‘Quitting sugar’ has become increasing popular over the year, and for good reason. We know that a diet high in sugar, combined with consuming excess energy, leads to weight gain and metabolic problems in the long term. If you’re a self-proclaimed sweet tooth, reducing the sugar from your diet, particularly from foods such as soft drink, lollies, cakes, biscuits and slices can be a challenging step to take. Those who embark on the sugar-free journey often find themselves exploring a new breed of recipe – The world of ‘sugar-free’ and therefore ‘guilt-free’ treats. Now you can apparently have your cake and eat it too – completely sugar free!
Unfortunately, most of the sweet recipes claiming they’re sugar free, are actually misleading you and are often not ‘sugar free’ at all. Just because a recipe doesn’t contain white sugar (the sweet white granules you buy at the supermarket) doesn’t mean it’s sugar free. Most natural sweeteners are made up of some kind of sugar.
If sugar, (the same as any other nutrient) is consumed in excess of your body’s needs, it will result in weight gain and detrimental health in the future. If you’re baking biscuits, cake, a slice or bliss balls, just because you swap brown sugar for agave nectar or white sugar for barley malt syrup doesn’t mean that it’s now ‘better’ than it was before. Overall, the baked goods and desserts are still high in energy and low in nutrition when compared to other foods and should be moderated, regardless of the type of sugar that they use.
To explain this further and hopefully leave you feeling more intelligent and less confused by the end of this article we need to do a quick little lesson on what sugar actually is.
Sugar is a nutrient. Its primary role within the body is to provide cells with energy. It’s part of the carbohydrate family, along with starch and fibre. Sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruit, vegetables, honey, wholegrains and dairy. We also process and refine certain plants (like cane or rice) to concentrate their sugars and create sweeteners.
Whilst discussing sugar in this article I’m going to be referring to one or all of its three major types: fructose, glucose, and galactose (known as monosaccharides). When nutritionists and dietitians talk about sugar being bad for our health, they’re talking about the effect that these three molecules have on the body when they’re consumed in excess.
These three little sugars like to hold hands with each other occasionally and create what’s known as disaccharides and trisaccharides. The bonds between these sugars are broken during digestion so the individual sugars can be absorbed. These combinations include:
Sucrose: glucose and fructose
Maltose: glucose and glucose
Lactose: galactose and glucose
Maltotriose: glucose and glucose and glucose (threesome)
When I refer to sweeteners I am talking about the different products and additives available to make your food sweet. Natural sweeteners are a combination of the sugars listed above and are often made from a process whereby the natural sugars of plants are extracted and concentrated by either a heat, mechanical or chemical process. The majority of these sugars are not naturally occurring and required some kind of processing or refining to make them.
Common natural sweeteners include:
Table sugar (white sugar) – resembles small white granules of different sizes made up of sucrose and is extracted and processed from cane (sugarcane). This is the most common type of sugar used in Australia. We have a huge industry that grows, processes and exports it.
Brown sugar – is a brown, fine sugar made up of sucrose that retains some of the molasses whilst processing the cane. This gives it its characteristic flavour and aroma. It holds more moisture than regular table sugar. It’s no healthier or better than white sugar.
Raw sugar – resembles light brown granules made up of sucrose with a small amount of molasses from processing. The sugar is allowed to form large crystals during processing similar to table sugar. It’s no healthier or better than white sugar.
Rapadura sugar – is a fine textured, brown coloured sugar made up of mainly sucrose and is made from evaporated cane juice. The cane is crushed and the juice is extracted and dried. No other processing occurs to the sugar. It has the same amount of calories as processed sugar but contains a small amount of nutrition (vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants). It could be an OK swap for table sugar, but still only eat it occasionally. Despite the extra nutrition, which is not very much, the sugar is still treated the same by the body.
Golden syrup – is the by-product of refining cane sugar and has a thick, viscous texture. It contains sucrose and also fructose and glucose separately. It has quite a distinct flavour and aroma. It’s no healthier or better than white sugar.
Molasses – is a very thick and strong flavoured syrup and is the by-product of sugar manufacturing. It is basically what is leftover after the sugar is extracted. It contains sucrose and also fructose and glucose separately. It also contains water, other carbohydrates and other components. It’s no healthier or better than white sugar. It requires moderation just like other sweeteners.
