One of the most common questions I get asked is about sugar and whether natural alternatives are more healthy. With so much marketing, hype and excitement around new fads it’s really difficult to know if something is healthy or not. This together with the rise of health “gurus” selling gorgeous cookery books using some of these alternatives it’s very easy to kid ourselves that we are being super healthy when perhaps we are not. I hope this article helps in clearing up any misunderstandings and myths around so called “healthy” sugar

Perhaps before debating this issue I should start with a few basic facts so we all know where we stand. Here is a quick run through of sugars and where they come from. Glucose is the main energy source for your body. Your brain requires glucose to function, and a huge percentage of your daily calories go to powering your brain. Fructose as you all probably know, in excess can lead to all sorts of metabolic health issues as the liver can get “overloaded”. The suffix ose is used in biochemistry to form the name of sugars.

Sugar –  Let’s break it down

  • Glucose = from carbohydrates
  • Fructose = from fruits, honey, agave, and high fructose corn syrup.
  • Dextrose = usually produced commercially then added to food to sweeten it.
  • Sucrose = white table sugar, produced from the sugar cane plant and other sources.
  • Maltose = found in germinating grain, corn syrup, molasses, malted beverages, component in brewing beer and distilling alcohol.

So those are your basics, now lets see what the sugar alternatives are and have to offer us, if anything?

Are sugar alternatives any good for us?

There are quite a few natural forms of sugar to choose from and the growth in so called health gurus might lead you to believe that a sugar free recipe is healthy. Not so I’m afraid. Claiming something is sugar free does not mean it is healthy. Essentially sugar, is sugar… is sugar. Any form of natural sugar no matter what it is, i.e. raw sugar, maple syrup, honey, date puree, agave syrup, or fruit will impact on our blood sugar levels. There will be a release of insulin on ingestion of all these sugars. So, no matter how natural and wonderful you think these are your body will respond in a very similar way. All sugar no matter what should in my book be used in strict moderation. I’m not a fan either of low calorie natural sweeteners – this includes xylitol and stevia. All we are doing here is kidding ourselves that these are harmless but these may very well encourage your taste buds to want more sugar in the long term. I often get asked is stevia better than brown sugar, is diet coke better than normal coke. The answer, in short, is none of them.

We now have some up to date comprehensive research on sugar which shows that if the brain and taste buds are receiving signals that a food is sweet, the body will prepare itself anyway for a dose of glucose. The body in its wisdom will trigger metabolic and hormonal responses to manage blood sugar increases. So in essence you can end up with the same consequence of eating sugar anyway.

I would also try to avoid chemical sweeteners such as sucralose, saccharin, aspartame and acesulfame K. Also when looking at ingredients lists avoid fructose, fructose syrup, glucose fructose syrup and high fructose corn syrup. The key with sugar is the less you have the less you want. When you do have something sweet you should be able to taste it more and it will hopefully have more impact, in the sense that you won’t be able to eat so much. Diabetics tend not to be able to notice the natural sweetness of food so accurately as non diabetics. It’s also vital that young children don’t get used to really sweet food from an early age.

POPULAR SUGAR ALTERNATIVES

Agave Syrup

This comes from a cactus grown in South America and is made from the cactus leaf pulp. It’s the same plant in which we get tequila. This is a traditional plant historically used by native Americans. However what we buy in the supermarkets is not quite the same. It has usually been highly processed and contains a high fructose content. When agave became fashionable a couple of years ago, one of its selling points was its low GI content. However we now know that excess fructose goes to the liver to be processed and long term is far worse for us than glucose potentially increasing our triglycerides and cholesterol. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which I’ve written about at length before (popular in the US) is similar to agave and some brands of agave dilute with HFCS.  I think this should be avoided at all costs. This was one of those fads that people got swept up in and some people think this is a healthy alternative.

