FROM our earliest history, we have tried to refine the foods that we eat. But while people might want white, processed, perfect-looking sugar, Richard Weisinger of La Trobe University in Melbourne, is finding our bodies need a natural sugar that isn’t sosweet.
“The quest for whiteness in bread, rice and sugar have left these products empty of their original nutritional value and have undoubtedly increased our risk of disease,” says Weisinger.
Weisinger has found important health benefits in products that are removed when processing white sugar.
“When sugar is processed, the stuff that is thrown away seems to have a lot of polyphenols,” he explains.
Polyphenols are natural plant chemicals that have powerful antioxidant properties and numerous potential health benefits. One of these benefits, suggests Weisinger, is to reduce the amount of fat our body retains after eating a fatty meal. Returning polyphenols to our refined sugar has the potential to reduce insulin resistance and diabetes.
Weisinger used mice to test the benefits of polyphenols in sugar. He found that polyphenols reduced the amount of fat that mice stored in their bodies.
“We took mice that have a tendency to become obese when given a high fat diet, like humans. We gave them a specialised diet, some with polyphenols and some without. We found the mice with polyphenols did not get as fat as the ones without the polyphenols,” explains Weisinger.
These benefits are specific to polyphenols from sugar cane, which are very different from those found in other food sources, such as green tea.
Weisinger hopes his research can be used to benefit individuals at risk of diabetes by reducing insulin resistance. Insulin is produced in the body when we have a high blood sugar level, such as after a meal.
Insulin removes sugar from the bloodstream and stores excess sugar as saturated fat. Insulin resistance, the cause of diabetes, leads to an inability to remove sugar from the blood.
“If you were to add these polyphenols to food, such as muesli bars, it is conceivable if people were eating enough of them a day, regardless of their diet it could reduce their insulin resistance,” says Weisinger.
Researchers are unsure precisely how polyphenols act in the body to reduce fat intake, but Weisinger has a few ideas.
“Polyphenols increase energy excretion and make it more difficult to store fat,” says Weisinger. “For example, instead of your body absorbing all of the calories from a meal, it will only keep 90 per cent of the calories.” The remaining calories are excreted in faeces.
Polyphenols may also act by reducing the amount of fat that is stored in each fat cell.
“Larger fat cells, that store a lot of fat, release certain hormones that are inflammatory. These hormones are worse for you and produce insulin resistance,” explains Weisinger. “Small fat cells release substances that are good for insulin sensitivity.”
With all these benefits associated with natural polyphenols in sugar, why were they removed? “Polyphenols are bitter,” explains Weisinger. “People like white, beautiful and very sweet sugar.” He likens the situation with white bread. “We once made white, perfect flour and took out all good things for your health. Now that we know the health benefits we are starting to put them all back in again.”
While Weisinger’s research has provided convincing evidence that sugar cane polyphenols have health benefits there is more work to be done.
“Our next job is to find out how they work and which particular polyphenols are doing the work. Do we need all of them? Or some portion of them?” asks Weisinger. A human trial for his research is hoped to begin within a year. Weisinger predicts that after two months of eating polyphenol-packed muesli bars, subjects will start to receive the health benefits.