This article is part of #HOWSWEETITISN’T — a series in which livehealthy.ae takes a closer look at how sugar affects our health.
When cutting down on refined sugar, it is natural to try to replace that sweet taste with what can be perceived as guilt-free substitutes.
In many ways sugars found in honey, maple syrup and other natural forms can be a healthier alternative, because they also contain nutrients not found in refined table sugar. But they are still energy-dense foods, and experts advise that they should only be consumed in small quantities.
Reji Francis is F&B operations manager at Eat Well Restaurant, which uses honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and date paste as substitutes for refined sugar. He explains that the nutritional benefits of many natural sugars and sweeteners make them “slightly better than regular sugar.”
“Honey, for example, has antimicrobial properties and contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals,” Reji explains. “Maple syrup contains small amounts of minerals, like manganese and zinc, and also good amounts of antioxidants, especially the darker maple syrup.”
Unlike table sugar, which has no nutritional value, natural sweeteners are less processed and often have lower food energy values. And because they are sweeter than regular sugar, less is more. Unfortunately, eating too much of them can lead to the same type of problem as those associated with refined sugar.
“Consuming fructose increases your hunger and desire for food more than glucose, the main type of sugar found in starchy foods,” Reji says.
“Higher amounts of any natural sugars can lead to candida bacterial growth. The other short-term effects of overconsumption include gastric problems such as stomach cramps and bloating, while prolonged use of these sweeteners can cause conditions like acid reflux and insulin sensitivity.”
Still, it’s worth experimenting in small doses. There are several types of natural sugars, outlined below, and each has a different flavour and texture. A couple of warnings: not all of them can be used as a direct substitute for refined sugar and some experimentation may be necessary to find the right formula for recipes.
Pure maple syrup has a lower glycemic index (54) than regular sugar (64) and contains zinc and manganese. However it is still high in sucrose and should only be used in small quantities. Check the label before buying, as many syrups labelled “maple” contain artificial flavouring and high-fructose corn syrup. Pure maple syrup only comes from Canada or the north-eastern part of the United States and the quality is reflected in a higher price. When replacing sugar with maple syrup, use three-quarters of the amount stated for table sugar and reduce the quantity of other liquids to keep the desired consistency.
Made by blending dates with a little water, date paste is a flavoursome alternative to sugar. It has fibre, antioxidants and nutrients such as magnesium and potassium. However it is high in fructose and best consumed in moderation. As well as assisting digestion, the fibre in dates helps slow the absorption of sugar and can help to stabilise blood sugar levels. It is a good alternative to sugar for diabetics and tastes great in coffee and sweets. Date paste can be made easily at home. First, soak pitted dates in hot water for about 10 to 20 minutes to soften them. Keep the water aside to use in the paste. Then in a food processor, blend one cup of dates and one-quarter of a cup of reserved water until the contents form a smooth paste.
With antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties as well as trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, honey can be a very beneficial alternative to sugar. But not all honey is the same and, again, it is important to read the label. Raw honey is unprocessed, unheated and still has its natural enzymes, making it a healthier choice, but cooking or heating the honey can destroy its natural properties. Darker honey tends to have a higher concentration of vitamins and antioxidants. Honey is higher in calories than table sugar; however it is sweeter so you need less to achieve the same sweetness. Honey should not be consumed by infants under 12 months as it can contain botulism bacteria.
With a lower glycemic index (35-54) than refined sugar, coconut sugar contains nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium and potassium and antioxidants. It also contains inulin, a prebiotic needed by the body to sustain gastrointestinal bifidobacteria. Despite the nutritional bonuses, coconut sugar contains the same number of calories and carbohydrates as white table sugar and, like all sugar substitutes, should be consumed in moderation.
Traditional agave nectar has healthy fibre, such as fructans, which have been linked to beneficial effects on metabolism and insulin. It has a low glycemic index, which means it has a minimal effect on blood sugar and insulin. Unfortunately most agave sweeteners are made in much the same way as sugar syrups, which destroy any health benefits. The end result is a product that is comparable to – and possibly worse than – high-fructose corn syrup. Again, read the label or better still, choose a different natural sweetener.
Amanda Tomlinson is an Australian journalist who has lived in the UAE for almost 11 years. She is still finding her feet in her new role as a mother to a 1-year-old boy, but believes that every misadventure is an opportunity for growth. When Amanda is not singing and dancing around the house with her son, she can be found working out with him, traveling the world with him and trying hard to get some work done.