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Scrap the sugar

Sugar used to be a treat and for special occasions, now it is hard to escape it. Rude Health magazine asks health store experts for their tips on healthy alternatives

Why is sugar bad for us?

“Sugar can be bad for the teeth, causes inflammation throughout the body, is a leading cause of weight gain, can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, puts pressure on the pancreas and can lead to type 2 diabetes,” says Sian Eustace of health store Healing Harvest in Kinvara, Co Clare.

“Eating sugar upsets the balance of so many systems in our body,” says Hannah Dare of health store and café Organico, in Bantry, Co Cork. “We all know it harms our teeth, and that it causes obesity and can add to inflammation in the body, but sugar consumption also causes premature ageing.”

Are we eating more than before?

“At the start of the 20th Century, it is estimated that people ate nearly no sugar at all - about 1tsp a year at most,” says Hannah Dare. “These days, we consume more like 60g or 12tsp a day. It’s a shocking rise and explains so much about our current state of health!”

“In the past, people would have found sweetness through things such as honey, tree syrups such as maple syrup and beech syrup, cereal malts, molasses and naturally sweet plants and nectars,” says Sian Eustace. “With the advent of refined sugars, we consume larger amounts of sugar, and it can be easy to have higher than recommended levels.”

How can we read the label to see how much is in foods?

“All processed foods will have a label showing ‘carbohydrates’, and then, ‘of which sugars’ with a number of grams per 100g of the food product,” says Sian Eustace. “As a rough rule, 4g of sugar relates to 1tsp. Checking the label and thinking of the amount of sugar in teaspoons can help you to decide if you want to take it or leave it.”

“The difficulties in reading labels comes from the fact that sugar comes under so many different names,” says Hannah Dare. “Some common forms of sugar are sucrose, lactose, fructose, glucose, maltose and dextrose.”

Sugar alternatives

Xylitol

“In its natural form, xylitol comes from birch and beech sap, though commercially it often comes from corn cobs,” says Sian Eustace. “It has a very low GI value and can be a useful sweetener for people with diabetes. The white powder is a refined product and should still be taken in limited amounts.”

“You will find xylitol in a lot of dental products, like chewing gums, toothpastes and mouthwashes, because it helps to eliminate the bacteria that causes plaque and tooth decay,” says Hannah Dare. “Too much of it can cause laxative effects. It is also poisonous to dogs.”

Stevia

“Stevia is natural, but because it has quite a bitter aftertaste it is often blended with other sugar,” says Hannah Dare. “When stevia is combined with erythritol, another sugar alcohol, it makes a good alternative to sugar for baking.”

“Stevia is a plant which grows in Brazil and Paraguay,” says Sian Eustace. “Its natural sweetness levels are much higher than those of sugar so less needs to be used to create the same sweetness. Stevia contains no calories and has a GI rating of 0 as the body does not metabolise it so it is useful for people with diabetes.”

Honey

“Honey is a natural sweetener and affects our blood sugar very quickly as it is a simple sugar, and should be used sparingly and bought with caution,” says Hannah Dare.

“Honey is a naturally-occurring product,” says Sian Eustace. “It contains both fructose and glucose, so levels need to be watched for people with diabetes. It has a lower GI than sugar and a higher sweetness index so less is needed to make something taste sweet. Honey contains vitamins and minerals and it also has antibacterial properties.”

Agave syrup

“Agave syrup has a low GI because it is lower in glucose than table sugar and thus a very popular alternative,” says Sian Eustace. “However, the low GI occurs because agave is high in fructose, and excessive fructose consumption is thought to put pressure on the liver. Agave is one to really limit and to avoid for people with diabetes.”

Coconut sugar

“Coconut sugar comes from the sap of the coconut palm tree and is then minimally treated to dry and make it a powder,” says Sian Eustace. “Some people may prefer to use it in baking due to its fruity flavour, however it is still a sugar and should be taken in moderation.”

“Coconut sugar contains some useful minerals and vitamins, so it is healthier than refined white sugar,” says Hannah Dare. “It tastes like brown sugar, and behaves the same way both in cooking and also in the way it affects our blood sugars. Choose organic coconut sugar.”

Molasses

“Molasses is a sticky black syrup-like product which is a by-product of sugar production,” says Sian Eustace. “When sugar cane or beet is boiled down three times, this is known as blackstrap molasses and sold in health food stores. It is a very dark colour, and has a strong bittersweet flavour. It contains a number of minerals and antioxidants, significant levels of magnesium, calcium and iron. It is not suitable for those who need to prevent rises in blood sugar levels.”

Other sweet alternatives

Rice syrup – tastes and feels similar to light agave syrup, but with zero fructose and more complex carbohydrates.

Rapadura sugar – can be used anywhere standard sugar is used, but far less refined. Retains much of the mineral content that is stripped from white sugar.

Cinnamon – sweet and supports insulin production.

Canadian maple syrup - low in fructose and high in antioxidants.

Barley malt extract – tastes malty and is used mainly in bread baking or stirred into a traditional bedtime drink.

Inulin – derived from chicory, a really healthy sweetener

Monk fruit extract – a new sweetener composed of substances called mogrosides which have antioxidant properties.

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