Paleo Foundation Adds Pressed Cane Juice to Certified Paleo Standards
When most people think of one of the principal problems with our modern-day, industrialized food system, the first thing that comes to mind is probably is the absurd amount of sugar that we consume. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that in 2016, the average American consumed almost 70 pounds of sugar. To make matters worse, we also consume over 37 pounds of corn syrup per capita each year. It should come as no surprise, then, that almost 100 million Americans (about a third of the total population) are living with diabetes or pre-diabetes according to the CDC.
Our addiction to highly processed and refined sugars and the resulting health problems have finally started to convince ever-larger portions of the population to reduce their sugar consumption. A 2018 Label Insight poll found that almost half of consumers stated that they planned to drastically cut back on their sugar consumption. Given that almost 15 percent of our daily calorie intake comes from refined sugars, reducing our sugar intake should certainly be one of the leading diet-related goals.
However, the Paleo Foundation, a leading, private American organization that certifies food products related to the Paleolithic and Ketogenic diets, recently decided to add pressed cane juice to their certified Paleo standards. Given the widespread conviction that we need to reduce sugar intake (and especially amongst followers of the Paleo Diet), what compelled The Paleo Foundation to make this decision? Below, we look at the fundamental differences between refined sugar and pressed cane juice, and tackle some of the commonly held myths within the Paleo community regarding minimally processed sugar cane.
The Paleo Foundation Adds Cane Juice to Certified Paleo Standards
The Paleo Diet is a diet based on the types of foods presumed to have been eaten by early humans, consisting chiefly of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit, and excluding dairy or grain products and processed food. The fundamental question for inclusion in the Paleo diet, then, is whether or not sugar cane was foraged and eaten during the Paleolithic period.
While many people might associate sugar cane with massive plantations in the Caribbean that relied on slave labor for production, sugar cane is actually a grass that is native to certain regions in Southeast Asia. The fibrous stalks that grow wild in this part of the world contain large amounts of sucrose. Given that human beings have likely inhabited the Sahul continent (consisting of modern-day Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Tasmania) for between 50,000 and 60,000 years, it is highly likely that early humans encountered and enjoyed sugar cane.
Contrary to what many people believe, sugar cane can be consumed raw or unprocessed by simply peeling and chewing on the fibrous stalk. Furthermore, raw sugar cane juice can be extracted without relying on machinery or even metal tools. The first evidence of humans making and using primitive stone tools dates back to 2.6 million years ago. The juice from sugar cane can easily be extracted by simply crushing the cane with a simple rock tool. This evidence proves that, at least for early humans living in the Sahul continent, sugar cane and raw cane juice was most likely an important part of their diet.
Is the Paleo Diet Inherently Low Carb?
One of the most common misconceptions regarding the Paleo Diet is that it is an inherently low carb diet. Given that low-quality carbohydrates from refined grains, sugars, and starches account for at least 42 percent of the daily calorie intake of the average American, this misconception is certainly understandable. The Paleo Diet clearly advocates for eliminating the highly processed grains, starches, and sugars that dominate the food shelves of most grocery stores across the country. However, evidence shows that many of our Paleolithic ancestors had diets that were high in carbohydrates from natural sources.
The Kitavans, a modern-day hunter and gatherer society located in the Milne Bay Province of southeastern Papua New Guinea, are an interesting case in point. Many researchers believe that their diet, which is about 70 percent carbohydrates and 20 percent fat, has gone relatively unchanged since Paleolithic times. The Kitavans eat an enormous amount of local tubers such as taro root, cassava, and yam. While all of these are high in carbs, they also have a relatively low glycemic index (more on that later).
Despite the high carb diet of the Kitavans, they have been shown to suffer from virtually no cases of diabetes, cardiovascular disease leading to stroke or congestive heart failure, dementia, or blood pressure problems. The Kitavans, alongside other modern-day hunter and gatherer societies such as the Hazda people in Tanzania, prove that high carb diets were likely prevalent in certain populations living during the Paleolithic period.
The Question of the Glycemic Index
Another common objection to any type of sugar being permitted on the Paleo Diet is related to the glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index rates on a scale of 0 to 100 how fast a specific food item can raise blood sugar levels in the average person. Fresh-pressed and raw sugar cane juice has been shown to have a glycemic index rating of somewhere between 30 and 40, which is considered low on the GI scale.
While the glycemic index rating system is certainly important for diabetics and others who need to rigorously monitor their sugar intake, for most people this rating system offers an incomplete analysis for how certain foods can affect blood glucose levels, and high variability of the glycemic index leads to low clinical utility. For example, pressed sugar cane juice will most likely be consumed as part of a wider meal. Healthy fats and other commonly consumed, healthy foods on the Paleo Diet will most likely alter the total glycemic index of the meal.
Furthermore, the glycemic index cannot perfectly and accurately predict an individual’s response to eating a particular food. A serving of pressed cane juice, for example, might not generate similar changes in blood glucose levels for different people. A landmark 2019 study showed that, even among twins, blood sugar level responses to food are highly individual. Instead of relying solely on the GI of a certain food, a more holistic analysis that incorporates environmental factors such as sleep, stress level, activity level, and even the gut microbiome is a better way to determine which foods are healthy for the individual.
The Health Considerations of Sugar Cane
The industrialized bleaching process of sugar essentially eliminates any and all vitamins, nutrients, or other health-enhancing properties. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that most people consider sugar to be a nutritionally-void food item. The minimally processed cane juice, however, offers several important health benefits.
For example, pressed cane juice has been shown to be high in important phytonutrients such as policosanols, long-chain aliphatic fatty acids, phytosterols, polyoxygenated keto steroids, terpenoids, flavones, and flavone glycosides. These phytonutrients offer numerous health benefits, including antifungal and antimicrobial properties, treatment for cancer, as well as offering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Furthermore, nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, says that “sugarcane juice is naturally rich in antioxidants, namely polyphenols, which helps defend against free radicals and toxins found in the environment… It’s been used to cure jaundice and liver-related disorders. Research shows sugar cane juice may also protect the body against DNA damage caused by radiation.”
Similarly, Robb Wolf, former research biochemist and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-selling author of “The Paleo Solution” believes that unrefined cane sugar certainly should be included within the Paleo Diet standards.When asked the question: “Is sugar cane juice, or water extracted from the sugar cane by crushing, boiling, or chewing, Paleo?” Wolf quickly responded by saying: “In my opinion, yeah, [sugar cane juice] is Paleo. Yes, it’s sugar, but it’s minimally processed, and also highly sustainable.”
Though many people in the Paleo community might consider any type of sugar to be naturally opposed to the Paleo diet, a deeper look at the available evidence shows that minimally processed cane juice was most likely consumed by certain Paleolithic populations and offers a wide array of important health benefits. Thus, The Paleo Foundation has decided to include unrefined sugar cane juice in the Certified Paleo Standards.
Read the internal investigations on pressed cane juice conducted by the Paleo Foundation.