Halloween is upon us. But the origin of this tradition has largely been lost on the majority of celebrants. Halloween marks the eve of All Saints Day (alternatively All Hallows' Day), a day of remembrance of the dead, the saintly, martyred, and faithful departed believers. Halloween arose as a way to use humor and ridicule to flout Death.
But how did a ritual to mock Death come to involve so much sugar?
In an attempt perhaps to diminish the fear of Death, pranks, games and scary stories evolved. The Christian tradition encouraged abstinence from meat in favor of vegetarian dishes on this vigil day, along with attendance at church services and cemetery visits to remember the dearly departed. In time, however, such restrictions devolved into much more commercialized festivities, with an enormous focus on sugary treats.
It's fun, the kids love it, it's just one day a year – what's the harm?
So what's wrong with that? It's fun, the kids love it, it's just one day a year – what's the harm? The harm is that it is not, in fact, just one day a year; sugar consumption is ubiquitous in our present-day society, much to the detriment of the population. Let's take a look at how sugar became so endemic.
The Industrial Revolution brought with it many technological innovations that helped folks move from the farm to the cities. Along with such innovations came the ability to process food on an industrial level, making many foods heretofore scarce much more easily available to the general population. Such staples as sugar, coffee, and flour could easily be mass produced.
The food industry – or more to the point, the sugar industry, became enormously influential in the halls of government, and in time almost all foodstuffs became loaded with added sugar, both to extend shelf life, as well as to feed the growing sweet tooth of the population and, of course, to sell more product. More and more sugar, in all its iterations, came to appear in our food. And these powerful companies marketed and ultimately conditioned the public to associate holidays like Halloween and Valentine's Day with candy.
But none of this limited history lesson addresses the issue of what's wrong with sugar? Why should we not simply enjoy its delectable taste?
The answer is not a simple one
Sugar comes in many forms, from the most common white table sugar, to molasses, corn syrup, turbinado, fructose, and many other variations on that theme. Each form of sugar plays a different role in its assimilation by the body. In fact, the human body needs a certain amount of sugar to function optimally. The problem is when there is an excess of this element – and our current diet certainly contains an excess of sugar. Sugar, in one of its many forms, is found in almost every food item found in the store. Sugar is used as a preservative; it is used to increase palatability; it is used to intensify its addictive quality; it is used to pacify babies; it is used to enhance breads and sauces; and of course, it is in just about every conceivable form of dessert, cake, ice cream or candy.
Everything you eat is fuel for the body. Some fuel is meant to burn slowly, some fuel burns more quickly, supplying immediate energy. Simple sugars – such as candies and ice cream – burn very quickly; in other words, they metabolize rapidly. It is the function of the pancreas to secrete insulin to absorb sugar, in the form of glucose, in your bloodstream. Whatever you eat breaks down into some form of sugar for fuel, which is then metabolized by insulin and travels through the body to supply energy to the various muscles, nerves, bloodstream, bones, etc. Any excess sugar is mopped up by the insulin secreted by the pancreas and stored in the liver. There is a certain homeostasis in healthy individuals, where the pancreas is able to produce sufficient insulin to absorb excess sugar, so that some excess sugar is not harmful to one's health. However, that state can change with excess supplies. When there is an overabundance of that chemical – sugar – for an extended period of time, the pancreas has to work overtime to mop up that excess sugar. In time, such overwork can cause it to fail. If the pancreas fails to produce sufficient insulin, excess sugar remains in the bloodstream and you have the beginnings of diabetes.
More to the point, it is a serious illness.
Diabetes has become epidemic in the United States. This is not some medical term relegated to the annals of doctors' offices, for which you are simply prescribed medication that you can take while you continue your damaging eating habits. Diabetes is serious business! More to the point, it is a serious illness. It can cause blindness, peripheral neuropathy (loss of sensitivity in the limbs), gangrene, amputations, heart problems, hearing problems, dementia, blood pressure problems, and even death.
While diabetes has become epidemic, a more immediate problem with over-consumption of sugar are tooth decay and obesity. Our children now suffer the highest incidence of obesity in the world; obesity also contributes to lack of mobility which in turn produces lack of fitness. Add to that tooth decay, and the cycle of human deterioration begins to loom very large simply as a consequence of eating too much sugar, more precisely refined sugar.
What is refined sugar? It is any sugar that has been processed from its natural source. Fruits contain natural sugar, as do beets and sugar cane. If one consumes fruit in their natural state, one is consuming a source of sugar that is wholesome and complex and requires energy for the body to process. When sugar is processed into its simple components, it becomes a substance that acts almost like a drug on the body, becoming addictive and encouraging increasing amounts to satisfy that sweet tooth. It is a vicious cycle. Sugar is essential for good health. But the kind of sugar that promotes good health is the kind that is found in the produce department – fresh fruits and vegetables, or any food that does not require a label.
So enjoy an apple or two this Halloween and pass on the candy. And if you really want to celebrate Halloween in its original form, take a few minutes to remember those loved ones no longer here with us.