Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
It seems that barely a day goes by without someone telling us they’re giving up the white stuff.
After years of fad, low-fat diets, we’ve finally started to wake up and take note of the real enemy: sugar. More and more, we’re starting to read the labels on products and wave goodbye to low-fat yoghurts, processed ready meals and juices.
Yep, after years of our sugar love affair, we’re finally ready to end it. Sugar, sugar, we’re through.
For decades, we were told that fat was the enemy. Fat, they said, was what was making us…well, fat. Anyone that wanted to lose weight was told it was simple – all we needed to do was ditch the cheese, butter, red meats and blue milk.
Of course, blissfully unaware of the reality, none of us stopped to question it. We assumed that the governments, the nutritionists, the people telling us that fat was evil, knew what they were doing. We thought they had our best interests at heart.
So, what happened? As we embraced low-fat produce (overloaded with sugars and additives to replace the flavour lost by removing fats), the nation’s scales slowly crept up and up. We weren’t getting slimmer, we were getting fatter.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and it’s now another story altogether. The World Health Organisation has recommended that we half our sugar intake1(and there are those who think it should be lower still) because of “increasing concern” that sugars could cause diseases such as diabetes and tooth decay.
In fact, high sugar diets are thought to be responsible for a huge array of diseases. Not only is it linked to diabetes and obesity, but it’s also believed to lead to binge eating, and cause certain cancers.
So, now we know that sugars are leading to a growing health crisis, what do we do? And what do we eat instead?
While we all know that white, refined sugars are bad for us, what about some of the ‘healthier’ alternatives? Should we be wary of ingredients such as honey and stevia, or should we embrace them?
There are now plenty of sugar alternatives out there, each of which promises to be healthier for us, better for our bodies and easier to digest. Most of these sugars name the fact that they are “natural” (therefore unrefined and unprocessed) as the reason for being healthier, but is that really true? And are they any good for us?
One of the most controversial natural sweeteners is agave, which has become popular thanks to its rich, honey-like taste. It's also 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, meaning it can be used in smaller quantities.
Agave syrup originates in Southern Mexico (it’s grown on the Agave plants) and is often billed as being a healthy alternative to sugar due to the fact that it has a low GI. Remember, the glycaemic index judges whether or not foods lead to rapid spikes in blood sugars.
However, the truth is that the harmful effects of sugars still apply, regardless of GI. Instead, the dangers of sugars are often linked to fructose – and it just so happens that agave nectar or syrup is high in fructose (terrifyingly, this is often 70% fructose or above2). In fact, it’s higher in fructose than ANY sweetener, including high-fructose corn syrup.
So, why is fructose so damaging? And why should we be so wary of it? Well, although fructose doesn’t raise blood sugars or insulin immediately, it does elevate our blood sugars in the long-term, leading to insulin resistance3.
There’s also the fact the more and more experts are starting to believe that fructose is converted into fat far quicker than glucose is. This is because fructose is digested in your liver, which then immediately turns the stuff into triglycerides or stored body fat. This means that people who eat a lot of agave in their diets will be prone to weight gain (especially on the tummy).
Put simply, whatever you’ve been led to believe, agave syrup isn’t a healthy alternative to sugar, and you should consume it with caution. Always choose organic and use sparingly.
Stevia is a natural sugar substitute that comes from the leaves of the plant species stevia rebaudiana, which is a part of the sunflower family.
"Stevia" by onezzzart
Grown in countries such as Paraguay and Brazil, it’s been used by natives to sweeten food for centuries. In fact, stevia is also often used in these countries as a natural medicine to treat burns, colic and stomach problems.
Since stevia has zero calories and is around 300 times sweeter than sugar4 and is also low in carbs, it’s become increasingly popular in diets as a sugar substitute. Not only do we need to add less when we bake with it or consume it in drinks and coffee, but we also know exactly where it comes from. Plus, it’s thought to lower blood pressure and improve glycemic control in diabetics5.
However, stevia has been linked to certain cancers and infertility4, and it may increase our hunger levels. You see, when we taste something sweet, our body gets ready for a calorie overload – something which doesn’t happen with stevia. This can cause us to over-indulge as we try to curb those cravings.
If you want to use a sugar alternative, then this is probably one of the safest, healthier options out there. But it’s still wise to use in small quantities, and save it for treats.
Truvia is derived from stevia and, for that reason alone (along with the fact that it has no calories), is promoted as healthy and natural. However, is Truvia all it’s cracked up to be? Are we really getting the whole story?
Yep, you guessed it – there’s much more to Truvia than meets the eye. Manufactured by Coca-Cola (which should probably tell you all you need to know), it isn’t made of pure stevia – and contains a lot less of the stuff than you’d think.
In fact, scroll through the ingredient list for Truvia and, rather than stevia, its label say it contains erythritol, rebiana (which is derived from the stevia leaf) and “natural flavours”. Worryingly, erythritol is a sugar alcohol which is formed by processing genetically modified corn. This may well be low in calories, but that’s only because our bodies can’t completely break it down and digest it. Instead, it sticks around in our intestines, leading to cramping, bloating and many other stomach problems.
The reality of Truvia is that it’s best avoided. Instead of being a healthy sugar substitute, it’s actually a piece of clever marketing – stevia, it most definitely isn’t.
One of the most natural and widely-used sugar substitutes, the health benefits of honey have been known for centuries. Widely-used for its antibacterial properties (honey is known to heal wounds) and as an energy booster and anti-ager, honey is an all-round super product.
Sticky, fragrant and deliciously tasty, it also happens to make a wonderful sugar substitute and can be used in all manner of ways, from baking to sweetening teas and drinks.
