When we walk down a supermarket isle and take the time to read the label we are often confronted with a large list of ingredients, and those that are considered ‘natural’ or ‘sugar free’ are still with the addition of numerous sweeteners. But what are these sweet alternatives really? From sugar, sucralose, maple, agave and everything in between I thought I would explain what is what and the best use for them. I will leave the choice of which to use up to your now educated mind J
Sucrose – also known as white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar and rapadura sugar, whether you buy is raw or organic it is still sucrose. It contains a combination of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. This is the sugar that people typically use, but also becoming more important to avoid.
Agave – is a sugar commonly used in its liquid form. It is made from the same succulent native to Mexico that tequila is made from. It contains about 90% fructose. It is commonly found in health bars and chocolates. Agave, compared to sugar has a much lower GI index, ensuring there isn’t a sharp rise or fall in blood sugar levels. The sweetness levels of agave means about 1/3 of agave is needed compared to a serving of sugar. It contains health benefits such as immune boosting properties, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial and can be used to treat wounds, similar to how honey is. However the high fructose content does make it worrying according to health experts which can cause strain and pressure on the liver.
Coconut sugar/nectar and syrup – This one contains anywhere from 35-50% fructose. It is made by subtracting the sap from the coconut tree and boiling it down until it thickens and solidifies, much like palm sugar. Coconut sugar is low GI at 35 due to its content of Inulin fibre which can help slow the glucose absorption process. When comparing to normal sugar, coconut sugar actually has very high nutrients like zinc, iron, potassium, calcium as well as other antioxidants. However it does contain the same calories as normal sugar and about the same levels of fructose as well. So although it has many additional health benefits it still needs to be an in moderation diet addition.
Honey – this can be purchased in numerous forms, raw, organic, heated, flavoured, in its honey comb etc. But generally the only difference between the organic and non what is used to treat the product, what the bees collect their pollen from and the heating simply changes some of its properties. Honey still contains 40% fructose which is only 1-% less the sugar itself, so if the avoidance is fructose it is a better option, but not the best. Honey however is a naturally occurring substance that is made from the work of bees. Flavours can change based on the plants they feed off and it is a common addition in baking, desserts, as a syrup and even in tea. It is knows to have healing properties, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, varieties such as manuka honey have had a lot of spot light for this.
Maple syrup – Another natural occurring product, it is extracted similar to coconut and palm sugar in that it is drawn from the sap of the maple tree. Firstly originating from Canada, Pure maple syrup is becoming increasingly popular and for those that are trying to be health conscious there is now no added sugar flavoured maple syrup. While most in the health industry would prefer the calories and nutrition of the pure maple over a flavoured syrup it’s the no guilt factor of a flavour that allows a treat. The pure variety however is like honey at about 40% fructose. But does contain up to 54 antioxidants that are proven to help in preventing and delaying diseases, cancers and diabetes. It has high levels of zinc, magnesium, and increases the immune system. The beneficial classes of pure maple are comparable to berries, tomatoes, tea, red wine, whole wheat and flax. Pure maple syrup, especially if purchased in the states actually comes in grades. A and B. Grade A is either light, medium of dark amber while grade B is the darkest of them all. The darker the syrup the later in harvesting season he maple is extracted. The darker maples are used more in cooking while the lighter for direct consumption. But while it is a better option, again it’s still a sugar, so don’t drink the stuff.
Dates – These are being used increasingly as a sweetener, a dried out fruit that is delicious. Often added to smoothies in place of honey and sugars, they are also commonly soaked, and blended down to create a ‘maple’ like sauce used in ‘healthy’ cooking, as well as blended down with added spices they are then bread on pancakes, breads, scones and other treats. But are they that good that you replace the real thing? We are commonly being told dried fruit isn’t a positive addition in our diet, so it’s important to find out the correct information. Dates can be beneficial for our digestion helping relief from constipation, intestinal disorders as well as abdominal issues and heart problems. They have high levels of vitamins, minerals and fibres and contain oil, calcium, copper, sulphur, iron, manganese, magnesium and several others. Dates are however a fruit, and it is becoming more knowledgeable that fruits, in particular dried or over ripened contain much higher levels of fructose. Dates in particular have 30% fructose, and while the lowest yet mentions, they often need to be used in high quantities to achieve that same sweetness level.
Rice malt – According to Sarah Wilson from ‘I Quit Sugar’, this is one of the healthiest sweeteners that you can get your hands on. 100% fructose free, it is derived from fermented cooked rice. It contains carbohydrates (30%), maltose (45%), glucose (2-4%) and water. While Sarah prefers it as her sweetener of choice due to its very low GI levels as well as containing vitamins. Rice malt is also believed not to be as sweet as sugar, only about half as sweet in fact, so be wary of this in terms of baking. Rice malt is also gluten free, so with all these considerations it’s becoming an even more appealing sweetener to switch to.
Stevia – A low calorie, in fact 0 calorie natural sweetener. It is extracted from the green stevia plant of South America. The powder we purchase is in fact a refined version is the actual plant and just the extracted sweet components. Stevia contains stevioside, one of the sweet compounds, that is believed to reduce blood pressure as well as reduce the blood sugar levels. Some studies have even shown that stevia helps reduce LDL cholesterol levels, the considered ‘bad’ cholesterol, as well as having anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and diuretic effects. Stevia is about 100 times sweetener then sugar, for about a cup of sugar only a teaspoon of stevia would be needed, so be mindful of this as if you overdo it can have a very bitter taste,
High Fructose corn syrup – Is a sweetener made up from corn. It is about 42-55% fructose and the remaining being glucose and higher sugars. High fructose corn syrup is nearly identical to table sugar in it’s make up (sucrose). HFCS is also known as isoglucose in other countries. It is considered just as potent and sweet as sucrose, and therefore typically avoided. It will be found in almost all packages and sweetened goods.
Fructose – A simple form of sugar and therefore carb, this is found in fruits and honey. Fructose causes insulin spikes and therefore causes the blood sugar levels to rise, and fall, fast. This can promote hunger, cravings and fatigue. As the liver on metabolises 20% of consumed fructose, this is a reason hat excess amounts should be avoided as the strain then rests on the liver to metabolise it. Any that is not used, becomes stored as fat.
Glucose – found in starchy foods, like potatoes and rice, it is not considered as harmful to the metabolic rate as fructose. Glucose is found within the blood and is needed by the cells in our body for energy and function. Glucose can come in different forms, it is these different forms that cause the rapid or not so rapid rise and fall in our blood sugar levels and therefore help to control our hunger levels, cravings and energy.
Based on the information, if you are avoiding fructose your only options are rice malt and stevia, but if you are just being wary of the amount you consumer there are certainly many tasty alternatives. With all though, you need to be mindful of the amount hat is consumed. Personally, I find avoidance the easiest, as having it just promotes further cravings for me.