needs. We have different sayings such as ‘the baby came with a loaf bread under his arm’ or ‘I work to earn my daily bread’ that show this.
Bread is often seen as an innocent food and many parents do not bother giving their children a good portion. Should they?
What is questioned about refined flour and therefore bread?
The refined wheat flour, having all their fiber removed, is digested faster than other foods leading to a rapid increase in blood glucose levels.
The consequence of this is a sharp increase in the secretion of the insulin hormone by the pancreas. The goal of insulin is to try to take that excess of glucose out of the blood and allow it to enter into the muscles and liver.
This is an unprecedented situation for our body that never in more than 2 million years had to deal with such high levels of glucose.
The consequence of repeating this situation several times is the occurrence of overweight/obesity, insulin resistance, Type 2 Diabetes, Heart Disease and neurodegenerative diseases, among others (source) (source) (source) (source).
Foods that produce this are called as ‘high glycemic index’ foods. Example: bread, pasta, sweets, any sugary snack, etc.
What is the nutritional contribution of bread?
Simple and clear, scarce. Why do you think is so cheap?
Cereals themselves are low in nutrients. In this graphic we see it.
The vertical axis represents the energy contribution of a food and the horizontal axis its nutritional contribution. We look for foods that are as far to the right as possible (lots of nutrients) and from half down in height (medium to few calories).
Whole-wheat bread is below 100 nutritional points. And this is considering that it is more nutritious than white since the whole-wheat flour preserves the layers of bran and the germ (more details).
White bread must be another of the leftmost points in the graphic, that is, with even less nutrients.
Let’s see what animal products, fruits and vegetables have to show with the same type of graphic (source).
As you see, the difference is huge.
In addition, bread (especially the industrial one), usually comes with many additives or preservatives that we do not see, such as salt.
By this way it would be easy to exceed the recommended dose we spoke about before.
But there is something else about bread that generates a yellow flag …
Gluten is the name of a group of proteins present in the grains of wheat, barley, rye and some cultivars of oats. The main proteins of wheat gluten are gliadins and glutenins (source)
If you have ever kneaded something made from wheat flour, you should have noticed that the dough stretches, it has certain elasticity. Well, that’s because of gluten proteins.
So far nothing unusual, but the problem is that gluten is not usually fully digested by the enzymes of our intestine, and certain peptides (small fragments of protein) end up passing the intestinal barrier, which can generate some undesirable effects such as inflammation, abdominal pain or diarrhea (source).
Gluten has been linked with certain disorders such as Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis (Inflammatory Bowel Disease), autoimmune diseases and even neurological disorders such as Epilepsy and Schizophrenia (source) (source) (source) (source).
However, there are many people who say ‘I eat bread every day since I was a kid and I have never had a problem’.
What happens is that, as with the milk, again our genetics determines our susceptibility.
Although cereals and milk are relatively new in evolutionary terms (approximately 10,000 years), the reality is that we continue to evolve and logically there are people who can tolerate them without problems.
But not to be confused, 10,000 years is less than 1% of the more than 2 million years that we exist as hominins (more details)
Not all of us have the same sensitivity to gluten, we can say there is a sort of a gradient. At one extreme are those with Coeliac Disease (CD) with total intolerance, then there are those allergic to wheat, others with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and at the other extreme, people who are not affected. Most of us are somewhere in between.
It’s just a matter of experiencing yourself to find out where in the graphic you are placed. You could try 1-2 weeks eating gluten-free and watch for changes.
Either way, whether you suffer from CD or you are a gluten resistant, eliminating it from your diet following a typical Paleo Diet approach will bring you several benefits such as a reduction in waist circumference, lower triglycerides and LDL levels, lower blood glucose levels, less inflammation, etc. (source) (source) (source).
Do you have Coeliac Disease? There is nothing to discuss, you must eliminate wheat flour as well as any food that may have gluten.
For the rest, it might not be necessary to eliminate it (beyond the benefits that I highlighted above) but it would be advisable to reduce your intake to say 1-2 ‘cheat meals’ per week. In my case, I spend my credit every Friday or Saturday night with a nice (usually home made) pizza 🙂
The arguments of sugar’s critics are essentially the same as those received by flour, although one more is added, which for me is fundamental: that it generates addiction.
