The food marketing industry bombards consumers with ‘healthier’ options. Calorie free fizzy drinks, fat free items and natural sweet treats. At what percentage are sugar alternatives better? Are natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup a healthy choice? And how do we really know what sugars we are consuming?
Choosing your poison
According to a Vogue India article, frequently using processed sugar substitutes, “increases insulin resistance in the body.” The hormone insulin is vital for turning sugar to energy and stabilising blood sugar levels. The piece further shares that long term use of natural (agave, maple, molasses, cane etc.) and processed sugar can alter taste buds, making fruit and veg “unpalatable”.
When I started my health journey, I struggled to eat plant-based food because I thought it tasted too bland. But the more I cut down on buying ready-made desserts and relying on sugar alternatives, the tastier I found fruit and vegetables. Fortune Business Insights suggest the Global Sugar Substitutes Market should continually rise due to people wanting sugar without calories.
Replacing refined sugar with sweeteners and natural varieties may seem healthy and ideal for weight-loss, yet many articles I researched demonstrated strong warning. In addition to taste buds adapting, Harvard suggests calorie free artificial sweeteners may trick people to further indulge. Sweeteners can become an excuse to indulge cake or biscuits. I’m sure most of us have told a sugar lie – “this fruit bowl is healthy – I can have another dessert later”, or “maple syrup is fine, it’s natural”. That’s my favourite line when cooking my ‘healthy’ pancakes.
It’s difficult to find straight answers over the benefit of sweeteners, because many publications debate opposite opinion. The NHS referred to research to promote sweeteners as safe to consume daily and good for people with diabetes. This is due to sweeteners not increasing blood sugar levels after ingesting. Artificial sweeteners are not this straight-forward however.
Publication Good produced an in-depth guide on the subject, explaining how there are two different forms. This includes sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and high-intensity sweeteners like stevia and sucralose. The article discusses how sugar alcohols “are carbohydrates with a chemical structure” found in toothpaste and chewing gum. While good for blood sugar, the piece warns many foods containing sugar alcohols have added salt and fat. You can also experience digestive issues if over consuming.
High-intensity sweeteners add extra complication. There are various types and only a few approved. The Guardian recently reported on a new review stating there’s “not enough evidence” on their safety and they lack health benefits. Yet some query the review’s evidence and say artificial sweeteners are the best solution. It seems the dispute boils down to which you use. The Daily Meal notes how diet sodas are usually sweetened with aspartame – a “controversial sweetener” stronger than refined sugar which can cause headaches according to studies.
Natural sugar alternatives
Sweeteners are riddled in confusion, though natural sugar has greater evidence. Unfortunately, the evidence is not ideal for sweet-tooth addicts. Vice published an article outlining why honey, coconut sugar and agave etc., match refined sugar for value. There’s little science behind antioxidants in honey and the idea it helps boost the immune system. Bariatric dietician Audra Wilson spoke to Vice and described how natural sugars have a lower GI (blood sugar stabilising). And yet, research is inadequate in deciding the role of GI when sugar is eaten amongst other food. When do you eat sugar purely by itself?
Across Instagram, users upload and post ‘healthy’ treats using natural sugars. I’m guilty myself of believing natural sugar somehow makes my food nutritious. It’s become a form of bragging – “I made these delicious cookies with molasses and no added sugar”. The word natural tricks people to assume health. In terms of fruit, most conclude whole fruit is healthy – avoid eating too much and bare in mind some fruit contains more fructose than others.
Sugar alternatives overall
From my investigating, the sugar industry has a long way to travel before reaching concrete answers. Experts advocate sugar sweeteners to feature negative and positive points, while overall, whether refined or natural, sugar isn’t fantastic for our bodies. Fruit differs in that it’s filling and packed with vitamins and minerals.
Healthline counts 56 different names to describe sugar. The majority of processed food has at least one of the names in its ingredients list. The best sugar alternatives probably involve home-baking and relying on one source of sugar rather than the abundance found in confectionary. I’m going to begin measuring my maple syrup in teaspoons to count what I use, instead of squeezing lavishly.
What are your thoughts on sugar alternatives? Do you try to use natural options and how have you tried to cut down on sugar in general?