Working within the NHS with patients who are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes has made sugar an area of special interest for me. It is no surprise, if you look at the government recommendation with regards to healthy eating (low fat/high carb) and abundance of cheap refined foods that we are reaching an obesity epidemic.
Table sugar (sucrose) is made of 2 molecules glucose and fructose. Table sugar has got zero vitamins and minerals and is pure refined carbohydrate. Sugar has been shown to be addictive when tested on rats, due to the brains dopamine response that means that when the sugar is cut out individuals can get craving and withdrawal – sound familiar?
We could survive and thrive without never eating a spec of sugar ever again…who’s willing? The option is there…your taste buds would over time become more sensitive to savoury taste and foods like carrots would become super sweet. I have completely cut out the sweet stuff in the past and felt GREAT… however after about a month or so they start to slowly creep back in. Why?...perhaps a lack of self-control, perhaps the benefits vs cost to never having a sweet taste in my mouth started to tip, or maybe for me personally I needed a more sustainable approach.
We are designed to crave high calorie foods, as a survival mechanism that has remained from the time we were hunter-gathers – our bodies almost instinctively know that if something tastes sweet it will be high in calories thus sustains us for longer and give us more of a chance to survive when there is an inevitable lack of food. But now in the 21st century that lack of food never comes…instead we consume high calorie meal after another.
In this post I will look at the alternatives to table sugar, including: artificial and non-artificial sweeteners, natural sugars and whole food sweeteners.
Aspartame – perhaps this is the most famous sweetener. It is 200 time sweeter than sugar. All of the studies completed by the industry vouch it is safe. Some studies show that aspartame can cause headaches and seizures.
Sucralose – 600(!!) times sweeter than sugar. Although some studies show there is not negative effects of sucralose one study showed that rats that consumed sucralose for 12 weeks had a significant reduction in gut bacteria. Gut bacteria is central to our health as explained here.
My main concern with individuals who use artificial sweeteners is anecedotal evidence suggest they can cause gut discomfort overtime, there are some studies that suggest they can cause weight gain, brain/bladder cancer and they simply have not been around long-enough for us to know whether there may be a negative impact on our health. I would not recommend the usage of these.
Coconut Sugar, Honey, Agave are all over the health food shops and yes they do contain additional vitamins and minerals that refined sugar do not. However, do not be fooled into thinking that means you can eat to excess, they still contain glucose and fructose just like sugar and can still cause a rapid spike in blood glucose, insulin spike and blood glucose slump.
Whole-Food Sugar – Banana, Apples and Dates – I would prefer to use whole food natural sugar (even in baking, just mash them up) over the above as whole food contain fibre that slows down the release of glucose to the blood stream, thus less likely to get an insulin spike followed by a blood glucose slump.
The molecules that make up fruit are the same as table sugar (glucose and fructose, although there is a higher proportion of fructose in fruit than in table sugar). Therefore, despite the fact that there is way more vitamins/ minerals and fibre in fruit, if eaten to excess you can still raise blood glucose, then glycogen and eventually lead to excess fat. Fruits that are high in sugar/carbohydrates are tropical fruits. Opt for berries and plums for a low-sugar/carb fruit option.
Stevia – Stevia is a natural sweetener that originates from South America. Stevia has zero calories and studies show that it does not affect blood glucose. Although, one study did show that in high dosages it can reduce sperm motility.
Xylitol, Mannitol and Sorbitol – Despite the name alcohol sugars do not contain alcohol as there is not ethanol in these foods.
Although the energy/calories available from sugar alcohol is lower than glucose (between 15-25% less), the conversion to energy (ATP) is the same and as efficient as glucose – this for me is probably THE MOST exciting thing about polyols is the same energy output for less calories – why would you not take this option over sugar?! For example, Sorbitol has 2.6 cal/g, Mannitol 1.6cal/g and Xylitol 2.4cal/g. Eaten in excess (over 30g a day) then polyols have been shown to have a laxative effect.
Also, research suggests that xylitol is beneficial for dental health and can prevent dental cavities
In conclusion, if you want to play it safe cut out all of the above and just treat yourself to a piece of fruit now and again. If you want to take the less restrictive option, then I recommend the usage of whole-fruit for sweetness, xylitol and stevia. As ever, you know your body better than anyone so have a play around and see what works best for you!
There is an great book called Sugar Blues, which is all about the ‘dark-side’ of sugar.