For the past 35 years, we as consumers have been on a journey that involves modifying our diets, according to the latest theories, with the intent of improving our health. To that end, some ingredients have been demonized, especially in baking. When the science finally matured, we found out that we had jumped to incorrect conclusions.
In 1988, medical researcher Gerald Reaven created the term Metabolic Syndrome to make the radical proposal that many of the diseases inflicting Western society, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, obesity and autoimmune diseases, were actually connected with common causes. The theory has yet to be proven, but there is no doubt that the diseases continue to rage with little indication of abating, despite many attempts at dietary solutions. We have tried everything from Atkins to Dean Ornish to South Beach, Paleo, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets, not to mention celebrity and activist prognostications about food.
It started in 1985 when healthy heart crusader Phil Sokolof took out full page ads in the major newspapers accusing the food industry of harming Americans by using tropical oils that contained saturated fats. The industry replaced coconut oil, palm oil and beef tallow with partially hydrogenated soybean oil in response, and we went on a fat-free kick, reformulating everything to reduce or eliminate fat. We know now that the trans fats created by partial hydrogenation were harmful and have since been eliminated. In hindsight, which of course is 20:20, it was incorrect to demonize fat, tropical oils and saturated fats. Fat is a required nutrient that we must consume daily to live. Saturated fats have now been shown to have no negative impact on heart disease, and nut and fish oils are critically important in the diet to provide required linolenic and linoleic acids. Even butter and eggs have been vindicated.
When we reduced the fat in our diets, we had to replace it with either protein or sugar. The result has been a marked increase in sugar consumption. The evidence is now building to show that Mr. Reaven was right. The diseases of the Metabolic Syndrome are connected, and interconnected, with a common set of causes. The science is complicated, but it boils down to three basic issues: sugar consumption, dietary fiber intake and exercise. These simple causes combine to create and exacerbate a long chain of events in the body that result in disease.
When we eat a food that contains simple sugars like glucose, sucrose and fructose, the sugars are absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream. This causes a spike in glucose level in the blood that stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin. When the glucose spike is high, the insulin spike also will be high. Repeated exposure to high levels of insulin over many years causes various sites in the body to become resistant to the insulin, and the efficiency of glucose transported into the cell diminishes. The result is that glucose builds up in the blood to unsafe levels, and the body develops diabetes.
Complex carbohydrates, as found in bread and baked foods, are absorbed slowly when broken down into glucose. Fiber increases the viscosity of food in the intestines, slowing down the rate of sugar absorption into the bloodstream, allowing the body time to process it safely. Once again, we are on a path to demonize an ingredient — this time, it’s sugar.
But the real issue is not sugar but the lack of complex carbs, especially fiber, that moderate sugar absorption. Baked goods are the perfect vehicle for increasing the amount of fiber in the diet. This is a huge opportunity for bakers. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past by incorrectly demonizing sugar or carbohydrates but, rather, learn how to use them safely.