The basics on sugar we’ve got down pat – processed is bad, unrefined is good – but it’s time to get down and, well… clean, with the complex world of sweeteners, and establish which sugars we should actually be eating and when!
There’s a wealth of information available on sugar, and it remains one of the most talked about topics (after Caitlyn Jenner). From not eating any sugar Sarah Wilson-style, to eating ALL the sugar – like vegan blogger from down-under Essena O’Neill. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what to actually do with the sweet stuff. So, we had a chat with holistic nutritionist Libby Limon to set aside some of the sugar myths and get her advice on some of the best sugar alternatives.
“If you’re addicted to sugar you should definitely do a sugar-detox,” says Libby, “you’ve got to just cut it out and go cold-turkey if you’re going to truly kick it. But that doesn’t mean you have to live a completely sugar-free life – I couldn’t live without a piece of cake every now and then – it’s about substitution and knowing what goes well with what.”
“Many so called ‘healthy’ substitutes are actually loaded with fructose. We can’t process fructose in the body – a really high fructose diet will lead to all kinds of problems later in life: liver diseases, diabetes etc. Agave syrup for example is a massive con. It’s almost 100% fructose, and actually very, very refined.”
With this in mind, it doesn’t make the sugar world a whole lot more intelligible – most products won’t put a “fructose content” label on the back, so we’ve put together a list of our favourite alternative sweeteners to give you a nudge in the right direction.
What it is: Cinnamon is first and foremost a spice, and not traditionally thought of when it comes to sweetening your food. It’s one of Libby’s favourite sweeteners for its nutritional benefits and keeping your sugar-cravings under control. When eaten it actually mimics insulin so that it reduces the overall amount of insulin that the body needs to produce.
It aids weight loss. Cinnamon’s effect on insulin levels means that it’s one of those feeds that makes you feel satisfied after eating – and for a lot longer than your average sweet snack.
It’s high in antioxidants. We all know antioxidants are great for you – to keep our bodies in balance and free of free radicals as well as brilliant for clearing up skin, promoting healthy hair and nail growth: the works!
What to eat it with: You can buy ground cinnamon or cinnamon quills in the spices isle of your local supermarket. Quills are generally added to a dish to infuse it with flavor – curries or apple tea are a great one. Ground cinnamon can be used in almost anything – we love these carrot and cinnamon cakes from Sarah Wilson.
What it is: Coconut nectar comes from – you guessed it – coconuts. It’s the unrefined, low-fructose sister of agave nectar. Whilst it’s still not completely unprocessed – it’s a sap that is tapped from the coconut plant and processed in a way similar to maple syrup, but a lot less. With a low G.I. of 35 it’s a much better alternative to Agave or Maple Syrup, and will be absorbed by the body a lot slower to keep you from having that “sugar-high” that fuels a sugar addictions.
It contains 17 amino acids. This is key in the transportation and storage of nutrients – they affect the function of your organs, glands, tendons and arteries.
It also contains a broad spectrum of B vitamins and vitamin C.
What to eat it with: Coconut nectar or coconut sugar can be added to cakes or recipes that call for the regular white stuff. Libby suggests to pair it with fats and proteins to change the way it’s absorbed in your body and get as many nutritional benefits as possible. The ratio won’t be the same as with white sugar – nor will the texture – so play around, be a kid and dip your fingers in until it tastes right.
What it is: Palmyra Jaggery is another plant-based sap product from the Palmyra palm tree in South East India. Similar to Lacuma or Maca powders it has a caramel-like sweetness that comes from its own natural goodness. The sap is tapped directly from farmers twice a day and skips much of the processing that most sugars, even unrefined ones, go through before they hit your shelves.
You need only 30%-50% less than you would with normal sugar. When it comes to the sweet stuff, even the good sweet stuff, less is always more!
Low G.I., and a great source of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, sodium and phosphorus. It’s unrefined so you absorb the maximum amount of nutrients and get out of it what you put in.
The only natural plant-generated natural source of vitamin B12. That means it’s perfect for anyone, whether you’re vegan or paleo.
How to eat it: It can be thrown into smoothies, added to granolas, oats, cookies and cakes! It has quite a rich flavour so experiment and cook to taste.
What it is: Manuka honey comes from that strange land a 23-hour plane journey away known as New Zealand. The indigenous Maori community had used it for centuries before celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johannson caught on. Manuka honey is made much more carefully than your generic table honey, so unless you’ve got your own beehive in your back garden then we suggest swapping to Manuka.
It has anti-viral, anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties. This helps to boost the immune system and prevent illness as well as keeping your skin looking fresh. There’s a reason why your grandma always put honey in your tea when you were sick – it helps to sooth a sore throat and cold and flu symptoms.
It improves digestion. Manuka honey is great for reducing inflammation and stop bloating and other discomfort.
What to eat it with: Like any sugar Manuka honey should not be digested in large doses. In saying that a teaspoon (or two) of it drizzled over your porridge or bircher muesli will help you start your day well and give you a natural energy boost. Try adding it to one of these delicious porridge recipes by Green Kitchen Stories.
Brown Rice Malt Syrup
What it is: Made form fermented cooked rice, rice malt syrup is Sarah Wilson’s favourite sweetener. It’s a blend of complex carbohydrates, maltose and glucose and is digested much slower than many of your traditional sugars and alternative sweeteners.
Brown rice malt syrup is completely fructose free. It won’t create a spike in blood sugar leading to a crash in energy levels later on. It’s suitable for people who are following a FODMAP diet or are fructose intolerant.
What to eat it with: Brown rice malt syrup goes well with granolas – it’s not hugely sweet so is perfectly paired with coconut flakes for a bit of extra sweetness, and any other nuts, grains and seeds you fancy. Mix all of your ingredients together, put it in the oven, and then enjoy with some coconut yoghurt or by itself as a snack.
With the abundance of fruits and natural sweeteners that can add more flavour to your diet and vitamins to your energy pack there’s no need to cut out sugar completely. It’s about not overdoing it, and not over consuming sweetness that triggers the addiction-like symptoms. So keep it sweet, keep it simple.
P.S. We know these sweeteners are a bit more expensive than your typical sugars (although they’re totally worth it) so we’ve got a discount code for Palmyra Jaggery from Conscious Food. Just put in WELLTODO25 for 25% off at the checkout, and get cooking!