Honey – is a naturally occurring sweetener made by bees. It’s made up of mainly fructose and glucose separately with a tiny bit of sucrose. It may contain anti-bacterial properties, but overall is not any healthier or better than white sugar. Due to it’s high fructose content, it’s much sweeter than white sugar and so you can use less but still get the same level of sweetness.
Brown rice malt syrup – is a modified sugar created by fermenting brown rice. It’s a common sweetener for ‘I Quit Sugar’ devotees that claim it’s made up of complex carbohydrate. Brown rice syrup is made primarily from maltose and maltotriose. Maltotriose is three molecules as opposed to two, hence the reason for using the claim: complex carbohydrate. From a digestion perspective, however, maltotriose is hardly more complex than the sucrose in table sugar and should be moderated all the same.
Coconut sugar or Coconut palm sugar – is a sugar extract, created from the nectar of the flowers of a palm tree. Although it’s unrefined, it is a very pure form of sugar. It’s made up of primarily sucrose with smaller amounts of glucose and fructose. It has quite a pleasant taste and aroma. It’s no healthier or better than table sugar.
Agave syrup or nector – is a syrup derived from the agave plant. Lots of chemicals are used in its production making claims of it’s ‘naturalness’ somewhat misleading. It can be made up of up to 95% fructose. It’s no healthier or better than table sugar.
Barley malt syrup – is a dark, malty flavoured syrup that’s made by cooking sprouted barley malt. It’s made up of 60% maltose and also contains soluble fibre which is unlike all the other sweeteners above. It’s not as sweet as other products and often more is needed to achieve the desired level of sweetness. It could be a good alternative to table sugar, but be mindful of how much you’re using. If you’re using more, than it is no healthier or better than table sugar.
*Please note* – This article does not go into the complex, biochemical debate of fructose and how it may be the sugar that we all need to be avoiding. Appropriate interpretation of the research would suggest a moderated approach to all sugars rather than singling out one as worse than another.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be.
From a metabolic (how the body breaks down the sugar) perspective, it does not matter what type of sweetener these sugars come from. If you consume too much of any of them and are eating more energy than your body needs, you’ll put on weight over time and be at risk of poor health.
This is also true for consuming too much fruit, especially from juice and/or dried fruits. For example: A ‘sugar free’ recipe that contains dates as the sweetener (which are very high in sugar) is not a sugar free recipe at all.
If you’re finding recipes that contain the sweeteners above, yet say ‘sugar free’ or ‘refined sugar free’, they’re misleading you. Authors will also often give these recipes names like: ‘guilt free’ or ‘skinny’ as a way of getting you to think that they’re healthier, when in reality they’re often not.
I think there’s a huge desire to find the ‘magic bullet’. We want to have our cake and eat it too but we don’t want to put on weight or put ourselves at risk of poor health. So, we find ourselves blindly following wellness blogs, so-called ‘experts’ and others claiming to have a ‘sugar-free’ recipe, possibly named: ‘guilt free fudgy chocolate bliss balls that taste like brownies’, and hope that it’s going to be the missing piece we’ve been searching for.
Rather than trying to find a way to eat cake everyday, I believe we should start to work towards being happy to just eat cake on occasion. You also don’t have to ‘quit’ sugar completely, just reduce your daily intake through prioritising your intake of nutrient rich foods and only grabbing something sweet to eat on occasions.
Here are a few tips for managing sugar cravings and decreasing your intake of high sugar, highly processed foods:
- Stay well hydrated with water, so you’re not thirsty and craving sweet drinks like soft drink, juice or cordial.
- Fill up on vegetables. Don’t ever be concerned about the starch or sugar content of certain vegetables. The fibre and fluid content of vegetables gives your body the ability to feel full and moderate it’s appetite better. Eat lots, eat a variety or colours, chew them whole and learn exciting ways to cook them.
- Have whole foods on hand to snack on: nuts, natural yoghurt, apples, bananas, carrot sticks, etc
- Don’t keep unhelpful foods in the house. Often our cravings for high sugar foods is just about the food always being available and being in a bad habit of always reaching for something sweet. Give yourself a couple of weeks without this kind of food available and you’ll train your body to not ‘need’ it any more.
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