Summer is right around the corner, and it seems that everyone is talking about diets, exercise, and the beach.
You know that’s not how Adventurously Organic rolls though.
Sustainability, as a “diet,” is completely different from “dieting.” That being said, recently, a huge change happened in how my diet reflected sustainability.
I think that more than a couple of times, I have mentioned that I avoid refined sugar. Well, let me correct that. I was avoiding refined sugar. After ten months of this experiment, let’s spend some time together dissecting what the intention was, why it ultimately failed, and what I learned along the way.
In June of last year, before I began working at the lab, I watched a particularly interesting documentary on the impacts refined sugar have on the human body. I had read about cutting out sugar, but it always seemed like some american, pre-diabetic fad designed by Self or Women’s Health magazines. After watching the documentary, however, I became particularly interested in a minor element of the film: where was all of this sugar coming from?
During that week, I did my research, and discovered the deleterious methods by which sugar is grown. Because, in the developed world, at least, all processed food requires sugar, the amount of sugar used is far too much to handle. First of all, sugar cane is a very labour intensive crop. To obtain the same amounts of sugar, corn is frequently used (high fructose corn syrup, anyone?). At the end of the day, sugar must be derived from starch. As we know, when starch is grown in large amounts year round, it diminishes the healthy layer of soil known as top-soil, and prevents healthy crop growth in later years, as well as leads to runoff and erosion.
At the same time, sugar lobbies and companies have a lot to be worried about. The research that they fund contains blatant lies about human health, their business models are highly against agriculture remotely sustainable, and they have ties to the government that limit honesty and progress. Supporting those kinds of companies seemed so wrong.
As the sustainable consumer I wanted to be, I felt that my only choice was to cut out sugar all together. I decided that I would eat no refined sugar. That meant cutting out white, brown, turbinado, and basically any sugar that went through the crystallization process.
Now let me get this straight. I was not cutting sugar out of my diet. I ate plenty of fruits, maple syrup, agave, honey, vegetables, and starchy carbs. But my favorite raspberry scones? Gone. Ice cream? Nope. And by December, bagels were out of the picture as well.
The journey was long, and I learned a lot about myself, consumerism, and how to satisfy my desire for mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Like I said, I decided to cut refined sugar out in June. June 26th, to be precise. The first step I needed to take was identifying the different forms sugar appeared as in food. Between dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, normal corn syrup, aspartame, sucrose, sucralose, evaporated cane juice, crystallized molasses, and literally plain glucose, I found that nearly every single granola bar I ever relied on was worthless in this endeavor. I also found that the cereal section of Trader Joe’s, frozen food, and Pad Thai were off limits. Everything had sugar!
As someone who regularly indulges in a yogurt parfait for breakfast, salad with a balsamic vinaigrette, and peanut butter chocolate chip Larabars, I felt like I was not going to be able to eat anything.
But I remained strong. It was only the first month of my newfound sugar hatred, and I was not going to fail because some crappy agribusinesses designed my fate to be as such. For the next few months, I tirelessly found replacements for my sugar habits. Being in London was honestly a blessing in this case, since the city is so health conscious. I found mint chocolate bars, Victoria sponge cake, lemon cheezecake, crunchy granola, milkshakes, and caramel with no refined sugar (or any other processed, unsustainable ingredients, for that matter).
By the time I arrived back in the United States, I found that I had good habits, but fewer resources. For the remainder of the summer, not once did I desire refined sugar. At this point, however, I had not identified all of the foods with refined sugar. I later discovered that pizza dough, ciabatta, bagels, and all yeasty breads have sugar to feed the yeast. I also found that the expectations of my peers to either follow or forget my environmental promises made me second guess my decision to refuse refined sugar, adding a level of self-doubt that complicated the experiment.
However, when at home, I frequently engineered my surroundings to be refined-sugar free friendly. On Thanksgiving, my family and I made Deliciously Ella’s Pecan Pie so that I would not feel tempted, or even responsible, for eating traditional Thanksgiving desserts. On my birthday, my mom made a beautiful trifle (which will be in the recipe guide) that was the perfect substitution to birthday cake.
And yet, on several occasions, when I did not have suitable refined-sugar free backups, I totally breached my promises, and paid for it. For example, during a Christmas celebration with friends, I was not particularly fond of my own sweets, and ending up eating several brownies and feeling incredibly sick. By the time March came around, I had become so lenient with “indulging” in sugar that I had also become immune, and addicted like the rest of America, to getting my sugar fix.
Today, as I write to you, I am in that period of my life where I have refined sugar once a day. I frequently feel sick after, but little keeps me holding onto the promises I made less than a year ago except for the guilt of sugar production in the United States.
At first, life was a dream. I stopped craving sugar completely, and when my parents offered me traditional milk chocolate, I gladly refused. When I did try food with sugar, it made me sick. I have always had a slight sugar intolerance, but it seemed to amplify once I cut out sugar.
As previously mentioned, I found being around friends a real struggle. Everyone was either always telling me to have a piece of cake or chocolate or letting me know exactly which foods had sugar. It seemed like everyone wanted to see the experiment fail. I do not report this to be sensitive- I too would be doubtful of the success of such a difficult undertaking, given sugar’s current power in American agriculture. However, I do want to point out that I began struggling when I tuned into the expectations of those around me.
I also began to get bored with the refined sugar treats I once treasured, and lazy with my refined sugar free baking projects. As a result, by the time February came around, I wanted to eat dessert every night, and I wanted the dessert to be different and interesting. Nowhere but the local ice cream shop was going to satisfy that craving, so once a week, I found myself giving in.
That giving in became a habit until its ramifications fully manifested themselves. I started buying sugar-filled goods at the grocery store, and became so indifferent to reading sugar on a nutrition label that I totally forgot why I started the experiment in the first place.
After more than two months indulging in refined sugar, I see the flaws in my process. I was so concerned with what being refined sugar free looked like in my own life- in the recipes on the blog and the lifestyle I promoted to my friends- that I forgot my true intention. The environment is being ravaged by our insatiable sugar consumption, and I am only feeding that damage every time I purchase refined sugar.
So, after so so so many mistakes and currently 1342 words of reflection, I think I want to start this experiment over. This time, I will take into account mindfulness over aggregate goals, and preparation under peer pressure. There is no reason that living without refined sugar is impossible, and as proved by my time in London, it was actually quite pleasurable. Many sustainable food companies rely on consumers to be picky with their ingredients. Choosing to live refined sugar free also positively impacts agricultural companies trying to reverse the damage done by agribusiness.
I hope to resume a refined-sugar free life as of tomorrow (don’t worry, I am not eating anything for the rest of today as it is 11:39 PM). This means that pizza dough, bagels, pad thai, and anything I discover along the way with refined sugar is off limits. However, this time, the experiment will have a contingency plan. If I really want refined sugar, denial won’t make the effort any better. Instead, that desire needs to be transformed into excellent refined sugar free recipes that honor our relationship with nature and its gift of food.
I would strongly recommend at least trying to reduce refined sugar intake. Sugar companies have so much power over both human and environmental health. Its time we took that power back, don’t you think?