Sugar vs salt

  • Health
  • Sunday, 18 May 2003


HERE is a quick question: which is worse – sugar or salt? Give yourself an extra pat on the back if you answer that both are just as bad. However, if you answered that salt is worse that sugar, then your health may be in trouble because you are operating from wrong knowledge.  

Sugar is probably the most dangerous and most widely eaten nutrient-free food known to man. It is junk food. Lots of calories and almost nothing else in it. If the calories are not used, they end up as fat in the body. It does not supply any nutrient but may drain nutrients from the body in an effort to metabolise it. That's why it is sometimes called “empty calories”. 

Sweet and deadly 

The sweetness of sugar can be very deceiving. It is seldom seen as a dangerous substance by most of us. Nevertheless, it has been linked to diseases that include cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, obesity, hypertension, dental caries, yeast infection, joint problems, hyperactivity, skin allergies, impaired immunity and digestive upset.  

Sugar is widely used in Malaysia. In fact, we use more sugar than flour. The consumption of one million tons of sugar in 1995 was 1 ½ times the domestic demand of 700,000 tons of flour. A Malaysian consumes an average of 24 teaspoons (120g) of sugar daily. That is 3.6kg per month! 

Newer technology now allows for the active igredients in the leaves and roots of 'Gymnema sylvestre' to be extracted and standardised.

Hidden sugar 

You are probably thinking “that cannot be possible”. Actually, it is because most of the sugar that you consume comes from “hidden” sources. Just one can of soft drink can give you up to 11 teaspoons of sugar. That is not to include the content in seemingly healthy beverages, breads, baby foods, cough as well as vitamin syrups.  

Your hidden sugar comes in names that you might not recognise like glucose, fructose, lactose, sucrose, maple syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, molasses, sorbitol, invert sugar and concentrated juice sweetener.  

There are lots of reasons why sugar is a lot worse than salt. Here are some of them:  

  • Do not know when to stop 

    While salt is used to make food taste better, we all know when to stop. We stop eating when food is “too salty”. That is not the case with sugar. Sweet food is addictive. You can go on taking sugar and added sugar in your food as in candies, cookies, chocolates and soda drinks – sometimes even without realising it! 

  •   No escape mechanism  

    If you took excess salt, you will tend to get thirsty and “wash it out”. Similarly, you sweat out excess salt. With sugar, this does not happen. You do not wash out sugar in the urine unless your compensatory hormonal mechanism fails – which essentially means that your are diabetic. While excess salt can be reversed, excess sugar in the urine means you are diabetic.  

  •   Calories 

    Sugar has calories. Every gram equals four calories. This calorie load has to be used up or get stored. Salt has zero calorie value. Excess gets washed out following the basic law of osmosis.  

  •   Can be stored  

    Excess sugar is stored as fat. Fat is the most space efficient way for your body to store away calories. Excess sugar makes you fat.  

  •   Has powerful metabolic consequences 

    When sugar and protein interact, a process called caramelisation takes place. This means that the sugar destroys the protein structure. That is what will happen when you soak some meat in a solution of syrup. This is what happens when you are diabetic. 

  •   Hidden  

    Your sugar intake comes as drinks, supplements, cakes, breads, donuts, syrups, sweets, pickles, sour kanas, breakfast cereals, sauces, candy, milk, processed yoghurt and even as a sweetener to your coffee and tea.  

  •   Taken in large amounts  

    You probably cannot take more than a teaspoon of salt at one go but you can end up taking heaps of sugar.  

    I am not suggesting that you take salt liberally – it's just that sugar is the worse of the two evils. As you can see, it creeps on you. That is why more Malaysians are becoming diabetic.  

    Sugar blocker 

    Gymnema sylvestre is an important Ayurvedic herb – a sugar blocker. It blocks the passage of sugar in the body. It has more than 2,000 years of history and it could see a major resurgence in our sugar laden modern world where diabetes is growing by leaps and bound.  

    It is known in Ayurveda as “destroyer of sugar” or “sugar killer” because in ancient times, it was observed that chewing a few leaves of Gymnema sylvestre suppressed the taste of sugar. Clinical tests showed that regular use over a period of twelve to sixteen weeks helped reduce a condition called glycosuria (the appearance of sugars in urine). Even more recent clinical trials conducted in India have shown that an extract of the herb is useful for controlling hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar). 

    Studies conducted in India as early as 1930 showed that the leaves of Gymnema sylvestre cause hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar state) in experimental animals. Recent pharmacological and clinical studies have shown that Gymnema sylvestre acts on two sites: the taste buds in the oral cavity (only when it is chewed) and the absorptive surface to the intestines.  


    The structure of those taste buds which detect sugar in the mouth are similar to the structure of the tissue that absorbs sugar in the intestine. The important active ingredient of Gymnema sylvestre is an organic acid called gymnemic acid. 

    Gymnemic acid is made up of molecules with arrangement similar to that of glucose molecules. Those molecules fill the receptor locations on the taste buds for a period of one to two hours. Thus, they prevent the taste buds from being activated by any sugar molecules present in the food.  

    Similarly, the glucose-like molecules in the gymnemic acid fill the receptor locations in the absorptive external layers of the intestine, blocking the passage of sugar molecules. This prevents the intestine from absorbing the sugar molecules. Thus, sugar does not get into the blood stream.  


    So far, the only way to consume gymnema is by way of very crude tea. The dried leaves are soaked in water and the medicinally active substances seep out into the infusion. This is not very reliable. You do not get a consistent level of the active gymnemic acid. 

    Newer technology now allows for the active ingredients in the leaves and roots to be extracted and standardised. The dried powder extracts may now be put into capsules that allow fixed dosage and consistent delivery. This is a huge improvement over the crude teas. You also get the convenience of the capsule as opposed to the tea. This new technology allows for this ancient herb to be effectively used with the latest technology.  


    Clinical study findings support traditional therapeutic uses of gymnema. In recent research, gymnema has been shown to be effective in type 1 and type 2 diabetes. For example, an extract of gymnema was given to 27 patients with type 1 diabetes who were on insulin therapy. Gymnema extract was shown to reduce insulin requirements and improve fasting blood sugar levels, and to improve overall blood sugar control. These findings confirm those of earlier animal studies.  

    Studies with type 2 diabetes have also shown positive results. In one particular study, 22 type 2 diabetics were given gymnema extract in conjunction with their hypoglycaemic drugs. Thus, gymnema can be used effectively with modern drugs.  

    Safety issues  

    There are no known side effects of Gymnema sylvestre. Those with diabetes should not take any dietary supplements or change their medication protocols without medical supervision. Gymnema may be used with diabetes lowering drugs. However, you should monitor your blood sugar with a glucometer.  

    Gymnema works better if you are on a low carbohydrate programme where you cut back on refined carbohydrates like rice, bread, capati, roti canai and noodles.  

    You should seek the guidance of a trained professional when attempting to use Gymnema along with drugs and a low carbohydrate programme. 

  • Rajen. M is a pharmacist with a doctorate in Holistic Medicine. You can write to him at . The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles. 

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