Without doubt sugar is one of the hottest nutritional topics of the moment. Everywhere I go these days there seems to be someone who is on the ‘I Quit Sugar’ wagon (not that there is anything wrong with that) or advocating a new sweetener that has particularly amazing benefits. All of this information can leave you a little confused, right? Foods have trends too and what is healthy one day can be out of favour the next. One thing we know now is that eating too much sugar is NOT good for you. We have emerged from decades of consuming low fat, high sugar foods with an obesity epidemic! It may be surprising to know but Australia is now officially the fattest nation in the world. Clearly something is not right with that picture. We have finally learnt that consuming good fats (more on those next time) have a beneficial impact on our health and weight while too much sugar, especially the fructose kind, has led to a nation of overweight folk. So where do we go with this? To me the answer is in moderation. By all means, ‘quit sugar’ for a period of time, your health (and vitality) will thank you for it. However, if at some point it sneaks back in (make sure it is only ever a 'treat' food) you will need to make sure you don’t jump straight back on the slippery slide of blood sugar highs and lows that you get with too much sugar. So here is my rough guide to the sweeteners available out there to help you make the best – moderate - choice possible.
Agave nectar is a healthy, completely natural unrefined natural substitute for refined sugars and artificial sweeteners. Made from the Agave plant (yes, that is where tequila comes from) it has been used in native societies of Mexico for centuries as a sweetener and healing ointment. Agave is thought to have anti-bacterial properties that can heal wounds and fight off infections.
• Agave ranks lower than many other sweeteners on the glycemic index, so it doesn’t cause extreme spikes in your blood sugar like common table sugar.
• It is a natural sweetener that comes in a liquid form similar to honey and can be used as an alternative to traditional white and brown sugar
• The calories in a serving of traditional white sugar and agave nectar are the same so you still need to be mindful of your intake. However, because it is about 1 ½ times sweeter than sugar, you tend to use less.
• Be aware that agave contains the highest levels of fructose of any commercial sweetener. Fructose suppresses the release of our three major satiety hormones (insulin, leptin and cholecystokinin) and instead of being used by the body like other forms of energy it goes straight to the liver where it can be converted into fat. This explains why our ever increasing consumption of fructose in foods is one of the key factors contributing to our obesity epidemic.
• Agave can range from 90% to a lesser 55% fructose. Choose 100% organic, with minimal processing to ensure a lower fructose content
· Coconut Sugar is a great tasting cane sugar alternative produced from coconut palm blossoms. It has a rich toffee-like flavour.
• Naturally low on the Glycemic Index (GI), which has benefits for weight control and improving glucose levels in people with diabetes. Its GI rating is 35 compared to most commercial Honeys GI 55 and Cane Sugars GI 68
• It also has a nutritional content far richer than all other commercially available sweeteners.
• Coconut Sugar has a high mineral content. It is a rich source of potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron. In addition to this it contains Vitamin B1, B2, B3 and B6. When compared to brown sugar, Coconut Sugar has twice the iron, four times the magnesium and over 10 times the amount of zinc.
• It has fewer calories than honey or agave nectar.
• It is the most sustainable of all the sugars. Coconut palms produce an average of 50-75% more sugar per acre than sugar cane and use less than 1/5th of the nutrients for that production.
• The not so positive news is coconut sugar also contains around 40% fructose meaning the energy from it is poorly utilized and it tends to wind up being stored as fat, particularly when eaten in excess.
Stevia has been widely used as a natural sweetener in South America for centuries and in Japan since 1970. It is completely natural and non-toxic, deriving from the sunflower family native to subtropical South and Central America
• Stevia has zero calories!
• It is high in chromium and has no effect on blood sugar levels making it the perfect option for people trying to lose weight and diabetics. One study showed stevia reduced blood sugar levels by 18% in type 2 diabetic patients.
• Stevia aids weight loss in two ways; by increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing sugar intake and therefore calorie consumption.
• Other health benefits include anti-hypertensive qualities – stevia may lower blood pressure.
• It has to be said the only real down side to stevia is its taste – you really need to get used to the excessive sweetness. I have friends who have grown to love their cup of tea of coffee sweetened with stevia and many recipes from fabulous Nutritionist use it as the sweetener so there is absolutely no doubting its popularity or health benefits. All I can say is for me, I am not such a fan it’s just too sweet.
Honey is about as natural as any sweetener gets. A good quality honey may also have a few added benefits and extra medicinal benefits that other sweeteners don’t. Manuka honey from New Zealand and Ulmo honey from Chile both have incredible antiseptic, immune stimulating and healing properties. Make sure you always opt for raw honey to ensure all of the valuable nutrients and enzymes are retained.
· Honey has a high GI of 50, like table sugar, so needs to be used sparingly
· It is also 40% fructose which means, once again, the energy produced from its consumption is not utilized by the body, resulting in the production of fat, via the liver, that tends to ‘stick’.
· Because honey is up to 50% sweeter than sugar so your sweet tooth will be more readily satisfied with smaller amounts.
· A good quality, raw honey increases free-radical fighting, antioxidant content of your diet.
Honey is a Paleo friendly sweetener
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown Rice Syrup is a fabulous substitute for sugar and one of my favourites. As the name suggests, it is a whole food derived from brown rice. Even better it is completely fructose free (hooray!) and has a low glycaemic level, so it doesn’t send you off into the crazy blood sugar highs and lows that sugar can.
· The sugar profile in this syrup is 50% soluble carbohydrates, 45% maltose and 3% glucose. The glucose is immediately absorbed and metabolized, maltose takes from an hour to an hour and a half, and soluble carbohydrates take 2-3 hours to be metabolized and energy released. This results in constant supply of energy spread over a long time rather than a sudden rush (1)
· I use Pure Harvest Brown Rice Syrup. It is 100% organic and has no issues with arsenic content (there has been some concern over this with other products). The taste is not as sweet as other sweeteners and that is one of its added benefits. This ‘reduced’ sweetness gives your body (and your taste buds) a chance to adapt and not need those sugar hits for instant energy pick-me-ups
· Use it in cooking and baking. You won’t need too much (experiment, start with ¼ of a cup) to give those biscuits and muffins that sweet edge for taste and flavour.
(1) From www.triedtastedserved.com