But is it good for you? And should we embrace it as a sugar substitute? Well, quite simply, it all depends on what type of honey you’re using.
Honey has been found to spike blood sugar a lot less than other sweeteners, including glucose and sucrose6. It’s also linked to lowering bad cholesterol levels.Raw honey7 which hasn’t been heat-treated is also rich in enzymes and antioxidants and has plenty of antibacterial properties.
However, honey is still around 80% sugar and relatively high in both calories and fructose, which means that it should be eaten with caution. Many shop-bought honeys are also processed and contain added sugars (always check the label!).
The fact remains that honey still isn’t a viable option for diabetics, and it’s also not ideal if you’re looking to lose weight. While it’s a healthier alternative to sugar, it still needs to be eaten in moderation.
Honey & Cinnamon
Cinnamon8 is a seductive, aromatic spice that can be used to add flavour and sweetness to both sweet and savoury dishes – we also love it stirred into black coffee. Derived from the bark of the cinnamon tree, you can buy it either as a ground powder or in rolled quills.
Cinnamon has been popular as far back as Egyptian times, when it was considered to be more precious than gold. It also happens to be packed full of goodness – it is antiviral, antioxidant and anti inflammatory and an excellent natural source of fibre, manganese and calcium.
Of course, cinnamon is undoubtedly a fantastically versatile spice which makes sense to add to our dishes.
Maple syrup has been used for centuries as a sweetener in Northern America and is now one of the most popular alternatives to sugar on the market. Yep, it really is used for more than slathering your pancakes and bacon in!
Made from the sap of maple trees (the sap acts as an anti-freeze for the trees roots during cold winter months), maple syrup is 100% natural, meaning it’s ideal for raw9, vegan and Paleo10 Diets. It also contains many vitamins and minerals – you just need to be wary of maple-flavoured syrups (these are artificial and loaded with nasties).
Maple syrup is rich in calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and manganese. There’s also evidence11 to suggest that maple syrup could help to manage Type 2 Diabetes, while it’s also renowned for being anti-inflammatory too. It’s also lower in GI than table sugar, meaning it affects blood sugars less.
However, maple syrup still remains high in sugar. Each tablespoon of maple syrup is made up of 13.5g of carbs – 12.4g of these are sugars, which are mainly sucrose (more commonly known as table sugar). Whatever nutrients maple syrup contains (and it’s worth noting that raw honey is much higher in vitamins and minerals), it’s still better that we get these from whole foods, such as fruit.
While maple syrup may be a healthier alternative to sugar, it’s still not ideal to neck back bottles of the stuff. As with all sugary alternatives, maple syrup is one to consume in moderation.
Xylitol may sound like a scientific, futuristic sugar mass-produced in a lab by men in white coats, but it’s actually as natural as they come.
Used throughout Scandinavia, Xylitol comes from the bark of the silver birch tree and contains around 40% less calories than refined sugar. It’s also low in fructose, meaning it has an incredibly low GI of just 7 (the highest GI is 100) and therefore doesn’t spike blood sugar levels like many other options.
However, Xylitol should be used with caution. It can be known to cause cramping and bloating (it’s not completely digested by the body, which is why it’s lower in calorie – this also means that we can over-eat the stuff), and it’s also deadly to dogs, so it should be used sparingly.
COCONUT SUGAR and COCONUT NECTAR:
From coconut water to coconut flour and oil, we’re nuts for coconuts right now. Coconut sugar is another one of those wondrous coconut hits and is made from the sap of the coconut palm.
Coconut sugar is the crystallised version of coconut nectar, which is liquid. It is a 2 step process. Firstly is harvesting or ‘tapping’ the blossoms of the coconut tree. The sap flows out and is collected in bamboo containers. The sap is then heated so that any moisture is evaporated and it transforms into a thick syrup-like substance, known as toddy or nectar. The crystallisation (coconut sugar) occurs when the syrup-like substance is further reduced.
Coconut sugar’s GI (remember, this measures how it will affect our blood sugar levels – glucose has a GI level of 100) is 50 – much lower than sugar - and its known to be low in fructose (just 45 per cent), which makes it favourable to some other sweeteners12.Coconut sugar is also full of the minerals iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, although it’s worth remembering that you’d get more of these nutrients by eating whole foods. Coconut palm sugar is also slow-release, which means it will help to keep you fuller for longer and will prevent those all-too-common sugar crashes.
Coconut palm sugar can also be used as a direct substitute to normal cane sugar, which means you can use it easily as a healthier alternative in baking and in cakes.
However, despite its benefits, it’s still sugar and should be eaten in small quantities. There’s also the fact that coconut sugar (supposedly healthy since it doesn’t contain fructose) is made of 70%-80% sucrose, which is half fructose. Therefore, gram for gram, it still supplies the body with the same amount of fructose as regular table sugar12.
While coconut sugar is a better, healthier (and more natural) option to refined sugars, it’s definitely not a miracle food and is still not suitable to be eaten and consumed every day.
Yep, you’ve got it – all sugars, whether they’re refined or unrefined, need to be consumed in moderation. Our bodies simply aren’t made to cope with large amounts of sugar, and if we eat it every day – ‘healthier’ alternatives or not – then we’re liable to gain weight and will end up causing our bodies far more harm than good.
If you want to eat something sweet, then these natural sweeteners do make for better options than white table sugar. However, while many of these may boast that they’re rich in enzymes and nutrients, you’ll always find more in whole foods – particularly fruits and vegetables – themselves.
So, sugar junkies, step away from the pots of honey and the bottles of maple syrup – it’s not an answer to everything! Proceed with caution, and moderate your sugar intake always.
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Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.
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