Sugar alternatives: The good and the bad
No sugar and low sugar diets are all the rage but which sugar substitutes are actually better for us?
Sugar. It was a reason for extreme excitement and birthday party-induced tummy aches as a child and in adulthood it is at the centre of 3pm cravings and something that we have been taught to limit if not avoid completely.
Recently, sugar has been identified as a nutritional bad guy. Low sugar and no sugar diets are the latest fad and sugar alternatives are everywhere but are they really a healthier choice? We asked our resident dietician, Caitlin Reid, her expert advice about sugar consumption and which sugar alternatives are worth the switch.
Reid says, “Our diets should be based on a variety of minimally processed wholefoods, with limited amounts of processed foods containing empty kilojoules, added sugar, salt and unhealthy fats.” While naturally occurring sugars in dairy and fruit is ok in moderate doses it’s the added ones that we need to look out for.
Considering that sugar is full of empty kilojoules (i.e. kilojoules that offer no nutritional value) it’s no wonder that low sugar or no sugar diets are gaining in popularity. However, Reid reminds us that many foods that claim “no sugar” are actually packed full of the stuff. “A lot of them still contain sugar, maybe not in the form of fructose or sucrose, but at the end of the day rice malt syrup and agave syrup, are just sugar with a different name,” she says.
So which well-known sugar alternatives are worth it and which ones are just sugar by a different name?
Agave Nectar: “Agave nectar (also known as agave syrup) is extracted from several Mexican agave plants. When it comes to nutritional composition, it’s similar to sugar, honey or maple syrup, however agave nectar contains fewer minerals and antioxidants than honey and maple syrup. It contains about 74% sugar (combination of fructose and glucose), and 1 tablespoon provides 265kJ.”
Rice Malt Syrup: “Rice malt syrup is the sugar from rice and contains a mixture of the sugars maltose, maltotriose and glucose. It has a high GI of 98 meaning it rapidly spikes sugar levels and this is followed by a dip. It’s not the wonder food that it is promoted as. It’s important to use sparingly, as when adding it to a recipe you are still adding sugar,” says Reid. With a GI even higher than everyday table sugar, this alternative raises our blood sugar even higher than the white stuff!
Stevia: “This is a natural sweetener that has been extracted from the leaves of the plant Stevia Rebaudiana. It doesn’t have any kilojoules, nor does it raise blood sugar levels or cause tooth decay. It is 250 to 300 times sweeter than cane sugar,” says Reid. Stevia can be used as an alternative to sugar in baking, in coffee or tea and it is present in many lower joule cordials and treats.
Honey: “Honey contains some B vitamins and minerals, but the amounts of tiny. The GI of honey varies depending the variety with values ranging from 35-58. Nutritionally, it depends on the type of honey, with research suggesting Manuka may off act as an antibacterial properties when it comes to topical wound healing.” We love honey in almond milk smoothies.
Coconut Sugar: “Coconut sugar is produced the fresh sap from the cut flowers of the coconut palm. It’s not actually from the coconut itself. It is mainly composed of sucrose, so it is not fructose free. It’s still a high kilojoule option and little is known about its mineral content, so it’s best to limit,” says Reid. With a GI rating of 54 (slightly lower than normal sugar) this is hardly a low GI alternative.