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Sweet enough

Sugar is fast becoming one of the biggest food baddies we are all exposed to, but how can you navigate a path to healthier sweetness? Rude Health asks the experts

Empty calories

“Sugar being bad for you has hit the headlines massively lately,” says Sally Smith of Open Sesame in Ennis, Co Clare and Gort, Co Galway, “But health food stores have been saying this for years.”

“Sugar is not required by the body at all,” says Angela McGlanaghey of Simple Simon, Donegal town. “It is highly addictive and when not used up in the body it’s stored as fat.”

“We’ve been hooked on sugar ever since it was introduced to Europe in the 16th century from the American tropics, and we simply eat too much of it,” says Jill Bell from Well and Good in Midleton, Co Cork. “It is ubiquitous in processed foods, not to mention fizzy drinks. It rots our teeth, makes us fat, causes diabetes by damaging insulin production and is linked with cancer, heart disease, liver malfunction and poor immunity. Being poor in nutrients, it uses up the body’s stores of B vitamins and minerals as it is metabolised, leaving us tired and craving another sugar fix.”

Diabetes and nutrition specialist Mary McGovern who sees clients in Tubbercurry, Sligo and Mohill, Co Leitrim says, “Sugar is half glucose and half fructose. Glucose is essential and can be metabolised by most cells in the body. Fructose is not essential and can only be metabolised by the liver. Most of the fructose sent to the liver gets turned into fat leading in turn to weight gain. Many people use sugary foods as a reward and then become addicted to the feeling.”

Sugar alternatives


“Probably the current favourite sugar-substitute is xylitol, derived originally from birch bark but now mainly from non-GM corn,” says Jill Bell. “It is very low in calories and fructose, has the same sweetness as sugar and no after-taste, so can be used in place of sugar except when yeast is in the recipe.”

“Xylitol is great for the teeth and is now in toothpastes and useful for baking,” says Sally Smith.

“For commercial purposes xylitol comes from two sources - corn cobs and trees,” says Mary McGovern. “It is a common ingredient in sugar-free chewing gums and has about a third of the calories of regular sugar.”


“Undoubtedly the healthiest sugar-substitute is stevia,” says Jill Bell. “Extracted from the leaf of a South American plant, it is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It has almost zero calories and no fructose, but the drawback is the taste which is bitter. Stevia is the only sugar that is completely safe for use by type 1 diabetics.”

“Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the plant species stevia rebaudiana,” says Mary McGovern. “It is a natural sweetener which is suitable for use in teas and hot drinks. It doesn’t contain any calories.”


“Most health food stores treasure their local honey producers,” says Jill Bell. “Honey is full of vitamins and enzymes, so it is a much healthier and tastier alternative to sugar and has antibacterial properties which are great for sore throats.”

“Local raw honey has more nutrients than sugar but is a no-no for diabetics,” says Sally Smith.

Agave syrup

“Agave syrup has become very popular, used because of its flavour on cereals, snacks, biscuits and health bars,” says Jill Bell. “Dark agave is thicker and richer than the lighter type which makes it delicious as a drizzle, leaving the lighter type for baking.”

Coconut sugar

“Coconut sugar tastes rather like demerara sugar,” says Jill Bell. “It is highly processed, has a similar carbohydrate and calorie content to sugar, but is low in fructose and low GI.”

“There is a bit of controversy around coconut sugar,” says Sally Smith, “because it seems to have a higher GI (glycaemic index) than first thought.”

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 is far less refined. Retains much of the mineral content that is stripped from white sugar.

Cinnamon – sweet and supports insulin production.

Liquorice tea – can satisfy the craving for a regular sweetened cuppa.

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.

How to read the label

“Labels are deliberately misleading as manufacturers attempt to obscure names for sugar,” says Jill Bell. “Basically any ingredient which ends in ‘ose’ is likely to be sugar: sucrose, glucose, dextrose, maltose etc. The recommended adult intake of sugar is a maximum of 30g per day, but it’s all too easy to overdose if you buy processed foods such as breakfast cereals.”

“The closer sugar is listed to the start of the ingredients, the more sugar the food contains,” says Mary McGovern. “The nutritional information tells you how much of each nutrient the food product contains per 100g, or per 100ml of fluid. It can be listed per serving, for example per bar, per slice, per pot of yogurt. The easiest way to compare the nutrient content of similar foods is to check the nutrient content per 100g or per 100ml. A guide for sugar is as follows: High: More than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g. Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g.”

“Beware that some processed foods not only have added sugar but also sweeteners, particularly low fat products, as they have to replace the fat with something and sugar is a cheap alternative with a sweet disguising taste,” says Angela McGlanaghey.

Mary McGovern B.Sc. Dip. NT mBANT CNHC Reg, Diabetes and Nutrition Specialist

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