food for thought

Sugar: What’s the alternative?

By November 8, 2015 No Comments

Six alternatives to sugar

Sugar has found its way into nearly all types of food in recent years, even where you wouldn’t suspect, such as ketchup, yoghurt, bread or ready made meals. Most people know that it deteriorates teeth, gives us high cholesterol, causes diabetes and increases heart disease – but many might not be aware of its complete lack of nutritional value or vampiric effect on the body’s own resources.

High consumption of sugar has contributed to modern diseases such as obesity and type II diabetes, which are often in direct correlation with high sugar intake. Sugar’s sheer omnipresence in many foods can sometimes make it very difficult to reduce from your diet if you have a sweet tooth. Sugar, or refined sugars in this context, behave like a poison to our bodies much the same way as alcohol or narcotics. In fact, sugar, in its simplest form has the same effect on the brain as class A drugs, like cocaine for instance. When sugar is consumed, it interferes with the brain’s neurotransmitter and causes a spike in dopamine levels, which in turn creates feelings of pleasure causing the brain to crave the result again. Overconsumption of sugar numbs this effect on the brain, thus causing an increased intake of this sweet substance.

So, what’s the alternative?
Does this mean you have to leave the wonderful sweetness in food behind you? Of course not, fortunately there are many alternatives to traditional refined sugars available, from fruit sugars to artificial sweeteners. All sugar alternatives possess different functions when using them, depending on what you use them for. Some work better for baking, whilst some work better when making jam or cordial, others might have a more complex chemical compound and can therefore only be used as a sweetening agent; for instance in your tea or coffee because they lack the bulking properties found in sugar (giving a cake/mix that gorgeous fluffyness). The products’ container will almost always instruct you on how to use them as a substitute for sugar – whether to half it, triple it or add a bulking agent – it varies from brand to brand.

None of the below alternatives contain sucrose, unlike the sugar extracted from sugar canes and beets which contain a high level of both fructose and sucrose (not to be confused with sucralose, the sweetener), which gives it a glycemic index (GI) of around 65. Foods with high GI, essentially above 70, make the blood sugar levels increase to abnormal levels only to drop within a short period of time.

Here are our top 5:

Honey

Honey, because of its natural qualities and our general knowledge of it, it is generally very well accepted as a sweetener. It’s even celebrated, with antibacterial properties soothing our sore throats during autumn and winter (perhaps during summers on the Southern hemisphere?) and other oral health issues.
You may find that honey is tricky to bake with, as it lacks a natural bulking agent, but either easily use a separate ingredient to achieve the bulking effect, or, simply, use honey for simpler home baking, such as flapjacks where you only needs its stickyness to piece it all together.

Honey is a more refined version of white cane sugar, but is nevertheless high in both calories and carbohydrates. Sugar and honey are very similar in terms of both calories, carbohydrates and fat values, but honey does, however, possess slightly better values in both vitamins, minerals and protein (interesting comparisson you’ll find here http://www.buzzaboutbees.net/honey-vs-sugar.html). Regarding their GI levels, both are generally in the same categories, however depending on the type of honey and its fructose content can lead it to vary between as low as in the 40s up to about 58. Honey, as an extra bonus does not indicate excessive tooth decay and erosion of the enamel, unlike sugar. However, always brush your teeth twice a day, all foods will decay your teeth if left lying (except maybe milk? Ask your dentist.).

Xylitol

On the notes of dental health, xylitol has the extra benefit of not causing tooth decay, but actually being a natural sweetener that converts differently in the mouth than most other sweeteners, especially sugar. It does not break down into acidic attacks that damages teeth, which is why it is often used in chewing gum. The thing about xylitol is that it barely contains any nutritional value whatsoever, but unlike sugar those low values include low GI (13), amount of calories (about 10 kcal/100 g) and carbohydrates. So, except for killing off unwanted bacteria in your mouth, it doesn’t do you particularly good, but it generally won’t do you any harm.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found in most plants. These types of molecular constructions do, as mentioned, not ferment in the mouth and are therefore difficult for the stomach to digest. However, the bacteria we all naturally possess in the bowels can ferment it which can cause you and your tummy to not have a great time, or, if consumed in too high amounts. These problems are not chronical though, so if you’re easily affected by aforementioned issues, switch to one of the other popular sweeteners!

And yes, you can bake with it, but use about half the amount the recipe says to use sugar, as it’s almost twice as sweet!

Aspartame
Aspartame is a low calorie sweetener and it’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

The Science:
Aspartame is a methyl ester of the dipeptide of the natural amino acids L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. However, despite its mirroring of a natural structure, aspartame is completely artificial.
Aspartame is the most tested and scientifically studied additive in history, but many are still skeptical towards its true nature, which is honestly not that bad (there’s a great folklore around aspartame which can be viewed here. The fact that is a chemically engineered sweetener puts many people off, and that is their choice, there are obviously other options, but one should perhaps keep in mind that we know more about aspartame than most foods, what effects it does have and what it does, in fact, not.

The FDA recommends no more than 50 mg/kg per day, but surely nobody needs that much sweetness anyway. However, both human and lab studies have determined it safe for human consumption. But everything in moderation!

Aspartame can be used for baking, however, for cakes and the likes that need to be cooking for a longer period might turn out less sweet than expected because the compounds break down in heat. That’s why it’s mainly used in soft drinks and as an additive to table sauces.

Here’s a good Q&A for those still doubting its safety

Fructose
Fructose is a sugar found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, and added to various beverages such as soda and fruit-flavored drinks.

The Science:
However, it behaves different from other sugars because it has a different metabolic pathway and the muscles and brain prefer other energy sources (such as glucose or fat when in a ketosis). Fructose is only metabolised in the liver and relies on fructokinase (Fructokinase, an enzyme that specifically catalyzes the transfer of a phosphate group) to begin the long process that is metabolism. It is also more fat-producing (lipogenic), than glucose. Also unlike glucose it does not cause insulin to be released or stimulate production of leptin, which is a key hormone for regulating energy intake and expenditure. These factors raise concerns about chronically high intakes of dietary fructose, because it appears to behave more like fat in the body than like other carbohydrates, which can be a concern when the body is not in a state of ketosis.

Generally, when you buy fructose in the shop its shape and texture are pretty much identical to cane sugar, which makes it super easy to use in the kitchen. But, be aware, instructions usually tell you to use half or a third of the amount of sugar a recipe says. We have also learnt, that it sometimes gives a cake a lovely “fruity bouquet”.

Stevia
Stevia has been used to sweeten food for centuries in many countries in Latin America as well as South East Asia, but has only recently travelled long distances around the globe.

Stevia is extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, native to Latin America, whose steviol glycoside is 300 (yes, 300) times sweeter than normal table sugar. Its two main compounds are stevioside and rebaudioside A. Like most sweetening additives, including sugar, Stevia has its own distinct flavour which can sometimes be a bit fruity, which not everybody appreciates of course, but also if the product contains a low amount of steviosides you might experience a slightly bitter aftertaste, at Runaway we only use the best quality RA variety, removing any detectable notes of bitterness, producing an overall fuzzy, sweet mouthfeel. So, to achieve best possible results while baking with it, make sure you look at the contents.

Stevia, like most other sweeteners, artificial as well as natural, has no negative effects on the consumer’s health. Switching from sugar to stevia might aid in not only blood pressure and blood sugar levels, but thus reducing the risk for diabetes and other type of diet related diseases.

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