Most of us have too much sugar in our diets, but are there any healthy natural options? Nutritionist Dr Carina Norris investigates
Most of us have too much sugar in our diets, but are there any healthy natural options? Nutritionist Dr Carina Norris investigatesMost of us know we eat too much sugar – the official recommendation is for no more than 10 percent of our calorie allowance, or 47g (around nine teaspoons), but it’s all too easy to go over, especially considering the amount concealed in processed food. The food industry has created many artificial sweeteners to replace table sugar (sucrose), such as aspartame, saccharine and acesulphame K, but what if you want a natural option? There are plenty of choices available, all with their own advantages and disadvantages.
Honey’s distinctive taste means you can get away with using less of it – go for eucalyptus or pine honey for the strongest flavour. Active Manuka honey, with the highest possible UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) number, has also been shown to inhibit the Helicobacter pylori bacteria that cause stomach ulcers and may be behind a variety of other digestive problems.
Honey’s composition is virtually identical to table sugar (sucrose): glucose plus fructose (honey contains small amounts of other sugars). And honey’s glycaemic index in only slightly lower than sucrose – 55 compared to 60 – and it has almost as much impact on our blood sugar levels.
You can substitute honey for sugar in many recipes, using ¾ cup of honey for every cup of sugar. Reduce the liquid in the recipe slightly, and check a little before the end of cooking time, as honey may burn more easily.
You can buy fructose (often sold as fruit sugar) in health food stores and some supermarkets. It tastes just like table sugar, but is sweeter, so you’ll use up to a third less. It also has a low glycaemic index of 19, so it’s easier on your blood sugar levels.
Fructose can have unwelcome effects on blood fats, causing the liver to pump out more of the fatty compounds called triglycerides. A review of the scientific evidence by the University of Toronto, Canada, concluded that increasing consumption of fructose boosts your risk of insulin resistance (and therefore type 2 diabetes) and heart disease.
You can get fruit sugar from fresh fruit – and you’ll also gain the benefit of the fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals it contains.
Like honey, it has a distinctive taste, so can be used in smaller quantities. It also contains small amounts of minerals, including zinc and manganese.
Once again, maple syrup is mainly sucrose, and its glycaemic index, at 54, is almost as high as table sugar.
Buy pure maple syrup, not maple flavoured syrup, which is likely to be a less natural syrup with added maple flavouring. Use in cooking in a similar way to honey.
Agave syrup is very sweet (four to eight times sweeter than table sugar), so you use less. It’s almost pure fructose, giving it a low glycaemic index, so its short-term effect on your blood sugar is low.
It can increase your blood triglycerides and risk of insulin resistance (see fructose, above). Although it is often marketed as ‘natural’, it is still a refined product.
It contains traces of some useful minerals, most notably iron (a tablespoon gives you 0.9mg, or six per cent of a woman’s daily recommendation).
It’s less sweet than table sugar, and its strong taste means it can’t be used to substitute for sugar in every situation.
Xylitol is a so-called sugar-alcohol, and these compounds cannot be completely absorbed by the body. This makes them less calorific, and also limits their ability to raise blood sugar; xylitol’s glycaemic index is very low, at approximately seven. Also, xylitol does not contribute to tooth decay – in fact, research suggests that 6g of xylitol daily (for example, used as a sweetener in chewing gum) can counteract the effect of acid-producing bacteria in the mouth and reduce damage to teeth.
Many people are intolerant to sugar-alcohols, leading to fermentation in the intestines, which causes gas, bloating, and diarrhoea.
Studies have shown that when food is sweetened with xylitol (try Total Sweet from totalsweet.co.uk) people go on to eat less throughout the day.
Stevia is produced from the leaves of a South American plant called stevia rebaudiana. It’s recently been approved as a food additive in Europe, and is now on our shelves (try Tate & Lyle Light At Heart White Sugar Stevia Blend, £2.49). It’s calorie-free and 300 times sweeter than table sugar. It has a very low glycaemic index of around seven, so has little effect on blood sugar levels. As well as avoiding the sugar’s negative health consequences, stevia could even provide positive health benefits. A Chinese study on 106 people with hypertension found that it lowered their blood pressure significantly. Also, animal studies found that stevia, far from raising blood sugar like other sugars, actually lowered it. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.
Although hundreds of studies have now been conducted on stevia, and it has been confirmed by the World Health Organisation, the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority, as the newest kid on the natural sweetener block, its history has not been without controversy. Some detractors point out that although it has been used in many years in countries including Japan and America, if its popularity takes off it is likely to be consumed in much larger quantities, with unknown consequences.
You’ll see that many of our sugar substitutes, like honey, maple syrup, fructose, agave syrup and molasses, are still basically sugars, albeit less refined, and with many advantages over pristine white table sugar. Xylitol, because it is not a sugar and not processed in the same way by the body, is more of a ‘substitute’, though not without its disadvantages. Stevia seems to be the one to watch, though, particularly as it could actually benefit our health.
Or perhaps we should be thinking along different lines. Could the best option of all to be to reduce our dependence on sweet tastes? To a certain extent, humans are hardwired to crave sweet things. In evolutionary terms it makes good sense. Sweet foods tend to be high in calories, and in historical times the people who built themselves up with plenty of calorific foods were most likely to survive in times of hardship and famine. Now, our sweet tooth works against us, making us vulnerable to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and tooth decay.
But it IS possible to blunt your sweet tooth, provided you do it slowly. Gradually, cut down the sugar you add to drinks, cereal and desserts, and eventually you will be able to do without. When you fancy something sweet and cakey or biscuity, ask yourself whether a slightly less sweeter alternative would do, for example a wholemeal scone instead of a muffin, or a digestive biscuit or even an oatcake instead of a chocolate chip cookie. Soon you should find that the more virtuous and less sweet choice is what you like, and your previous choice seems sickly.
You can also reduce the sugar you add to baking. As well as substituting ingredients like honey, maple syrup and molasses for table sugar, you can experiment with simply reducing the amount of sweetener you use, so long as the sugar was simply providing sweetness, and isn’t needed to make the recipe brown or crisp. You’ll also find that recipes including lots of dried fruit, which is packed with natural sugars, won’t need extra sweetening.
Give it a try – your health will thank you for it.
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