By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Contributing Columnist
A battle is raging that threatens to divide the entire health industry. The cause of all the fury are the tiniest of fruits --- raisins. Tiny, sweet raisins have caused a split among experts trying to advise diabetics on the fruits which are helpful in controlling blood sugar.
The stakes are considerable. Raisins are big business, with worldwide sales of in 2014, the last year for which figures are available. Turkey traditionally leads the world in raisin production but in 2006 it relinquished that title to the the United States. The United States has led the world in raisin production for 9 consecutive years. The 28-nations of the European Union lead the world in raisin consumption followed by the United States. So, we not only produce raisins, we chow them down in buckets. Worldwide, people chowed down 1.13 million tons of raisins in 2015, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
But that number only represents a small fraction of another huge, market that is growing exponentially ---diabetics. There are 285 million diabetics in the world, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
Not that we're cynical but we look with a pretty skeptical eye at new research that suggests that... wait for it... eating raisins actually lowers your risk for diabetes.
So, we've set out to settle the issue: are raisins in or out of the healthy diet for those of us who have to carefully control our blood sugar?
Raisins Are More Than Just Sweet Dried Fruit
In the pro-raisin camp are heavyweights. Dr. Harold Bays, President of the Louisville Metabolic and Atherosclerosis Center released a study in 2012 of 46 people with elevated blood sugar levels but who were not technically diabetic.
The 46 people were divided into two groups. Those in the first group ate raisins 3 times a day for 12 weeks. Those in the second group ate other commercial snacks (not including fruits, vegetables or raisins).
At the end of the 12 weeks, the raisin-eating group saw their average glucose levels fall by 16%. These were post-prandial measurements, meaning they were taken 2 hours after eating. The second group did not experience a drop in blood sugar levels.
Sounds good? Sure, but there are problems with this study. We do not know what types of diets the participants followed before they entered the study.
Starting points matter a lot in how we interpret this study. We do not know, for example, if the raisin-eaters normally ate donuts for snacks. If they had normally eaten foods which were sugary, then eating raisins may in fact have been a change for the better compared to the choices they normally made.
Now, for a personal note. I typically eat a low-glycemic diet, meaning I choose foods which do not cause a spike in my blood sugar levels. Plenty of green vegetables, fibrous fruits like apples, whole grains and lean meats are my normal faire. One month ago, I decided to start adding a handful of raisins to oatmeal. My body is very sensitive to sugar, so I felt the raisins impact.
For one thing, the raisins did raise my energy level. Raisins are dried grapes. The process of drying out the grapes concentrates the sugar. Two tablespoons of raisins contain about 15 grams of sugar. That's equivalent to an 1/8 cup of sugar.
Raisins also contain a lot of iron. A quarter cup of raisins will give you about 4% of the daily recommended amount of iron. Moreover, raisins do contain a significant amount of polyphenols, anti-oxidants which have been found to be cardiovascular- protective in many studies.
But Aren't Raisins Really Just Another Name for Dessert
Along with the increase in energy came another noticeable effect of adding raisins to my diet. I started experiencing sugar crashes.
Normally, after eating my bowl of oatmeal, I do not experience sugar spikes or crashes. However, with the added raisins, about 3 hours after eating oatmeal, I felt a crash of energy.
Again, your starting point matters. My starting point was a low-glycemic diet. Adding raisins threw off my sugar balance. If you are already eating a sugary diet, substituting raisins for your normal sugar-loaded snacks may in fact help you to better control your blood sugar, as was the case with those in the 2012 study.
We will need to see more research to settle this question. The 2012 study was relatively small with only 46 people. We would like to see a much larger study replicated by other universities.
Another problem with the pro-raisin study is that it was funded by --- guess who? --- the California Raisin Marketing Board. Of course no one can accuse the study's researchers of bias towards their financial backers but it would be better to see research from impartial sources before we jump on the pro-raisin bandwagon.
Other studies have not been as enthusiastic about raisins effects on blood sugar levels. A 2008 study conducted by a team of scientists led by Dr. Michael Puglisi and published in the Journal on Lipids in Health and Disease studied how adding raisins and increasing the amount you walk affects cardiovascular health and blood sugar levels.
This study, funded by the California Grape Council, found that those who ate additional raisins experience no change at all in blood sugar levels, even though they increased the number of steps they walked by about 30%. The study did find, however, that they adding raisins improved the participants' cholesterol profiles.