Is there such a thing as a 'healthy' sugar choice?
An article doing the rounds from Huffington Post yesterday outlined why all sugar - raw, organic, maple, agave, coconut etc deserve to be lumped into one big, 'bad' sugar cube.
The World Health Organisation is keen to introduce a recommendation to reduce sugar consumption to 5% of our daily intake, or 6 teaspoons. This is all sugar except whole fruit.
This, whilst difficult to do for most people, is definitely a step in the right direction. It's also in line with what the article was saying. Regardless of what sugar substitute you use, if its a nutritive sweetener i.e. contains calories, then it's made up of sugar molecules - glucose, sucrose, fructose, etc. This means if you eat it, it can contribute to tooth decay; and obesity if you overdo it.
If you look at sugar purely from a calorie/obesity/tooth decay perspective, then it doesn't really matter what sugar choice you use. Healthy treats should still be just that - a treat. An occasional food that you have to indulge or celebrate. You'd be using it so rarely that the vitamins and minerals you'd get from it would only make up a skerrick of your total diet. So refined sugar or not, it wouldn't make much of a dint in your health.
So does this mean you should revert back to the cheap refined table sugar in baking and coffee?
No. Because despite being made by various combinations of the same building blocks, different sugar crystals and syrups available on the shelves have different properties. Plus the majority of us have a sweet tooth that rears its crown far more often than the rare treat.
Lets look at GI - glycaemic index.
- Agave syrup: low GI (10-19), high fructose
- Fructose powder: low GI (11-23), pure fructose
- Coconut sugar: low GI (35), mainly sucrose, then glucose and fructose
- Maple syrup: low GI (54)
- Golden syrup: moderate GI (63)
- Honey - good quality, pure: low-moderate GI (35-58), high fructose
- Raw sugar, organic sugar, table sugar (sucrose- a combination of glucose and fructose): moderate-high GI (58-84)
- Rice malt syrup (45 per cent maltose, 52 per cent maltotriose, 3 per cent glucose): high GI (98)
- Glucose syrup: high GI (96-114)
Notice how the fructose content relates to the GI? That's because fructose is metabolised differently. It goes via the liver, and therefore doesn't have such a rapid impact on insulin and blood sugar as glucose does.
Research shows a low GI diet can help reduce risk of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease by improving blood glucose and lipid levels, reducing insulin levels and insulin resistance. It can also help people manage their weight by delaying hunger and helping to control their appetite.
Fructose content a little more in-depth
Those anti-fructose will tell you that due to the way it's absorbed in the body, we tend to over consume it. A lot of these studies that support this theory come from America. These studies are specifically examining the fructose molecule - and in forms such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and in doses the majority of us Aussies generally wouldn't consume in a food. The reason? HFCS is a syrup added to processed foods…….predominately in America. When was the last time you saw corn syrup or HFCS in a product on Aussie shelves that wasn't imported from the US? Yes HFCS is an issue, but it's not very common in Australia.
Besides this. Tell me please, which processed food ISN'T easy to over eat? They have teams of scientists putting together food creations to MAKE them 'addictive'. They consider texture, sweetness, crumb, saltiness, colours, flavour intensity and pairings, and they continually adapt it and test it on groups of the population until they hit that 'sweet spot' where we find them totally moreish. Most processed food is a science, and big manufacturers have nailed it. This is NOT fructose's fault alone.
So what exactly is fructose?
Fructose is the 'fruit sugar'. It's natural form comes from fruit. When we eat natural fruit, we consume a host of essential vitamins and minerals, fibre, and phytonutrients that prevent illness and disease, and help our bodies to function optimally. Cutting fruit out of your diet because HFCS is added to a tonne of American processed foods just doesn't add up.
Consuming 2 serves of fruit a day - the equivalent of 2 small mandarins and a banana, or 1 apple and 2 apricots, or a handful of sultanas and a large peach, has always been recommended as part of a healthy diet. This recommendation still stands, and is backed by copious amounts of research supporting the health benefits of eating fruit.
GI isn't the be all and end all as a high GI food can be affected by the foods you eat with it. More on that another day. I'm also going to skip over calories, because as most of you know, I'm not really into that - plus maths isn't my strong point.
So let's look at the good stuff. Nutrients.
I need to clear something up before we get into this.
All sugar alternatives are processed to some degree.
Agave, maple, rice malt syrup and even stevia - they have all be processed in order for you to be able to eat it as a syrup or in stevia's case, a powder or tablet. This is essential: 1 - to meet food health and safety regulations, and 2 - simply for us to be able to eat it.
The issue is how refined it is. Refining a food means you're stripping it down. Imagine yourself outside all rugged up in winter with plenty of layers. You step inside and you remove about 3 or 4. You're not left with much on. Same goes for food. You take something all wrapped up (usually in the best bits for our health) and you strip it down. It's easier to digest, easier for us to use in cooking, and quite often, easier for us to overeat.
So let's take a look:
- Agave syrup: processed, refined syrup - minimal amounts of nutrients, plant-based (vegan friendly), and one of the poorest levels of antioxidant activity for an alternative sweetener.
- Fructose powder: processed, refined, straight up fructose - really nothing else.
- Coconut sugar: processed syrup or dehydrated into crystals - contains small amounts of zinc, iron, magnesium, and B-vitamins. Plus inulin - a prebiotic fibre for gut health.
- Maple syrup: processed syrup, go for the pure kind, not the flavoured variety - plant-based, contains manganese, potassium, iron and calcium in small amounts plus a moderate level of antioxidants.
- Golden syrup: 'pure' is derived from molasses, contains sugar and water - no real benefits.
- Honey - good quality, pure: moderate antioxidants, and tiny amounts of B vitamins. If you use a good quality manuka it also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Raw sugar, organic sugar, table sugar: minimal antioxidant activity, highly refined and processed - no real benefit.
- Rice malt syrup: processed from brown rice flour or starch, and often claimed to be low GI in many websites (often referencing the I Quit Sugar website as their info source). It's not true! It has a higher GI than regular table sugar!! I'm really not sure where IQS got their details from but a quick search of the GI database, and you'll see it's high. Trace amounts of vitamins and minerals if any.
- Glucose syrup: high GI (96-114), refined, processed - no benefits.
So what do you choose?
I live by the food motto of make every mouthful count. Hence the reason why I'd opt for maple syrup, coconut sugar or honey as my sugar alternatives. They contain the most nutrient bang for my buck, and they're low to moderate GI, meaning I'm not going to suffer a major blood sugar crash shortly after consuming it.
Unfortunately, I have sensitivities to fructose, and if you do too (i.e. irritable bowel syndrome, fructose malabsorption, or hereditary fructose intolerance), that narrows it down to maple syrup as the sweetener of choice. It's lower in fructose making it low FODMAP. Coconut sugar is also a good alternative but best to be avoided if you can't tolerate fructans.
Bottom line: Eat less sugar; have your 2 serves of fruit a day; and if you're going to indulge - either enjoy the traditional version (with refined sugar) on the rare occasion, or use maple syrup, coconut sugar or honey to sweeten.