Are There Any Good Sugar Substitutes?
Sugar is… everywhere. And as rates of diabetes and cancer skyrocket, experts are sounding the alarm. According to the American Heart Association, women should consume no more than 25 grams of sugar per day, men no more than 38 grams, and children less than 25 grams of added sugar per day. The World Health Organization recommends that 10% or less of an adult’s daily calories should come from all sources of added sugar, about 25 grams for an average 2000 calorie diet.
So how much sugar do we actually eat per day? Between “hidden” sugar in those crackers or chips, natural sugars in fruit or syrup, and sugar that is added to foods, the average North American eats approximately 82 grams of sugar every day.
WHY IS SUGAR IMPORTANT FOR PROPER HEALTH?
There are many types of sugars. But the ones most folks are concerned with are glucose and fructose.
Glucose is a carbohydrate; a simple sugar that’s the primary source of energy for every cell in the body. Glucose stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin, which signals to the brain that you’re digesting food. Glucose is critical for brain cells, or neurons, which need twice as much energy as other cells. Our brains account for 20% of the total calories we burn each day.
But while too little glucose is a problem, too much is also bad. Excessive glucose can cause cognitive decline. And too much glucose in the bloodstream diminishes the body’s insulin response, which can lead to diseases like diabetes.
Fructose is also a simple sugar – one of two molecules that combine to form glucose (the other is sucrose). Fructose occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables, and for a long time was thought to be a benign “Natural” sugar.
But there are important differences between eating whole fruits and vegetables — crucial for a healthy diet – and consuming processed fructose.
Processed fructose is nearly twice as sweet as table sugar and very cheap for industry to produce as a “stand alone” sweetener. So it is added to most processed foods. The most common version, “high fructose corn syrup” or HFCS, is made from corn. Studies have linked HFCS to many diseases, including cognitive decline and cancer.
WHAT IS THE GLYCEMIC INDEX?
Counting total grams of sugar per day is recommended in many wellness programs. The “Glycemic Index” or GI, measures how much a food containing carbohydrates raises blood sugar. Consulting this index can help us plan sugars for the day. Eating “low” on the glycemic index means eating foods that raise blood sugar less or less suddenly. From mobile device apps to online charts, taking the Glycemic Index along can help you control sugar intake, as foods low on the index tend to be lower in sugar.
HEALTHY SUGAR SUBSTITUTES: NEW OPTIONS AND OLD FAVORITES
Today, natural sugar alternatives are all the rage. That’s because of the questionable health impacts of saccharine and other artificial sweeteners. But maybe you’ve held off on natural sugar substitutes because you’re not sure how they taste, or how they’ll perform in your favorite recipe.
Not all sugar substitutes are created equal. For example, are you gluten sensitive? You may wish to avoid brown rice syrup, a traditional “hippie” favorite. Brown rice syrup is often made with barley, and is not gluten free (though gluten free varieties are available). Agave nectar, another “old favorite” touted as “healthy”, is very high in fructose, and no “healthier” than table sugar. Stevia is a perennial no-calorie favorite, but has a distinctive after-taste not everyone enjoys.
Newer sugar substitutes are coming into vogue, and worth taking a look at. Two of these newer substitutes are:
Coconut Sugar – Low on Glycemic Index & Low in Fructose
Coconut sugar is made from sap from coconut palm flowers. Unlike Palm Oil, which is produced via deforestation and is responsible for killing thousands of orangutans annually, coconut sugar or palm SUGAR is sustainably produced. It’s typically harvested from trees that are past their prime for coconut harvesting.
Coconut sugar has a caramel color similar to “brown sugar.” It contains more minerals than table sugar and contains inulin, which benefits probiotics in our digestive tract. It can be used as a “1 to 1” (1 cup to 1 cup) substitute for cane sugar in cooking. While low on the glycemic index, coconut sugar still contains 70% sucrose versus all sucrose as table sugar does. But many health aficionados swear by it, and there is no “after taste”.
Monk Fruit – Promising Sugar Substitute from Southeast Asia
The small round Monk Fruit or Buddha fruit is a calorie-free natural sweetener that is 100-250 times sweeter than white sugar. Used for centuries as a health tonic in China, it contains no carbohydrates and does not affect blood sugar. Relatively new to western markets, it’s recognized as safe and has potential benefits beyond sweetening foods. Monk fruit contains antioxidants called mogrosides which some studies indicate may be anti-carcinogenic.
Monk fruit is heat stable, and can be used for cooking and baking. There is a slightly fruity “aftertaste”, however. It’s important to remember that monk fruit is MUCH sweeter than sugar, so experiment using the “less is more” principle. Monk fruit sugar used in baking can be substituted in a “1 to 1/2” ratio. If you using one cup of table sugar, you would use half as much monk fruit sugar.
Sugar substitutes are sweet ways to help take control of our health! Although a “sugar substitute” is not a license to eat a diet of cookies and pie. And always double check substitution requirements as they can vary by manufacturer as well as by sweetener type. Bon appetit!