So in our last blog we explained why sugar is bad for us, but we didn’t just want to stop there. We thought you might like to know which of the alternatives are “healthy” and which aren’t. So here’s our guide to the good, the bad and the ugly, beginning with the ugliest of them all, sweeteners!
Sweeteners – this is one category that definitely isn’t healthy. Chemically derived, sweeteners should be avoided. Research has shown they cause an even greater insulin response, therefore causing your blood sugar to drop even more than sugar! What’s more, some studies have suggested that sweeteners such as sucralose may cause cancer, damage to the brain and nervous system and reduction in beneficial bacteria in the gut. Apart from all of that, sweeteners can make your body think that you’ve consumed sugar but as the sweeteners don’t contain calories, the mechanism that would normally turn off your appetite once you’ve received the calories doesn’t get activated and your body continues to hunt for calories, causing you to eat more! Ironic then, that so many ‘diet foods’ contain sweeteners. And to all those people we meet who say “but I only drink diet fizzy drinks……” this is why we still recommend cutting them out.
Agave Syrup – this is in quite a lot of ‘health’ food but is agave syrup actually healthy? That’s debatable. It’s sweeter than sugar and is made from juice extracted from the Agave plant, then heated and concentrated to form the syrupy texture. It’s mainly fructose, so just like high fructose corn syrup still has the potential to damage our health. For this reason, it’s not one of our sweeteners of choice.
Xylitol – it seems to be everywhere and is used in toothpastes, chewing gum and even medical products. It’s believed to be beneficial for our oral and nasal health, for reducing the incidence of ear infections and is suitable for diabetics due to the negligible effect it has on blood sugar. It’s also low in calories so good for weight loss. But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Well, xylitol is derived from xylose, which is found in many foods but is usually obtained either from the bark of a Birch tree or from a corn cob. Xylose is converted to xylitol by the process of hydrogenation, most often using nickel in the hydrogenation process. Whilst very small amounts of nickel are considered non-toxic (and in superior xylitol brands the nickel content is measured to be 20 times lower than the limit set by food safety authorities), some people can be sensitive to it and in very high amounts nickel has been found to be harmful to health. So at the end of the day, whilst xylitol starts its journey as a natural substance it is produced using chemical means so isn’t quite as natural as we’re led to believe, although some brands are definitely better than others! There is one but…if you are substituting sugar in a cake recipe you’re usually going to be better using xylitol if you want a cake consistency. Using syrup in something like our Orange and Carrot cake just wouldn’t work!
Stevia – extracted from the Stevia plant, this is a sweetener that has been used for hundreds of years in some parts of South America and since the early 1970s in Japan. It has been touted as a healthy sweetener for many years but was only recently deemed safe and accepted for use in the United States and Europe; however, the whole stevia plant has not been given the green light in the United States, only certain highly processed versions which incidentally contain sugar as well, produced by two well-known drinks manufacturers. Although much sweeter to taste than sugar, stevia is not absorbed so has practically no impact on blood sugar and is calorie free. Whilst reviews of studies confirm that stevia is safe and it has been demonstrated to be safe in South America and Japan by its extensive use without any seemingly ill effects, a small amount of research suggests it may be mutagenic in high amounts, and WHO has recommended that 4mg per kg of body weight is an acceptable daily amount. We recommend you avoid most stevia products as they have been highly processed but a small amount of the raw form may be acceptable occasionally.
Honey – naturally derived, honey tastes as sweet as sugar and can have a significant impact on blood sugar but it does depend on the type of honey and its fructose and glucose content. Whilst it is low in nutrients some research suggests it may be beneficial for hay fever and may have antimicrobial effects. Whilst there are lots of different varieties of honey, many have been processed, either pasteurised or filtered, which removes some of its benefits. Some even have corn syrup or cane sugar added. However, try to obtain raw honey, which has generally not been processed at all, and make sure you eat it in moderation.
Rice bran syrup – made from fermented cooked rice and also known as brown rice syrup or rice malt syrup, like honey it is empty calories. However, in contrast to honey, rice bran syrup is pretty much pure glucose and this means it has an extremely high GI of 98 (GI stands for Glycaemic Index and is a measure of how quickly a food raises blood sugar compared to glucose). Ok, it doesn’t contain fructose, which is deemed to be more damaging than glucose but it still has the potential to cause insulin resistance if you’re having lots of it. So our advice is to avoid it if you can and if you do have it choose organic. Why is this? Rice naturally contains arsenic as it absorbs arsenic from the soil it grows in. Although there are variations in different rice products and it may only be in low amounts, you don’t want to add to it with toxins from pesticides too. In fact, this goes for everything we recommend, organic is best!
