I adore desserts, cakes, puddings and sweet treats (especially after a meal!), but studying nutrition has made me aware of the extreme health hazards that come with over consumption of refined sugar.
Refined sugar is sugar from the sugar cane which has been refined from all beneficial vitamins and trace minerals in order to become fine and white. Many sugars also contain additives such as anti-caking agents and refined sugar is found in many packaged foods as it is a preservative that will prolong the shelf life of ready made foods.
Sugar is extremely addictive. In experiments done on mice, researchers have found that if you get a mouse hooked on both cocaine and sugar and then give the mouse the choice between the two, it will choose sugar every time.
We humans are hard wired to seek out sweet foods in order to get quick energy and avoid poisoning ourselves (poisonous plants are often bitter) and in a consumer society flooded with cheap carbs and sugary foods we are overwhelmed and over consume.
Sugar is incredibly hard for the body to digest. It creates an acidic environment in the body which is bad as the body needs an even PH to perform and will take alkaline minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium from other parts of the body the to neutralise the acid: The sugar literally leeches minerals out of the body.
Refined sugar is very concentrated and is usually eaten in high quanta, thus causing a spike in blood sugar. Too high blood sugar value causes the pancreas to secrete more insulin in order to bring the blood sugars back down. The body has a habit of secreting too much insulin, bringing your blood sugar levels too far down after the spike and this will make one feel tired and hungry.
Too much sugar can also over time lead to diabetes type 2 as the body gets desensitised to insulin.
As carbohydrates are broken down into sugar at a different rate, there has been made a system to keep track: the glycemic index scale, a system that ranks carbohydrates on a scale of 0 to 100 based on their glycemic response.
The glycemic response is their conversion rate to glucose, sugar, in the body with 100 being the most rapid, i.e. the fastest rising blood sugar. Foods with a lower the glycemic index (GI) score are less stressful for the body.
Glucose, one of the two main simple sugars, causes spikes in blood sugar. With fructose it is not so. Fructose is a sugar found in many fruits and vegetables. It does not impact blood sugar levels, but does not metabolise well wither. It can derange liver function as the liver has to work very hard to process it and can cause insulin resistance (which leads to diabetes type 2). Excess consumption of fructose can also contribute to obesity.
Knowing all of this, how can we continue to enjoy the sweet and delicious things we all love? Luckily, there are plenty of whole food alternatives to refined sugar that are all nutritious and delicious.
Alternative sweeteners from A to X !
- Agave syrup: Agave syrup is made from the juice of the agave salmiana, the same plant that is used to make tequila. It is harvested from live plants in the deserts of Central Mexico. Agave syrup has a low glycemic index classification, but a very high fructose content. Very refined agave syrup is almost as high in fructose as the much hated high fructose corn syrup, so use agave syrup sparingly and make sure that it is as unrefined as possible. The darker syrups are less refined and have a more maple syrup like flavour, whereas the lighter versions reminds one of acacia honey.
- Blackstrap molasses: Molasses is made from either sugarcane or sugar beets, but as beet molasses is quite bitter, the sugarcane variety is the most common. Blackstrap molasses is a by-product of refined sugar production. The plants are harvested, crushed and have the juice extracted from them, creating “fancy molasses” which is a direct product from sugar cane and is used as a syrup. Upon boiling the sugar cane juice, the sugars are crystallised and the concentrate that comes of this is called “first molasses” (or light molasses, mild molasses, first strike molasses) which contains about 65% sucrose. When this solution is boiled again, more sugars are extracted and the finished product is called “second molasses” (dark molasses, full molasses, second strike molasses) and contains about 60% sucrose. Finally, the solution is boiled a third time, extracting even more sugars, and the final product has a sucrose content on about 55% and is called blackstrap molasses. Blackstrap molasses has a very high mineral content, packing in lots of iron, calcium, selenium, manganese, potassium, copper and zinc. It is also high in vitamins B5 and B6. Blackstrap molasses has a glycemic index classification of 55 an d a fructose content of about 20%. It is very important to buy unsulfured and organic blackstrap molasses as this is the only kind that will retain those delicious nutrients. It is a very thick liquid sweetener which is slightly bitter and is great in both sweet and savoury cooking.
