Hidden in our breakfast cereals, tucked into our salads and smothered in our sauces – sugar is everywhere. The problem is: where to turn? There’s a deluge of new and old sugar alternatives, promising sweet relief from the white stuff – with none of the obesity-causing calories. But with so much mistrust and contradictory information from the media, supermarkets and brands - where do you find the right information?
One thing's for sure - despite being seen as one of the most harmful ingredients in the modern diet, as a nation, we still can't get enough of the sweet stuff. Our palates crave sweet tasting foods. To many, sugar is a comfort, enjoyment, fun. Equally, we all seem to know why we should avoid sugar (empty calories, no essential nutrients and of course – it’ll rot your teeth) but sugar is a familiar friend, a handy helper when we’re running on low – or want a sweet fix to brighten our day. So where to turn?
What the Experts Have to Say
Leading health expert and founder of The Vavista Eat Better, Live Better, Work Better Awards, Dr Sally Norton, tells us: “we tend to turn to sugar for a quick energy boost when we’re feeling lethargic, but it can actually end up making us feel worse… The rapid boost it gives us is swiftly followed by a slump as our blood sugar levels plummet in response to the hormone insulin that is released when we eat sugar. Avoiding sugar wherever we can will actually do wonders for our energy levels.”
So we know the score: sugar, you have to go. But giving up sugar – or suppressing our sweet tooth, is no mean feat.
With natural and organic foods making strides in the media – and our kitchens – it’s no surprise if we turn to sugar’s natural cousins for a sweet alternative. However, these sugars – honey, agave nectar and maple syrup – have high levels of the most damaging type of sugar.
Dr Sally Norton, continues: “whilst there is no ‘good’ sugar, there is increasing evidence to name and shame a ‘bad’ sugar. Fructose, in the increasing quantities we are consuming, is implicated in the obesity epidemic… and further research has backed up this view.
“Fructose wasn’t always regarded as a ‘bad’ sugar. Found in fruit, it guided our cave-dwelling ancestors to great sources of fibre and vitamins. In fact, the fibre it came packaged with helped reduce any adverse effects the small quantities of fructose may have had.”
So without the fibre, sugars – natural or not – are harmful. So when looking for a healthier sugar substitute – should we turn to artificial sweeteners?
Nutritionist and weight loss specialist, Suzie Walker says: “most people assume that the benefit of using a sweetener in your diet is simply removing sugar, and generally they’d be right. Products such as stevia and artificial sweeteners replace the sweetness of sugar with zero calorie, or virtually zero calorie alternatives but the products aren’t beneficial in themselves – you are simply cutting out sugar.”
But there are some sweeteners on the market that are fructose-free AND have a big nutritional thumbs up. So, if you want to cut down on the sweet stuff here’s our round up of the best and worst sugar substitutes.
The Best Sugar Alternatives
Very similar to sugar in taste, xylitol is a sweet alternative – with added health benefits. Some studies show that xylitol can reduce the risk of cavities, tooth decay and improve bone density. Like all of our best sugar substitutes, xylitol doesn’t raise blood sugar or insulin levels.
Plus, xylitol can help people lose weight. Walker explains: “xylitol appears to go a step further than ordinary sweeteners. Studies have shown that those people who sweeten their food with xylitol, compared to nothing at all, sugar or other sweeteners, go on to eat significantly less at their next meal.”
You’ll have heard of this one – and for good reason. Stevia is a natural sweetener 200 times sweeter than table sugar. It’s calorie-less and has a glycaemic index of zero. It’s great for baking and comes in liquid and powdered form. However, it doesn’t caramelize so if you fancy a creme brûlée, you’ll have to resort to the white stuff.
Another low-calorie sweetener, erythritol is a less-than-natural sugar alcohol (originally found in fruits but refined through an industrial process). Erythritol doesn’t spike blood sugar or insulin levels and has a relatively low glycaemic index. Fine in small doses, erythritol can cause digestive issues if eaten in large quantities.
The Worst sugar alternatives
Once the darling of the natural sugar movement, agave nectar is now considered even worse than sugar. It has a dangerously high fructose content – up to 90%. That’s more than table sugar – and even more than the much-hated high fructose corn syrup. This means, when consumed regularly, it can contribute to a significant increase in long-term blood sugar and insulin levels, which in turn, can increase the likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes.
Honey is over 80% sugar. And over half of that sugar is fructose. When compared to sugar, which is around 60 – 70% fructose, it’s only a marginally better alternative. Whilst raw, unprocessed honey does contain nutrients – there’s only trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. With such an insignificant amount – these nutrients and antioxidants can be better found elsewhere.
Just like honey, maple syrup does contain some minerals and antioxidants and, just like honey, maple syrup still contains a significant amount of fructose (around 30%). Calorie for calorie, or gram for gram, maple syrup is still a poor substitute for sugar – and a poor source of nutrients, when compared to other ‘real’ foods like vegetables and fruits.