In the last few years, sugar has been making headline news and it’s highly likely you have read or heard about the detrimental effect too much sugar can have on your health. You may also have read articles talking about ‘healthy’ alternatives to sugar – some recommending complete freedom with fructose-rich honey, while others talking about the dangers of fructose and the need to avoid it at all costs! Like me, you may have seen ‘sugar free’ recipes which are loaded with dried fruit and maple syrup and wondered how ‘sugar free’ they really are. And you may feel completely confused about sugar, goodness knows, at times, I feel the same! Today, I want to separate fact from fiction, by looking at the pros and cons of different types of sugar alternatives.
The first thing to know is that sugar is sugar, whatever form it comes in. There are many different types of sugar, from cane sugar and honey, to coconut sugar and maple syrup. No matter how natural the source, all forms of sugar will to some extent, increase your blood sugar level, triggering the release of insulin. High blood sugar and elevated insulin can increase levels of inflammation in the body, cause weight gain, and may encourage cancer cell growth. For this reason, we recommend minimal amounts of sugar in the diet, regardless of the source. Reducing your sugar intake can be difficult at first but over time, your taste buds will adjust and you will find sweetness in foods you never before considered sweet!
With that in mind, let’s talk about what we at Penny Brohn UK consider to be the best alternatives to sugar, along with those we recommend you avoid.
Agave Syrup is made from the cactus plant, which grows in South America. It is often sold as a healthy alternative to sugar because it has a very low glycaemic index (GI) value. The GI value is important because it tells us to what extent a food will raise our blood sugar level. The higher the GI, the more impact the food has. Despite its low GI, agave is highly processed and has an exceptionally high fructose content. Research shows that high fructose intake increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.
Why might I use it? Due to the high fructose content of agave, we do not recommend using it. Where a recipe requires agave syrup, we recommend you replace it with either coconut syrup or maple syrup.
Blackstrap Molasses are a by-product of the sugar refining process. Rich in minerals, particularly iron, molasses offer some nutritional health benefits. They also have a lower GI value than refined sugar.
Why might I use it? Blackstrap molasses are a nutritious addition to baked goods but due to their strong taste, their use is limited. Molasses work well with gingerbread, ginger cake, meat marinades and ratatouille. Adding blackstrap molasses to the diet may be helpful where iron is low, particularly for vegetarians.
Beware of: Always buy blackstrap molasses which offer the highest nutritional value. If you see the word ‘molasses’ alone, the product will be lower grade and will not confer the same benefits.
Brown rice syrup is made from fermented cooked rice. It is highly processed and comes with a high GI value.
Why might I use it? Brown rice syrup does not contain any fructose, a sugar which has been linked with a range of chronic health conditions (see agave syrup). It is also cheaper than many of the other sugar alternatives available and it does not have a strong flavour, which can be helpful in some recipes.
Beware of: In general, due to its high GI and low nutritional value, we recommend only minimal amounts of brown rice syrup in the diet. If affordable, we suggest you choose either maple syrup or coconut nectar. Reducing the amount of syrup used in a recipe is a helpful way to reduce both cost and sugar intake!
Chyawanprash is a sweet herbal tonic, favoured in India and thought to have unique health promoting properties. Its main ingredient is amla fruit which is blended with around 35 other ingredients and cooked into a paste with honey, sesame oil and jaggery (a concentrated sugarcane juice, with unique nutritional properties).
Why might I use it? As an ancient herbal tonic it is thought to have beneficial immune properties and can make a rich and nutritious alternative to jam.
Beware of: Ensure you buy from a reputable brand so you know you are getting the ‘real thing’.
Coconut sugar/coconut nectar/ Coconut blossom sugar comes from the nectar collected from the flower of the coconut palm. Coconut sugar has a lower GI value than many other sugars making it a good option. It will also confer some health benefits as it contains low levels of various vitamins and minerals.
Why might I use it? Coconut sugar works well as a direct replacement for normal sugar in recipes. It has a lovely flavour and as such, will improve most recipes. You could also try reducing the amount of sugar the recipe recommends by up to 50%.
Beware of: Using too much as it’s so tasty!
Fruit – Fresh fruit and fruit purees are our absolute first choice when it comes to sweetening foods! Fruit offers not only sweetness, but vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre.
Why might I use it? Fruit is the healthiest, most nutritious way to add sweetness to the diet. Mashed bananas and apple purees can add great sweetness to baked goods, especially if mixed with a little dried fruit, such as dates, apricots or figs. Beware of: Despite the benefits of fruit, if eaten to excess, it can add considerable sugar to the diet. This is especially true of dried fruit. Remember that one raisin, is one whole grape and one prune is one whole plum! We recommend consuming 2-3 portions of whole fresh fruit, daily and using only moderate amounts of dried fruit.
Honey is made from nectar collected from flowers by our bees. It is a natural sweetener which when consumed raw has a relatively high nutritional value. It may help support the immune system as it contains antibacterial, anti-fungal and antioxidant properties. Honey has a slightly lower GI value than normal sugar. Despite these benefits, honey is still sugar and as such, should be used only in moderation.
Why might I use it? Due to its immune supporting benefits, honey may be a healthy addition to the diet. We recommend using small amounts (1/2 -1tsp) for sweetening foods such as porridge. It can also be nice when added to warm drinks and smoothies. We do not recommend using honey in large quantities as is often suggested in cake recipes.
Beware of: Cheaper honey which is pasteurised (not raw) and will not confer the same health benefits.
Maple Syrup is made by concentrating the sap of the Canadian maple tree. It has a lower GI content than normal sugar and unlike normal sugar, it contains an array of antioxidants.
Why might I use it? The beautiful, deep caramel flavour can really add to a recipe. It is lovely drizzled on buckwheat pancakes, for example! With a lower GI and higher nutritional value than normal sugar, it is a good alternative.
Beware of: For the highest nutritional value and antioxidant content, choose Grade B maple syrup.
Stevia is a natural low calorie sweetener, derived from the Stevia plant. It is many, many times sweeter in taste than normal sugar and as such, we suggest a cautious approach. Regular use will encourage a ‘sweet tooth’ and lead to greater difficulty enjoying the less intense sweet foods, such as fruit.
Why might I use it? As a low calorie sweetener, it can be useful for diabetics.
Beware of: The cheaper forms of stevia, which are not 100% pure, such as truvia. Look for 100% pure leaf stevia.
Xylitol is another natural low calorie sweetener. It is derived from the fibre of many different plants. As with stevia, we recommend a cautious approach – the response of both our body and brain to ‘sweetness’ is complex and so far, research has not demonstrated an improvement in key health markers, as a result of switching from sugar to low calorie sweeteners.
Why might I use xylitol? Like stevia, it can be useful for diabetics and it is a helpful way to reduce calorie intake. It can be used as a replacement for table sugar in many recipes.
Beware of: Xylitol can have a laxative effect in some people. It is also highly toxic to pets and animals so should be stored safely.
Not sure if these sugar alternatives will satify your ‘sweet tooth’? Try our naturally sweet Almond Butter Bars with desiccated coconut and rice syrup, you can find the recipe here.