Let’s face it, sugar is pretty tasty. But we all know too much sugar is not so great for our health. So with sugar substitutes, what is best? Today there is a large number of sugar substitutes/alternatives on the market and I’ve often seen them used in different recipes so I thought I’d do a little round up of a few with what they’re all about.
But firstly, a little bit of sugar chemistry:
When we think of sugar, we often think of the old white stuff you buy in a bag at the supermarket. This, commonly known as table sugar is called sucrose. Sucrose is a glucose molecule bonded together with a fructose molecule, so it’s essentially 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
No doubt you’ve heard by now that fructose is the sugar that seems to cause harmful effects to our health. But it doesn’t mean we need to avoid it completely – or “quit” fructose. Fructose is a sugar that’s found in fruit. And fruit IS NOT harmful for our health. In it it’s natural fruit state, then all the other good things in fruit protect us from any harm from the fructose.
Fructose is problematic in high doses because of how it’s metabolised. While nearly every cell in the body can use glucose for energy, only liver cells break down fructose.
The metabolism of fructose is complicated but one of the end products is triglycerides, a form of fat. A product called uric acid and free radicals are also formed.
Over time, high triglyceride levels can cause fatty liver disease which damages liver function. Triglycerides released into the bloodstream can contribute to the growth of fat-filled plaque inside artery walls. Free radicals cause cell damage. High levels of uric acid can cause gout as well as other health issues.
Some fructose is ok – the key is moderation. Excess fructose, especially in the forms of sugary drinks though is possibly damaging to your health. At the moment studies link fructose to health conditions, they don’t say fructose causes them – more research is needed. Read more here.
There’s lots of sugar substitutes out there now that are unrefined, natural sugars. But for most of these substitutes (with the exception of stevia) they still have the same effects as sugar within the body. So sure, use a substitute, but remember if your making sweet treats, they’re still treats 🙂
1 Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is a Canadian delight. It’s produced from certain species of maple trees. In cold climates, these trees store starch in their trunks and roots before the winter; the starch is then converted to sugar that rises in the sap in the spring. The sap is collected and processed by heating to evaporate much of the water, leaving the concentrated syrup – the maple syrup we love.
Maple syrup is a source of manganese – a mineral we need in small amounts bone formation, skin health and blood sugar control. It also provides a source of zinc as well as small amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Maple syrup is a mixture of glucose, sucrose and a small amount of free fructose.
It has a medium/low GI of 54.
2. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is taken from the crystallized nectar of the coconut palm tree’s flowers. It has a beautiful flavour and is low GI. It contains a range of vitamins and minerals in small amounts. It contains slightly less fructose than table sugar aka sucrose.
Coconut sugar is mainly sucrose .
Honey is one of my favourite sweeteners, mainly because I love the taste. Honey on Vogels toast is devine! Nutritionally, honey contains small amounts of vitamins, but nothing significant. Manuka honey does have antibacterial properties.
The sugars in honey are slightly different depending on the variety of honey, as does the glycemic index which can range from 45-60, making it low to medium GI. The fructose content ranges from 30-40%. (image via here)
4. Agave nectar
Agave is extracted from the agave plant in mexico. It’s sweeter than sugar, so you use less, BUT that’s because it’s super high in fructose. Agave nectar is around 90% fructose which also means that it’s low GI. That’s because we process fructose differently to other sugars – it’s taken to our livers rather than into our cells via insulin. Too much fructose is associated with many negative health effects. This sugar should be used sparingly.
Stevia is a plant that is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia contains the compound rebaudioside A, the sweetest-flavored component of the stevia leaf. Rebaudioside tastes similar to sugar and doesn’t have much of an after taste. Most stevia products contain mostly extracted Rebaudioside A with some proportion of stevioside (which has a bit of a bitter aftertaste), which is a white crystalline compound present in stevia that tastes 100 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. This can be a useful sugar alternative, although it doesn’t taste exactly the same. It’s calorie free and sugar free and is recognised as a safe sugar alternative. There are also stevia blends on the market too, such as Naturals. It blends Monk Fruit with stevia for a 0 calorie sweetener.
6 Rice Malt Syrup
This sweeter is a favourite of those who follow the “I Quit Sugar” programme. The sugars in rice malt syrup are 45 per cent maltose (two sugar units bonded together)52 per cent maltotriose (3 glucose units bonded together) plus 3 per cent glucose. Maltose is one of natures least common sugars. It’s free of fructose, but it has a very high GI of 98, meaning it will shoot your blood sugars high quickly.
SUMMARY Sugar substitutes -what is best?
In the end, no matter what form you choose, you still want to use sugar in moderation. Sure some of the unrefined sugars contain vitamins and minerals, but they are in small quantities so unless you’re eating a lot, you’re not going to get a significant intake. And of course, sugar isn’t the best way to get our daily vitamin and mineral requirements.
Even if you use stevia, you don’t want to go overboard as it still stimulates our sweet taste buds. the idea is to train our taste buds to want less sugar/sweet flavours so we crave it less. And it’s true. The less you have, the less you want and the less you enjoy overly sweet things. When I was at uni, I used to have sugar in my coffee. Today, I can’t stand a sweet coffee.
My favourites: I like honey + maple syrup due to their flavours. I also use stevia sometimes and find it’s quite good to use in combination with other sweeteners to reduce the sugar intake. Coconut sugar is another sugar I’ve tried recently and it has a lovely flavour + a low GI.