The taste of a glazed donut is hard to pass up, especially as they can be found nearly everywhere. Most agree that the donut we are reaching for is packed with sugar and may be adding to our beltline, but doesn’t all sugar? The simple answer is no. The vast majority of sugar in super markets and convenient stores today are derived from corn and got there because they are cheap, have a long shelf life, and our taste buds love them. Starch from corn, mainly amylopectin has become the food chemist’s pantry for designing ingredients found in donuts, candies, sodas, and beyond that, corn derivates have become the staple of modern food taste and texture preservation. Corn is produced relatively cheap in mass quantities and can be shipped and stored for extended periods of time. Once the kernel is physically broken down into a slurry hydrolysis (chemical chopping) can begin. The corn starch molecule is shaped like a densely-branched willow tree which can be whittled down into different size branches to create a diverse set of derivatives with varying properties ranging from sweeteners to thickeners and preservatives. The poster child of these derivates is high-fructose corn syrup which has received much scrutiny in recent years as a culprit of the obesity epidemic that has continued to spread and currently afflicts 1 in 3 children in the United States.
HOW ARE THESE SUGARS MAKING US FAT?
The process of taking a densely packed starch granule and treating it with a series of bacterial digestive enzymes and acid hydrolysis produces smaller, simpler glucose (sugar) chains such as fructose or dextrin, which can be collected and used to make the majority of the cheap, long-lasting foods found on the shelves of your local grocery. As sugar enters our mouths, it begins to breakdown immediately. One of the main digestive enzymes in our saliva is amylase which breaks down these simple sugars extremely fast, allowing them to enter the blood stream. The problem lies in the fact that our bodies weren’t designed to ingest such high amounts of “ready to use” glucose so quickly. In response to a rise in blood sugar our pancreas secretes insulin to make cells take up the sugar for use or storage. When these cells become full of sugar, blood-glucose levels continue to rise and the excess glucose is stored as fat.
The issue lies in that this physiologically incredible sugar spike is in part what makes our cells begin to become resistant to insulin, leading to type II diabetes. This also causes damage to our blood vessels causing chronic inflammation.
Before modern food, we ate raw, whole, nutrient-dense foods which had some sugars, of course, but in natural quantities and configurations, not high amounts of simple, chemically diced up corn starch. Processed food is just that, broken down, purified, and reassembled in various proportions. Add in salt and other flavorings and you have ketchup, soda, bread, cereals, yogurts, and the list goes on and on.