Maple syrup – there are a number of benefits to having maple syrup over sugar. Firstly, it’s extracted naturally and undergoes very little processing. It also contains some minerals such as calcium, zinc and iron. It has a lower GI so doesn’t raise blood sugar as much as sugar does. Research has also found that maple syrup is a source of antioxidants, which help to reduce inflammation and a person’s risk of disease; in fact, it contains over 20 different antioxidants and the darker the maple syrup the more antioxidants it contains. Despite this, it is still a type of sugar so should be used sparingly. Also beware, there is something out there called maple flavoured syrup, which tends to contain sugar or sweeteners so avoid this and only go for pure maple syrup.
Coconut sugar – although like palm sugar it comes from the palm tree, it is taken from the cut flowers of the coconut palm rather than the stems of other varieties of palm. It undergoes very little processing and contains some nutrients such as zinc, iron, calcium and potassium. It’s GI is party to much debate but it does seem that it has less of an impact on blood sugar than normal sugar, but this may be down to the fibre it contains which slows down it’s absorption in the gut and therefore the rate at which blood sugar is raised. Whilst it has less of an impact on blood sugar it contains a significant amount of fructose so is potentially damaging to our health, so we don’t recommend it.
Date syrup – just as you’d expect, date syrup is derived from dates and has been used for many years in the Middle East. It is unrefined and contains a long list of nutrients including B vitamins, iron, vitamin K and magnesium. Dates are reported to have several health benefits and have a low GI; however, they are high in fructose so…you’ve guessed it, should be eaten in moderation!
Blackstrap molasses – one of the most nutrient rich of all the alternative natural sweeteners, blackstrap molasses are made from the juice of the sugar cane, which after being boiled three times results in this thick, black syrupy type substance. It has been sold as a health food for many years due to its high content of vitamins and minerals, particularly its levels of iron, which means it can be good for someone with iron-deficiency anaemia. It is also reported to have many other health benefits and another plus is that it has a very low sugar content due to the repeated boiling process. It does still raise blood sugar with a moderate GI of 55 but is more slowly absorbed than sugar. However, one cautionary note, ensure you choose unsulphured blackstrap molasses, as this means they haven’t had sulphur dioxide added, an antimicrobial agent which is used to increase their shelf-life.
The Yacon plant is a tuber grown in South America, and looking very much like a sweet potato, it has been used for many years by South Americans for medicinal purposes. Now the new kid on the block in the world of healthy eating, it’s making its mark as a possible weight loss aid. Yacon syrup is made by extracting the juice from the roots of the plant, filtering it and then evaporating it to form a syrup like substance, very similar to maple syrup, and like maple syrup it is manufactured without using chemicals. It is a rich source of Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), molecules that are not digested and help to feed good bacteria in the gut, and because it is not digested it is low in calories. It is suggested that FOS can also lower ghrelin, a hormone that helps to reduce appetite. Overall, it is believed that Yacon syrup may help to reduce weight, lower insulin resistance and improve intestinal health, although the research is limited. Whilst it does seem to be a good alternative to sugar, people with bacterial overgrowth in the gut should be careful as FOS can make matters worse. It’s also not suitable for heating at high temperatures so should not be used to bake with. However, we have been lucky enough to try raw chocolate sweetened with yacon and we were impressed! If you’d like to give it a try take a look at Adam’s Fresh Chocolate. You can also buy Yacon porridge and muesli from Goodness Direct.
Another native of South America, Lucuma is a fruit with a yellowy flesh and is regarded by Peruvians, and as far back as the Incas, as a symbol of fertility. The fruit is dehydrated at low temperatures and crushed into a powder. It tastes similar to maple syrup and is a good source of many different vitamins and minerals including beta-carotene, B vitamins, iron, potassium and calcium. It has a low glycaemic index (GI) and has been shown to lower blood sugar levels, as well as benefit skin health and heal wounds. In fact, so good is its benefits that one research organisation tried to patent it! Lucuma is very versatile so can be used in anything from cakes to smoothies!
At Eat Real and Heal, our ethos is gluten free, processed sugar free and it’s reassuring to see that there are one or two healthy alternatives to sugar. However, it’s clear that there are many ‘healthy’ alternatives that aren’t healthy after all and certainly some that are far from natural, so we recommend you choose your sweeteners wisely. We hope this blog has given you some insight into what is good and what is not so good but even if you choose one of the better ones such as lucuma or yacon, we still recommend you use them in moderation! In fact, Sarah found as she changed her eating habits her taste buds actually changed and what was once “just sweet” is now “way too sweet”.
For the occasional sweet treat, using one or two of the natural alternatives we’ve recommended here, see our recipes!