- Brown rice syrup: Brown rice syrup is derived by culturing cooked rice with enzymes (often from dried barley sprouts) to break down the starches in the rice, then straining the liquid and boiling it into a syrup. Brown rice syrup is high in carbohydrates and has a very high score on the glycemic index scale (97), but almost nonexistent fructose content (so, in a way, opposite to agave). Organic brown rice syrup contains beneficial trace minerals such as magnesium, manganese and zinc, but has to be used sparingly due to its high glucose content. Brown rice syrup has a caramel like flavour, pours like honey and is great for binding raw bars and cake bases.
- Coconut nectar: Coconut nectar (coconut syrup) is a liquid sweetener derived from the crystallised sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm. The sap is collected in bamboo containers, boiled to remove the excess water content and the syrup is then cooled and bottled. The nutritional content, health benefits and health hazards of coconut nectar are the same as the ones for coconut sugar (see below).
- Coconut sugar: Coconut sugar is also referred to as coconut palm sugar and is the next step in sugar production after coconut nectar. The coconut syrup is left to cool and then rubbed to create crystals. The Philippine Department of Agriculture has rated coconut palm sugar on the glycemic index scale at 35, but other studies show that the number may be closer to 55. The sucrose content of coconut sugar is also quite high, some studies show a sucrose content of 70%. However, coconut sugar contains potassium, zinc and iron and even some amino acids and antioxidants and is therefore a better alternative to your plain jane white sugar. Coconut sugar has a slight caramel taste and melts into foods like regular white sugar.
- Date sugar: Date sugar is a type of sugar made from dehydrated dried dates. Dates contain plenty of antioxidants and a serious amount of minerals! You will find 40% of your RDI of copper in 100 grams of dates and 16% of your potassium alongside plenty of iron, manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc and calcium. Dates are rich in B complex vitamins, contains a notable amount of vitamin K and is a good source of dietary fibre and phytonutrients and scores between 46 to 55 on the glycemic index scale. Dates do, however, contain some fructose, but not much more than apples. Date sugar is a little bit sticky and does not melt away like crystallised sugar does. Instead of date sugar one can also use finely chopped dates, date syrup or simply – I usually do this – hand mix dates into cake batter. Make sure to buy unsulfured organic date sugar or other date products in order to benefit from trace minerals in the soil.
- Maple syrup: Maple syrup comes from maple trees whose starch is converted to sweet sap in winter and spring. This sap is then boiled down to syrup – and boiled down quite a lot: according to Baker’s Maple in New York you need 39 gallons of sap to yield 1 gallon of syrup! Organic, pure maple syrup contains antioxidants, riboflavin, potassium, iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium, and has an anti-inflammatory effect. It has a glycemic index classification of 54, but contains about two thirds of sucrose and therefore should, as with all sugars, be consumed in moderation. Maple syrup has a caramel-like flavour and one can also purchase granulated maple sugar.
- Palm sugar/syrup: Palm sugar is made from the sap of the flowers of palm trees. The most common trees for harvest are the sugar palm and the nipa palm, but the palmyra palm was the first source of this type of sugar. The sap is collected, boiled down to a syrup and then either bottled and sold as syrup or left to harden and crystallise into sugar. Palmyra sugar (palmyra jaggery) is the palm sugar with the highest nutritional content. The sugar is cultivated from plants grown in Sri Lanka and India and is very rich in minerals and B complex vitamins (1 tablespoon provides 222% of your B5 RDI, 133% of B12 and 665% of B1). It is one of the very rare plants in which to find vitamin B12 – a must for vegetarians and especially vegans. Palmyra sugar is low in fructose content (3.1 per 100 grams) and has a glycemic index classification of 41. It is a valuable component in Ayurvedic medicine, it has an alkalising effect and a caramel flavour. The sugar melts away like white refined sugar, but is sweeter and you need less of it in cooking.