Stevia

This is extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant grown in Peru. It works by stimulating receptors on the tongue. The products we buy can vary enormously from whole leaf powders to highly processed white sugar. It might be useful for diabetics but a little goes a long way. If you do use this try the pure leaf options. I think this is useful for diabetics but personally I would give this a miss. The active ingredients in stevia make it 150 times sweeter than sugar which I take issue with although it has a negligible effect on blood sugar. It can also leave a bitter after taste.

Fruit purees

This is essentially using fruit instead of sugar i.e. a mashed ripe banana, a few dates or stewed apple, for example. There really is no downside especially if cooking for children as you are fundamentally eating real food. It’s just a question of how much you eat. Dates and bananas are fairly high GI foods but this is marginally better than other sugars. A favourite of mine is banana bread, you can quite easily make it with the sweetness of the bananas without any extra added sugar and it certainly trains smaller children to have less of a sugary tooth. Basically a puree is stewed fruit or a fruit mashed to a pulp.

Maple Syrup

This is the concentrated sap of the Canadian maple tree. It is generally lower in calories and fructose than honey and has a lower GI rating, however it is lower in vitamins. Grade A is lighter and milder and Grade B is darker and has a higher nutritional value. Maple flavoured syrup is not real maple syrup and is to be avoided. The sugar is primarily sucrose with some fructose and glucose. The classic meal with this is of course the American breakfast of pancakes with blueberries and maple syrup. Most of the maple syrup in the US has added high fructose corn syrup. Many of the new cooks that have sprung up in the last few years are using maple syrup as a sugar substitute due to its low GI rating, however I’m firmly of the opinion that it won’t stop you yearning for more sweetness.

Honey

Raw honey has more nutrition and health benefits than more highly processed products. It is roughly 50% fructose (a 50:50 ratio of fructose to glucose is easier for the body to metabolise than a higher fructose content product). Honey is a natural sweetener and has moderate nutritional benefit providing vitamins such as B6 and C. Some types of honey, such as Manuka or those which are not pasturised have additional antibacterial/antifungal benefits if used raw. Many people find eating a local honey around hay fever season can reduce their symptoms.  However just because honey is natural, does not mean you can use it without consequence – it is still a sugar. Cheaper honey may be blended with HFCS or glucose syrup to reduce production costs.

Xylitol / Sorbitol / Mannitol

These are wood alcohols that come from the fibre of many types of plants such as oats, mushrooms, raspberries and corn. Personally these are not sweeteners I recommend but it may be a useful option for diabetics who may only be able to use natural sugar sparingly. It is thought to benefit your teeth as it prevents growth of oral bacteria – it is often used in chewing gum for this reason. The ‘alcohol’ side chain on this sugar stops it from being absorbed from the gut – this stops any metabolic effect but can cause digestive issues. Moderate to high consumption of wood alcohols can lead to a laxative effect giving diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Often wood alcohols are made from GMO corn – look for non-corn or certified organic alternatives if you can. Don’t forget that wood alcohols are highly toxic to pets and animals, so keep them in a safe place.

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown Rice Syrup looks and sounds natural but is highly processed, contains little in terms of nutritional value and has a GI index of 98 which is super high and will greatly effect your blood sugar. It has a butterscotch flavour and is added to products like cereal bars. It is produced by culturing cooked rice starch. Also called rice syrup and rice malt. You can find it in some rice milks, so do look at labels carefully.
So what can we conclude about all this?

Well it is a bit depressing if you have a sweet tooth, but health is not worth risking for a poor diet. Natural sweeteners like agave are really no better than table sugar for you. Probably fruit purees are the best natural sweetener if you are trying to use an alternative, otherwise don’t kid yourself, if you are going to use one of these alternatives thinking you are doing yourself some good, to be really honest, you might as well use sugar. If you reading this and it’s mid afternoon go make yourself a cup of tea and have a cracker and a slice of cheese instead. The less you eat, the less you will eat.

If you would like to discuss any of these issues you can contact Kate on 01323 737814 www.katearnoldnutrition.co.uk