Getting the Scoop on Sugar
Sugar is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, fatigue, headaches, tooth decay, cancer and it also promotes premature ageing. It is a highly addictive food, that some argue is more difficult to quit than many street drugs. According to the latest statistics, sugar consumption in Australia is around 42 kgs per person per annum. The problem is that sugar is in just about every processed food today…from tomato sauce, breakfast cereals, savoury crackers and breads to yoghurts, dips, tinned foods and the obvious lollies and sweets.
In recent years with the push towards low fat products, we have seen a big rise in the amount of sugar going into processed low fat foods. When food manufacturers remove the fat from a product to make it ‘low-fat’ they replace it with sugar!
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (nutrasweet) and sucralose (Splenda) are not a safe option in any way. These processed food additives have been linked to cancer, migraine, obesity, high cholesterol and a range of brain issues – including memory loss, seizures and cancer. What is probably most absurd is that the artificial sweeteners can even contribute to weight gain and increased sugar cravings. Aspartame failed to get FDA approval for 20 years, before it was finally approved in what appeared to be political bargaining rather than assured safety.
What is wrong with fructose?… Isn’t it just fruit sugar?
There has been so much research into the damaging effects of sugar and processed sweet foods on our health. In particular a large body of evidence is mounting regarding consumption of high fructose corn syrup. This sweetener is used in many commercial goods that are sweetened, including cakes, biscuits, soft drinks and lollies. While fructose does not raise your blood sugar level directly the way that glucose does, it creates a whole series of other stresses that we can ill afford. The major problem with fructose is the effect that it has on the liver and is linked to many diseases including fatty liver and hyperlipidemia as well as obesity and cardiovascular disease. Most forms of fructose also have a glucose molecule with it, so you tend to get both sugars operating in different ways in the body – making it double trouble.
Humans never evolved in an orchard with fruits all year round – so our modern ability to eat abundant amounts of fruit, regardless of the season, is a big unknown experiment. This is aside from the other issue of the enormous food miles in many cases that the imported or interstate fruit travels to get to our fruit bowl! If you are going to eat fructose – you really are best to get it from local in-season fruit as the fibre it contains helps slow down the sugar surge. But remember you should really be limiting your fruit intake as well as it is still high sugar – so just stick to a couple of pieces a day of seasonal fruits. This is of course, as opposed to vegetables – where there is no limit!
The judicious and occasional use of natural unrefined sugars such as rapadura sugar or coconut sugar can be an option when you need to bake or prepare traditional items. These work well in cooking as a substitute for regular sugar, though they will impart more flavour and colour to the recipes. Honey and maple syrup are also good natural sweeteners but they are still very sweet and should be used very sparingly.
Honey has a host of medicinal benefits – especially when in the raw and unheated form. Although honey is around 50% fructose it is a natural sweetener that has been prized for centuries. It is important to note that cooking with honey destroys some of these enzymes. Medicinal honey such as Manuka (from NZ) and Jelly Bush (from Australia) have high amounts of active constituents with antibiotic, anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. It can be used externally for wounds as well as internally for sore throats, mouth ulcers and coughs. (I sell the Australian Jelly Bush honey in my clinic.)
Maple syrup is a traditional sweetener that has the characteristic earthy and caramel flavour. It is naturally quite high in a range of minerals – particularly manganese and zinc – that are important nutrients for a range of body functions. The syrup is a clear sap when tapped from the Maple tree and is then boiled to evaporate off the water and what is left is the golden brown syrup that is around 60% sugar.
Evaporated cane juice is an unrefined sugar, also known as rapadura sugar or jaggery (which can sometimes come from palm sugar/dates). As there is no refining and minimal processing, rapadura and jaggery still contain many of the natural minerals. Do not confuse rapadura with brown sugar – as brown sugar is just refined sugar with some molasses added for colour and flavour. Molasses is the left over by product of cane sugar or beet sugar refining. It is the mineral rich dark sticky byproduct and can be used sparingly as it is a rich source of minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. It has traditionally been used as a health tonic – served in water. Its very strong and robust flavour only lends itself to a few traditional recipes if used in cooking.
Coconut sugar is a sugar produced from the sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm. It has been used as a sweetener for thousands of years throughout Asia. The sap is collected and then heated to evaporate the water content which results in a thick syrup which is then reduced into a crystalline granulated form. Coconut sugar is a low GI sugar that is also a rich source of potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron. Compared to brown sugar, coconut sugar has 36 times the iron, four times the magnesium, and over 10 times the amount of zinc!
Agave nectar/syrup is the new darling sweetener of the health food world – but in reality it is far from a good option. Agave is a mild flavoured low GI sugar alternative – but one that is very high in fructose – close to 90%! We have already learned above why we would want to avoid too much fructose. The other problem with agave is that it is not a traditional sweetener in the same way that honey or maple syrup is. Agave has only been manufactured since the 1990’s and requires quite a bit of processing to get it to be edible and commercially viable. While it starts out as a sweet watery liquid known as aguamiel or ‘honey water’ – it undergoes centrifuge processing and enzymatic conversion that turns the natural sugars into ones rich in high fructose and dextrose and then it is further processed and evaporated to condense the sugar content. The resultant sugar nectar is a far cry from the original honey water traditionally consumed and it packs a powerful fructose punch.
Stevia is a natural sweetener that comes from the very sweet leaves of the South American herb, Stevia rebaudiana. Stevia is a safe sweetener and has no effect on blood sugar balance or liver health – though it is very sweet and slightly bitter in its natural form and is not always suitable in all recipes. Processed Stevia products have had their bitter compounds removed and come in the way of granulated products or liquids that can be used in cooking.
So really, all in all, the best thing to do is to kick the sugar habit! Once you stop having sweet foods all the time, your body adjusts and the cravings abate. Ensuring plenty of good quality fats and protein in your diet will also be helpful when giving up sugar as it ensures your blood sugar stays stable and your cravings will be minimised. I often use key nutrients and herbs when we need to support the body in initially adjusting to a low sugar life, so consider some personalised support by way of a consultation, if you are struggling to curb sugar cravings.
Remember you are sweet enough – so no added sugar is required!