But let’s go by parts.
What is sugar and how is it obtained?
Like flour, it is a refined substance, meaning that other parts have been removed, leaving us with a pure product, sucrose.
Sugar is obtained from the processing of the Sugar Cane plant or a special type of beetroot called Sugar Beet. The final product is basically the same.
When did we start consuming it?
Apparently it all started in India about 8,000 years ago (source). The sugar they ingested was not as we know it today, but rather a sweet juice obtained from the Sugar Cane, which some know as ‘must’.
Over time, its cultivation spread. First to Southeast Asia, later was adopted by the Arabs, who in turn introduced it to Spain.
In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards took it to the “New World” where ideal conditions for its cultivation were found and it quickly spread throughout much of the American continent (source).
The new flavors created by combining sugar with coffee, tea or cocoa, plus the boom of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, allowed the development of better refining methods, creating a real business around the production of sugar.
Already in the nineteenth century, Napoleon, who at that time ruled over most of Europe, had some problems with the British who in turn controlled the sugar trade from their colonies in the Caribbean (British, colonies and conflicts… really?).
The French revolutionary boycotted British products, including sugar.
Given the great demand for sweet from the European palates, sugar production emerged in from Sugar Beet in Europe.
The rest is known History, sugar spread globally and it is present in almost all packaged cheap food.
Let’s talk about nutrients: what does sugar give us?
Although this may be debatable, since sucrose is made up of glucose and fructose, which are carbohydrates (macronutrients), the reality is that it does not provide any vitamins or minerals, the so-called micronutrients.
That is why it is often said that sugar only provides empty calories (source).
Okay, it does not provide nutrients, but is it so harmful?
Let’s see the evidence …
In addition to the insulin spikes that are produced in a similar way to when you eat something based on wheat flour, the excess of sugar consumption is linked to:
- Increased blood pressure and blood lipids (source) (source)
- Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer (source)
- Cardiovascular disease (source)
- Increased inflammation indicators such as C-reactive protein (source)
- Increased incidence of cavities (source) (source)
Another problem with sugar (and refined carbohydrates in general) is that it does not produce satiety, making you craving for more food, which promotes overfeeding and therefore increases your chances of being overweight/obese (source).
This may be the previous step to an addiction.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), to define a substance as addictive they must meet at least three of the following seven criteria (source):
1. Tolerance: refers to the fact that you ‘get used’ to the substance, so you need more to feel the same effect.
2. Withdrawal: the typical symptoms experienced when you stop ingesting the substance (headaches, tiredness, muscle aches, anxiety, irritability).
3. Binging: The substance is ingested in large quantities, more than you anticipated. The classic ‘one more and that’s it’, but there were several more…
4. Desire to stop: for some reason (health, money, etc.) you want to stop consuming it, but you cannot.
5. Cravings: you feel a strong desire to ingest the substance, you invest time, effort and money to get it.
6. The substance affects your personal life: you run away from work, from some social event or whatever to look for or consume the substance.
7. Irrational use: You continue to ingest the substance despite knowing that it is harming you. For example, you have been diagnosed with lung cancer but you continue to smoke.
Don’t you associate some of these behaviors with the consumption of sugary products? Is it happening to you or do you know someone who is doing something similar?
Mechanism of addiction
When sugar is ingested, opioids and dopamine are released into the brain (source). These are neurotransmitters (small molecules) that regulate our reward-motivated behavior.
In other words, it makes us seek for a certain substance knowing the pleasure it will create on us.
Studies in rats showed that they can become dependent on sugar (source).
Another study that evaluated addictive behaviors regarding sugar consumption states that ‘the evidence in the literature shows substantial parallels and overlap between drugs of abuse and sugar, from the standpoint of brain neurochemistry as well as behavior‘ (source)
In any case, the idea is not to create terror.
Obviously, sugar is not the same as cocaine, heroin or other drugs, but the fact that they have points in common regarding the physiological and psychological mechanisms involved is something that cannot be underestimated.
