As we enter the new year, many of you will be trying to “detox” or at least eat a little more healthily after the excesses of the festive period. You may, as part of this, decide to give up sugar. Certainly, there is a lot of media around the evils of sugar and why you should cut it out of your diet. But what exactly is meant by sugar?
Whilst I am no expert in nutrition, I thought it worth sharing a few basics about sugar that I have learnt during my studies (I am currently studying biomedicine as part of my training to be a Nutritional Therapist), and my attitude towards sugar in my cooking.
So, what do we mean by sugar?
Sugar comes in many forms and it is the source of energy in our diet, i.e, sugar is necessary for us! The key is understanding the forms sugar is found in and which ones you should try to limit.
When you think of sugar, you will probably firstly think of sucrose (refined or table sugar), and perhaps fructose (the form in which sugar is found in fruit). Fructose, along with glucose and galactose, are monosaccharides which is what the body likes to absorb, and are what more complex sugars are broken down into.
However, sugar is also found in other food stuffs such as dairy and carbohydrates (yes, even the healthy wholewheat varieties!). In dairy produce, sugar is in the form of lactose (which your body breaks into glucose and galactose), and carbohydrates are polysaccharides – substances made of many sugar units, which again are broken down into various combinations of fructose, glucose and galactose. So you see, you are getting sugar from many sources that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as sugar.
Whilst sugar is necessary for energy, if you are eating a healthy balanced diet, you will already be getting plenty of sugar through carbs, fruit and dairy, so there is no need to add extra in the form of refined sugar. However, we all like something sweet occasionally and sometimes a piece of fruit just doesn’t cut it, so when you do want to use sugar in your cooking, what should you replace it with? There are dozens of alternatives to refined sugar available and I list a few below that I regularly use. It is important to remember however, that even if these substances have more nutritional value than refined sugar, they are still sugar!! This means they are all still high in calories, too many of which we all know will lead to weight gain. All forms of sugar will also cause spikes/ a rise in blood glucose levels which can cause energy highs and lows, and even lead to insulin resistance (in turn causing Type II diabetes). So, it is important that you try to limit added sugar in any form in your diet, especially if you are trying to lose weight.
Refined sugar alternatives:
Honey is a substance produced by bees, is extremely sweet and can have a delicious flavour. As such I think it is wonderful in small amounts in sauces or desserts, but I never use in large quantities. Honey contains a very high concentration of fructose – the same form of sugar found in fruit – and there is still an ongoing debate about the impact this has on your digestive system in concentrated quantities (if you suffer from IBS you may be recommended to cut honey out of your diet altogether).
Agave nectar/ syrup comes from the agave plant (where tequila also comes from!) and is another extremely sweet alternative – it is also very high in fructose. Agave is one of the cheaper options available. I often use a combination of agave and brown rice syrup to get a mid-level sweetness in baking.
Maple syrup is another plant based syrup, this time from maple trees. It has a delicious flavour, is a little slower releasing and has a reasonable mineral content. It is quite expensive, so I will generally use in recipes where the flavour can be appreciated. It is also high in fructose.
Brown rice syrup is, unsurprisingly, derived from brown rice. It is the least sweet and slowest releasing of the syrup options (it consists of glucose, not fructose). Brown rice syrup contains very few nutrients so in that sense is not much better than refined sugar. However, glucose can be metabolised by all body cells, whereas fructose can only be metabolised in significant amounts by the liver. There is still ongoing debate about whether glucose is “better” for you than fructose for this reason.
Dates and fruit (bananas, apple puree etc): The best alternatives from a nutritional standpoint because of all of the nutrients you get alongside the sugar (fructose), but again, don’t forget it is still sugar, so even overdoing these sources isn’t good for your health!