Sugar. The white stuff. We all know it’s bad for us, but there’s so much confusing and contradictory information out there (like whether we should be avoiding fruit because of its sugar content) that it can be tempting to bury your head under the sand (and continue eating that piece of cake)!
So, is all sugar bad for you? And does this mean you can never have dessert again?!
Well, the short answer is: no, not all sugar is created equal.
When we talk about sugar being bad for our health, we’re talking specifically about refined sugar. This is the stereotypical white stuff that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘sugar’.
But, it’s not that simple unfortunately (otherwise there wouldn’t be so much confusion!).
As well as white (cane) sugar, refined sugar also refers to brown sugar, confectioners' sugar (icing sugar), and demerara sugar, as well as certain syrups such as high fructose corn syrup, golden syrup, glucose-fructose syrup, evaporated cane juice, and more. What makes it harder for people who are trying to eat healthily is that sugar can be ‘hidden’ in packaged/processed foods under other names that people might not be aware of, such as ‘glucose’ and ‘glucose syrup’.
You can see how difficult it becomes to avoid refined (or ‘added’) sugar! And yet doing so is one of the single most important things we can do for all aspects of our health.
Sugar is one of the most inflammatory foods in our modern diets, it is linked to skin and gut issues, it may be as addictive as cocaine, and is a major contributing factor for obesity and diabetes. It can also raise blood pressure, help feed cancer, cause attention and behavioural problems in children... you get the picture!
What’s the best thing you can do for your health? Stay away from all white powders!
And it’s not just sweet foods that sugar gets added to. Many savoury processed/packaged foods also contain sugar, such as pasta sauces, pickles, mayonnaise, ready meals, and – more insidiously – even products marketed as ‘health foods’, such as protein bars, falafel, and hummus! That’s why learning to read labels might be one of the most important things you can do for your – and your family’s - health (if you need support with this, get in touch).
But I said that not all sugars are created equal. That’s because not all types of sugar are detrimental to your health. You can think of it more like a gradient, from worst (white, refined sugar) to least damaging to your health (some of these may be even beneficial, in moderation). The main way that many people, including myself, rank these sugar substitutes is using the Glycemic Index (GI). This measures how quickly (and how high) the particular substance raises your blood sugar level (we want to choose foods that don’t spike our blood sugar levels, and instead provide a slow and steady release of energy). The GI is a scale from 0 to 100 (since white sugar is pure carbohydrate it has a value of 100), so the lower the value the better (ideally we want to eat foods that are below 60). Following a low GI diet has been shown to not only protect against various diseases, but even reverse them.
While the GI isn’t perfect (it doesn’t take into account the quantity of that product that is typically eaten in one portion, for example), it provides a quick and easy to understand guide to help you choose between certain types of carbs.
With that said, here are my top substitutes for refined sugar, based on their GI score, as well as their health and nutritional value:
1. Coconut sugar
This is a great option to use as a direct substitute for white sugar in baking and in tea or coffee, as it comes in granulated form (although you can also buy it as a syrup if you prefer). It has a slight caramel taste, which works really well in most recipes, but if you want something completely neutral you might want to try xylitol or stevia (see below).
Dates are like nature’s candy! They are super sweet, and yet are still fairly low on the GI index, as well as being full of minerals and fibre. I also love that it’s a whole food, making it the least processed of all the options I’ve listed here. I personally love medjool dates the best, as they are super sticky and delicious! You can eat them straight as they are (or fill them with a little peanut or almond butter and freeze for 10 minutes for a healthy Snickers-like bite!) as a treat, or add them to smoothies, but if you need to bake with them you would need to blend them first in a little water to make a paste (or you can also buy date paste/date syrup). They obviously don’t work in recipes where you specifically need a dried powder, in which case you’d need one of the other options on the list.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, like xylitol and maltitol, made from corn or wheat starch. However, unlike other sugar alcohols it doesn’t seem to cause the same digestive problems (unless eaten in large quantities). It contains 0 calories, while still tasting 70% as sweet as sugar. What's even better is that it doesn’t spike blood sugar or insulin, it may contain antioxidants, and may even protect against dental cavities. Since it’s primarily made from corn, you may want to opt for organic or non-GMO erythritol, since corn (especially in the US) is often genetically modified.
Xylitol is also a sugar alcohol that is low in calories and low on the GI. It gained attention in the natural health community because of its beneficial effects on dental health. As a sugar alcohol, it can cause digestive issues for some people, so I would avoid it if you have IBS, and generally only consume it in small amounts. I would also point out that it is highly toxic to dogs even in small amount, so I would not have any at home if you have furred friends living there.
Stevia comes from the leaves of the stevia plant (hence why it can be green – less processed – or a white powder – more processed), and usually comes in either powder or liquid form. It is almost 300 times sweeter than sugar so you only need a tiny amount (usually around ¼ tsp). Some people complain of an unpleasant aftertaste so you might want to try using it in a smaller recipe before buying a ton of the stuff! Like the sugar alcohols, it can also cause indigestion if consumed in large amounts, and it’s also not recommended for people with low blood pressure because it acts as a vasodilator.
Other notable options: I want to mention briefly that monkfruit, lucuma and yacon also appear to be really good options health-wise, but as they are not widely (or at all!) available in the UK I haven’t included them on the list!
What about sweeteners?
Other than the ones I’ve listed, I would stay away from artificial sweeteners (such as isomalt, sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, etc.) in general. Although they are often zero calorie, and reportedly better for dental health than sugar, there is some research that suggests they may be just as bad for your health as sugar (if not worse). This is partly because they taste sweet which therefore stimulates the appetite, but then the body does not receive the calories it expects, and therefore drives you to eat more (this is overly simplified but you get the idea). Artificial sweeteners may also contribute to insulin resistance, as well as digestive problems as they disrupt the (good) gut bacteria. My feeling is that, while the jury is still out on artificial sweeteners, it’s better to air on the side of caution and avoid them.
One of the simplest but most profound things you can do for your health is to opt for food that is in its whole, natural form (or as close as possible) and avoid processed, man-made foods.
So does this mean you can’t ever have dessert?
No, it doesn’t! It’s about making healthy swaps, and taking baby steps towards our health goals.
So, if you’re baking or making desserts at home, try swapping refined sugar for one of the healthier sugars I mentioned above (apple sauce is also a great addition to baking which adds a natural sweetness).
And if you’re buying packaged or processed foods (including savoury items), learn to read food labels: look for ones that say ‘no added sugar’ (but check the ingredients list for sweeteners!) or that are sweetened with unrefined sugars (like those on my list), and avoid those with refined sugar (which can be disguised by many different names, as we’ve seen).
If you need more tips on how to reduce sugar cravings, or to read food and nutrition labels, book in for a free consultation with me. And if you’d like recipe ideas for (refined) sugar-free desserts, let me know!