Which foods have added sugar?
Most ultra-processed foods contain sugar. In addition to the most obvious ones, such as soft drinks or cookies, you will be surprised to know that it is also added in dressings, sauces, instant coffee, peanut butter or “light” yogurt.
That’s why I always recommend to get used to reading the labels to find out the ingredients.
Sugar is added to food for several reasons:
1. It increases the palatability and texture: this refers to the sensation of pleasure when eating them. It is closely linked to the addiction that we just talked about.
2. Lowering costs: it is cheaper to fill a product with sugar than with its main ingredient.
3. Increase the food’s shelf life: sugar is hygroscopic, that is, it absorbs water molecules, preventing the activity of microorganisms that can deteriorate the food.
4. Provide color and volume: these are properties for purely commercial purposes. Something colorful and symmetrical is way more appealing.
So should I eliminate sugar from my life?
If you have read the two previous articles of this series, you will know that the amount is what determines the damage.
The American Heart Association recommends a maximum dose of 100 to 150 calories per day (6 to 9 teaspoons) of sugar (source).
However I would consume as little as possible.
The sugar that you might add conscientiously to your coffee, or to a tea is an amount that you can see, while that from ultra-processed foods is often not perceived from taste as it is mixed with other additives.
Not only that, there are also other sugar-like substances that are equally or even more harmful such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), agave syrup, glucose syrup, maltodextrin, galactose, dextrose, etc.
If you see any of these guys in the ingredients list, you better leave the product on the shelf.
Just pick up the idea that…
…the easiest way to control your sugar intake is by reducing your consumption of ultra-processed food.
Final conclusions on the 5 White Poisons
As I already mentioned in a previous post we are going through a very particular and paradoxical era.
On the one hand we live super communicated. With a couple of clicks it is very easy to locate or contact a person in pretty much any part of the world if we have their name.
Or if you plan a trip, in 1-2 minutes you can see the places you are going on Google Maps, you may check reviews or opinions for possible lodgings and restaurants, among other stuff. All the information is very accessible.
But on the other hand, this democratization of the media generates a huge competition to attract customers, readers, viewers, followers on social networks, etc.
Therefore, you have to offer something different so that they see you, read and/or listen to you.
And in this context is when sensationalist headlines come up, seeking to create an impact. It does not matter what the headline says, if it is true or not, that is a minor detail, what matters is getting people’s attention.
That is why I say that we are living in the era of Hyper-communication and, at the same time, of Disinformation or the Fake News Era.
Question everything you read and listen to, check if what you are consuming cites the sources of the information (as we do in Salud sin Dogmas).
Do not be easily fooled.
And I extend this to any type of news spread in the media, not only in matters of nutrition and health.
The case of these 5 (alleged) White Poisons is a perfect example.
As we have seen, they are not a 100% innocuous. In fact, I do sustain that they are totally dispensable from our diet, since they do not come close to the nutritional quality of the 4 fundamental foods, and therefore they should not be the basis of your diet.
But from there, to being poisons, there is a considerable distance.
Nor can the five be placed at the same level and say that they contribute nothing. A glass of full-cream milk from grass-fed cows is not the same as a sugary flour-made doughnut or a churro (the perfect anti-food).
If I had to rank from least to most troublesome it would be:
1. Full cream milk from grass-fed cows: if you tolerate it well, you have good insulin sensitivity and do not suffer from cancer.
2. Salt: added by you and not the one added in ultra-processed food.
3. Rice: a few times a week shouldn’t be a problem. If you are going to eat more times (which I do not recommend), choose the white instead of the brown.
4. Refined sugar and wheat flour: the least recommended, they have little nutrients (actually sugar does not have any), they produce a high insulin response, addiction and are associated with multiple disorders.
Obviously, we live in a world where ultra-processed foods, flours, sugar, and other additives invade our environment.
So I hope that with this series of articles you have acquired enough knowledge to make an appropriate judgment to know how much and how often you can treat yourself with ‘poisonous’ meal from time to time.