- Raw honey: Raw honey is honey that is unprocessed in any way before being bottled and therefore it retains all its natural enzymes, vitamins and phytonutrients. Honey is often heat-treated and “purified” before reaching the market and this strips off its natural anti-oxidant, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. An enzyme in honey, amylases, can help pre-digest grains and therefore honey is an ideal sweetener on porridge and toast. The nutritional content of honey varies with the floral source, but often include the B complex vitamins and vitamin A, C, E and K, minerals like copper, zinc manganese, magnesium, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium and an abundance of amino acids. Raw honey is alkaline forming in the body in contrast to commercially treated honey which acidifies the body. Raw honey has been linked to help digestion and treat candida overgrowth and scores much lower on the glycemic index scale than commercially treated honey with a classification between 30 to 40, compared to one of 55 to 80 (the score varies with the floral origin of the honey). Raw honey also contains a fair amount of fructose so it is, as with every kind of sugar, not advisable to eat too much. If you make a heat treated treat (hah), you may as well opt for pasteurised honey as the minerals and vitamins of raw honey are very heat sensitive. Or better yet, try the more heat resistant maple syrup!
- Rapadura: Rapadura, or panela by its Spanish name, is unrefined whole cane sugar typically harvested in Central or Latin America. The sugarcane is slowly heated to a syrup and then left to dry and crystallise to become blocks. Because rapadura is not separated from molasses like commercially refined white sugar is, and because it is treated on low heat, it has a high nutrient content and a glycemic index classification of 65. Like all sucrose, rapadura is 50/50 glucose and fructose. A good rule of thumb is that the darker the sugar, the higher the nutrient content. In organic rapadura one finds trace minerals like potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorous as well as vitamin A, B-complex vitamins and niacin. Rapadura is also notably high in iron, has a caramel like flavour and melts away like regular white sugar.
- Stevia: Stevia is a small, sweet herb originating in South America. It is free from fructose, contains no calories it is also glucose free. The dried leaves of the plant is 40 times sweeter than sugar and stevia extracts are found to be 300 times sweeter! Stevia has been found to dilate blood vessels, increase sodium excretion and help lower blood pressure. Stevia can even be good for your teeth as certain compounds of the stevia plant has been found to inhibit caries causing bacteria in the mouth and because it is a plant, organic stevia can provide beneficial trace minerals. Too much stevia will taste bitter and stevia that has been treated can have a chemical-like aftertaste. Make sure to buy the best stevia you can find, which is organic, alcohol free and without any added flavourings and bulking agents. Stevia is sold in the form of drops, fine powder and a powder similar in coarseness to granulated sugar (usually with bulking agents).
- Xylitol: Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found in the fibres of many fruits and vegetables. It can be sourced from carbohydrate molecules in birch trees, rice, wheat and oat, but most commercially produced xylitol today comes from corn cobs. Xylitol is processed with chemicals and is not considered a “natural” product and I am only mentioning it on this list as it has experienced a surge in popularity recently. Xylitol has a very low glycemic index score of 7, contains no fructose and little calories. However, because it is a refined product, it contains no beneficial minerals or vitamins. Xylitol can protect the teeth by raising the PH level of the mouth and can have metabolic health benefits, but on the down side the chemicals used in the production of xylitol can have a laxative effect. Xylitol comes in the form of white, crystalline powder and has a taste very similar to white sugar.
As with all foods, but perhaps especially when it comes to sweeteners, it is very important to buy organic products. The trace minerals and vitamins in these sugars are ONLY present in organic produce as commercial farming will deplete the soil of any minerals that would reach the finished product. Organic sweeteners may seem expensive, but they will last you a long while and they are also a great investment in your future health.