We all know sugar isn't good for us - we've read the plethora of articles in health magazines and heard leactures from the likes of Jamie Oliver and Sarah Wilson. It seems sugar is the 2016 equivalent of what fat was to the noughties (remember when everyone insisted on avoiding fatty foods at all costs?). But is there more merit in the anti-sugar argument? And are natural sugars a healthier alternative?
What is sugar?
Sugar is made up on a mixture of glucose and liquid fructose. Our bodies need glucose, and it’s metabolised by almost every cell in our bodies (glucose is good). We do not need fructose however, and it can only be metabolised by the liver - meaning that consumption is a lot of work for the body. When the liver gets overwhelmed, it turns the fructose into fat - specifically triglycerides (fat in your blood), free fatty acids and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol). It also triggers the release of dopamine, releasing happy hormones - which to cut it short, leads us to crave more, in higher quantities.
What about artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners basically means any manufactured, man made sugars that tend to have zero calories, but don't contain the traditional white stuff - maltitol, aspartame and sorbitol are just a few. And yes, they're as bad for your insides as they sound. Not only do they have the same addictive qualities, but they also have worrying side effects if used continuously: nausea, a whole load of bowel problems and stomach cramps to name a few.
Which natural sugars are best?
Of course everyone has different opinions on this, but for us, honey is on the good list. Why? Put simply, it's a real, natural food that has always been accessible to humans - it isn't manufactured and it contains vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help the body - it's more than just sugar. It's still 40% fructose based, but still a much better, unrefined option.
Maple syrup is created from boiled down maple tree sap and is barely processed at all - it's simply removed from the maple tree, then boiled until the water evaporates, making it another better option (emphasis on the better, because let's face it - sugar is never going to be a good option). It also offers a good source of minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc. As with honey, this option is still 40% fructose (but again, is more natural and comes with additional benefits).
Coconut sugar is derived from the sap of the coconut plant and is created in a 2-step process, meaning, similar to maple syrup, it is hardly processed. It also has a low GI index as well as containing minerals including iron, zinc, calcium and potassium. It varies from 38%-48% fructose levels, but again, coming from a natural source with additional health benefits makes it a little easier on digestion.
The fruit of the palm tree, dates are naturally occurring and not processed. They're still high in fructose though (30% in comparison to the 50% in sucrose) but as they're in their natural form, they also contain other compounds that aid in the digestion of the sugars, such as dietary fibre, vitamins and antioxidants. Just try to avoid products and recipes that use high quantities to try and replicate the same sweetness as sucrose - this can quite quickly lead to excessive sugar consumption.
Yacon syrup comes from the yacon plant - taken from the roots, then processed to create the syrup which heralds a host of health benefits. It's apparently meant to speed up your metabolism, having been used for centuries due to it's holistic properties. Although that one should be taken with a pinch of salt, it's still very high in fibre, making it great for those with digestive problems. It has a sweet caramel taste, similar to black molasses.
Rice Malt Syrup
Made from fermented cooked rice, rice malt syrup is 0% fructose. It’s a blend of complex carbs, maltose (which is just 2 forms of glucose) and glucose. That said, because it is 100% glucose, it has a high GI rate, making it unsuitable for diabetics. As with all food however, your choice of sweetener comes down to your own preferences and how your body works - some people benefit from 0% fructose rice malt syrup, whereas others would be best with natural, date sweetened treats. And no matter what your choice is, consume in moderation, with natural, wholesome food - and enjoy.
Which ones should be avoided?
Rewind two years and agave was breaking onto the health scene - hailed the good-for-you sugar and used in everything from raw chocolate to vegan cakes. It's a 'natural sugar', so what's the problem? It comes back to the fructose/glucose levels: agave is 56%-92% fructose depending on the brand, which is really hard for the liver to metabolise (therefore getting overwhelmed and turning it into fat) - with the lack of glucose also meaning that the pancreas does not release insulin, which would work as a regulator and help with metabolisation. This, along with the fact that the process of making agave (heating to break the fructans down into fructose) further destroys any nutritional value the plant had, makes it one we always steer clear of.
Although it is derived from a plant, to make it last on supmarket shelves and in your pantry, Stevia is often packed full of other ingredients such as erythritol, flavours, and dextrose. Stevia is highly processed to get it from plant to bleached powder form. If you want to use this very sweet sugar alternative, ensure it it is leaf form, and not the processed kind you find in the shops.