Sweet things – how I didn’t give up sugar

sugarEver since Sarah Wilson published her book  I quit sugar, it’s been all the rage for people to go ‘sugar free’.  However mostly they substitute refined processed sugar for an alternative sweetener.  Nothing wrong with that and I’m all for doing away with processed food in your diet, however a lot of people are under the misapprehension that by ‘quitting’ sugar they are actually eliminating sugar from their diet.  Not so.  Substitutes can be just as bad as processed sugar – and for expediency, let’s refer to processed white sugar as ‘sugar’ for the rest of this post.

The taxonomy of sugars – fructose, sucrose, glucose – can be a minefield to navigate. I once had to go on a fairly strict cleansing regime which included not only giving up caffeine (including tea), but also alcohol (gulp), all things processed, as well as sugar.  At first I thought this would be hard and certainly I had caffeine withdrawals, but to mitigate the effects of sugar withdrawal I substituted dried fruit.  Ha! I thought.  No problem, I can easily do without sugar:  just have a few lovely fresh dates, dried mango etc.  Piece of cake (or not).  But when I very proudly told my naturopath that I managed without sugar and chocolate (in those days I was a big chocoholic – could eat a whole big block on my own) he laughed and pointed out that all those dried fruits had a lot of sugar in them and that even fresh fruit had sugars that I shouldn’t be eating.  I was crushed.

The low down on fructose and sucrose:

Fructose, or fruit sugar, is one of the three dietary monosaccharides, along with glucose and galactose, that are absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion. Fructose was discovered by French chemist Augustin-Pierre Dubrunfaut in 1847. The name “fructose” was coined in 1857 by the English chemist William Miller. Pure, dry fructose is a very sweet, white, odourless, crystalline solid and is the most water-soluble of all the sugars. Fructose is found in honey, tree and vine fruits, flowers, berries, and most root vegetables.

Commercially, fructose is frequently derived from sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn.  Fructose exhibits a sweetness synergy effect when used in combination with other sweeteners. The relative sweetness of fructose blended with sucrose, aspartame, or saccharin is perceived to be greater than the sweetness calculated from individual components.

Sucrose, commonly named sugar or table sugar, is cane and beet sugar. Refined sugar is 99.9% sucrose and 390 kilocalories (or just calories) per 100 g.

Here are some alternatives:

Agave syrup
Calories: 20 per teaspoon
Agave is the nectar derived from the leaves of the agave cactus plant, which is native to Central and South America, especially Mexico; agave is about one and a half times sweeter than sugar, so you need to add less of it to recipes.  It has a low glycaemic index, but is very high in fructose – about 85 per cent, compared with sucrose which is 50 per cent fructose and 50 per cent glucose. Agave’s taste and texture are similar to honey. It doesn’t contain as many antioxidants as honey, but it contains approximately the same amount of calories.  Because it contains more fructose than table sugar, it is less likely to cause a spike in blood sugar but could be more likely to reduce your metabolism and insulin sensitivity.

Photo courtesy Getty Images
Photo courtesy Getty Images

Coconut sugar
Calories: 15 per teaspoon
Made by heating the sap of coconut palm flowers until the water in the sap evaporates, leaving behind a sweet granulated “sugar”.  It is loaded with zinc, potassium, iron, and vitamin B. It’s 70-80 per cent sucrose, compared to refined sugar at 100 per cent.  However, because sucrose is comprised of both glucose and fructose, which is tough for your body to break down and metabolise,  if you want to eliminate fructose from your diet, coconut sugar is not for you.  While it does contain small amounts of other nutrients found in the coconut palm, including fibre, they are only present in very small amounts.

Courtesy John Getty images
Photo courtesy Getty Images

Date Sugar
Calories: 11 per teaspoon
Made by drying fresh, pitted dates and crushing them into a powder, date sugar has 25 percent fewer calories than table sugar and is nearly twice as sweet (which further reduces the calories, because you’ll need to use less of it). Dates are also packed with fiber, Vitamin C, and essential minerals such as selenium, copper, and potassium.

Photo courtesy Getty Images
Photo courtesy Getty Images

Calories: 21 per teaspoon
Honey gets its sweetness from the monosaccharides fructose and glucose, and has about the same relative sweetness as sugar, so can easily be substituted for sugar in many recipes.

Photo courtesy Getty Images
Photo courtesy Getty Images

Maple syrup
Calories: 52 per tablespoon
Made by boiling and concentrating the sap of maple trees to form a naturally sweet syrup, maple syrup is two-thirds sucrose, meaning it contains one-third less sucrose than refined sugar. In most recipes you can substitute sugar with maple syrup, though you may need to slightly reduce other liquid amounts.  Ensure that you’re buying the real thing as opposed to maple-flavoured syrup which is just flavoured refined sugar syrup.

Rice Malt Syrup
Calories: 55 per tablespoon
Also known as brown rice syrup, it is made by processing brown rice to form a thick, sugary syrup by which time it bears very little resemblance to brown rice. This is less refined than table sugar, low on the glycemic index, and made of slow-digesting carbs that enter your bloodstream steadily during a couple hours, versus the almost immediate uptake of table sugar. Whilst it doesn’t contain any fructose it does contain a fair amount of glucose.

Stevia leaf extract
Calories: 0
Although it might sound like an artificial sweetener, this is actually a natural sugar substitute derived from the leaves of the South American stevia plant. Because it has no calories or carbs it’s probably one of your best options

Photo courtesy Getty Images
Photo courtesy Getty Images

So, you can see that when people say they’ve given up ‘sugar’ they’ve really just substituted one sweetener for another.  My advice: avoid processed, refined foods and limit your intake of substitutes.