We’ve been hooked on sugar ever since it was introduced to Europe in the 16th century from the American tropics, and we simply eat too much of it. It is ubiquitous in processed foods, from readymade meals such as lasagne and pasta sauces to more obvious cakes and biscuits – not to mention fizzy drinks. It rots our teeth, makes us fat, causes diabetes by damaging insulin production and is linked with cancer, heart disease, liver malfunction, poor immunity and more. It is also addictive!
Being poor in nutrients, it uses up the body’s stores of B vitamins and minerals as it is metabolized, leaving us tired and craving another sugar fix to replenish our energy – a see-saw effect.
Artificial low-calorie sugar substitutes such as aspartame or acesulfame-K are not to be recommended. These laboratory-produced sweeteners are potentially even more toxic than plain white sugar and should never be consumed.
Xylitol is mainly derived from non-GM corn. It is very low in calories and fructose, has the same sweetness as sugar and no after-taste, so can be used in place of sugar except if yeast is in the recipe. It does not react with yeast, so is also suitable for people prone to candida. It is highly processed and useless in terms of nutrients. Due to its natural anti-bacterial properties in the mouth it is often found in chewing gum and toothpaste. (It is highly toxic for dogs as they cannot metabolise xylitol.)
Undoubtedly the healthiest sugar-substitute is stevia. Extracted from the leaf of a South American plant, it is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It has almost zero calories and no fructose, but the drawback is the taste which is distinct and bitter. However blended with the sugar alcohol erythritol it works well for baking. Stevia is the only sugar that is completely safe for use by type 1 diabetics, whereas type 2 diabetics, who are managing their diet as opposed to relying on medication, may find they can tolerate small amounts of other sugar alternatives. But keep in mind that we are all different and we all have wildly differing physiological responses to the various types of sugar, so tread carefully!
Raw or minimally heated honey, like sugar, should be avoided by diabetics, but being full of vitamins and enzymes it is a much healthier and tastier alternative to sugar for non-diabetics. Antibacterial genuine clinically-assessed manuka honey has very particular and well-defined antibacterial properties, but is too expensive to be used just to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Agave syrup is used because of its flavor on cereals, in snacks, biscuits and health bars. Dark agave is thicker and richer than the lighter type which makes it delicious as a drizzle, leaving the lighter type for baking. Both types are very high in fructose and can affect blood sugar levels, and as all fructose is processed by the liver before being stored there as glycogen, agave should be used sparingly.
Rice syrup tastes and feels similar to light agave syrup, but with zero fructose and more complex carbohydrates it may be kinder to our blood sugar metabolism and our long-suffering livers!
Irish-produced Highbank Orchards apple syrup and genuine Canadian maple syrup are low in fructose and high in antioxidants . They taste delicious, especially in pancakes or drizzled over roast vegetables.
Barley malt extract tastes, as you would expect, malty, and like molasses is used mainly in bread baking or stirred into milk for a traditional bedtime drink. It contains some protein and B vitamins, whereas high fructose molasses is particularly high in iron.
Coconut sugar tastes rather like demerara sugar. It is highly processed, has a similar carbohydrate and calorie content to sugar, but is low in fructose and low GI.
Rapadura sugar can be used anywhere standard sugar is used, but it is far less refined and still retains much of the mineral content which is stripped from white sugar.
Labels are deliberately misleading as manufacturers attempt to mislead with obscure names for sugar. Basically any ingredient which ends in “ose” is likely to be sugar: sucrose, glucose, dextrose, maltose etc. Also check out fructose ingredients such as corn and rice syrup. The recommended adult intake is a maximum of 30g per day but it’s all too easy to overdose if you buy processed foods such as breakfast cereals or pasta sauce.
Another misleading aspect of labeling is where “total sugars” include the naturally occurring sugar in ingredients such as carrots or sweet potatoes. Check out “no added sugar” on labels.
For anyone really trying to cut back, extra cinnamon is a natural sweetener par excellence as well as supporting insulin production, and liquorice tea can really satisfy the craving for a regular sweetened cuppa – provided you like liquorice!