Sugar: the good, the bad and the ugly


There was a news story going around a couple weeks ago about sugar that raised the question of whether people realize that sugar is fattening. There was an accusation being made that the sugar lobby had been hiding this fact from people. (In my opinion, if the sugar lobby’s job was to keep us from realizing that there are a lot of calories in sugar, then they failed and need to be fired.)

A little research revealed that the lobbyists were actually being accused of getting government health officials to say, in the 1960s and 1970s, that sugar was less likely than fat to cause cardiovascular disease.

So, OK then, that’s true: I associate fat with cardiovascular disease and I don’t really associate it with sugar. If you are at risk for heart disease, then you should know that cookies, candy and soda can be as bad for you as steaks and bacon.

As I was looking into this new/old health scare, it led me to thinking about sugar and the human body. I did a little unscientific research and here’s what it looks like, to me: Even though for my entire life, sugar has been known as “white death,” I would have to say that all sugar is not bad for you. But what is bad for you is processed sugar. 

You probably know this but there are all different kinds of sugars. Fructose, for instance, which is one of the sugars we try to avoid when it is added to processed foods, is actually derived from plants. You’d think that would make it more healthy but what happens when it’s processed and added to, say, a can of cola, is that you lose the benefits of the fruit or the vegetable that provided the sugars. 

In this column, I say over and over to the point of tedium that you should generally just try to eat a balanced diet of healthy foods. Enjoy eating. Find foods you like. And avoid processed foods, which tend to have more sugar, salt, fat and chemicals than you need — but keep in mind that you actually do need some sugar, some salt and some fats (probably not the chemicals, so much). One reliable-seeming website says that your brain needs 62 grams of sugar a day to function.

Let’s acknowledge here that I’m just as happy as the next gal to eat cookies, cakes, ice cream and pies, even when they’re made from processed flour and white sugar. But if you decide that you want to provide 62 grams a day of sugar to your brain, think about finding some alternative sources of sugar, such as fruit — which is sweet and lovely to eat, and also provides nutrients and fiber that help your body keep ticking along.

At this time of year, the superabundance of fresh summer fruit and sweet vegetables such as corn has pretty much come to an end. This is America in the 21st century, of course, so you can still get fresh fruit at any grocery store. 

You can also buy lots of dried fruit, which is not great for your teeth (too sticky) and which has a lot of calories (the sugars are very intensely concentrated), but which is delicious and can be cooked into a lovely compote that you can serve with ice cream or on the side of roast meats or as a jam alternative on toast. 

I don’t really have a formal recipe to offer you here, but compote is very forgiving and lends itself well to experimentation. This is not a wildly healthy recipe; you can certainly adapt it to have less fat and no alcohol. I find that fresh orange juice is a wonderful base for compotes. 

For the compote that I made last week, I could only find very dried out figs. I put them in a large bowl with quite a bit of cognac and red wine and let them plump up for a week. In the bowl, they were joined by some dried plums (aka prunes) and some dried cherries.

I kept the bowl on the counter for a couple days and then stirred everything up and put it in the refrigerator. 

The day before I planned to serve it, I chopped up an onion and sprinkled it across the bottom of a large baking dish. I poured the moist fruit over the onions. I added four chicken thighs and some fresh thyme to the top. I roasted the whole thing for about a half hour at 375 degrees. I took out the chicken and had it for dinner, and then served the compote (warmed up) the following night with some roast pork loin.  

It was great and I highly recommend it. When you cook compote with chicken, remember that some fat will rise to the surface after you refrigerate it. That’s part of the reason why you’ll want to heat up the compote before you serve it; you can also skim off the fat.