It was fat’s turn a few decades ago when it was blamed for a myriad of health problems, but if you have been following the fat debate recently, it seems that sugar is now the culprit of all of our health woes.
So should you avoid sugar at all costs? Or should you choose organic coconut sugar as your sweetener? What about a nice agave syrup or whatever else seems to be en trend at the moment? Is there really any difference? If you saw this infographic that has been doing the rounds in the Huffington Post then you might think that sugar, no matter where it originated is sugar and that it all amounts to the same thing.
If you want to look at sugar in terms of calories or it’s contribution to tooth decay and obesity for example, then yes: sugar is sugar. Does this mean that you shouldn’t worry about where your sugar fix is coming from and that cheap white, highly refined and processed sugar is just as good as any of the other alternatives?
Lets take a look at some common sweeteners that are around at the moment, whether they are processed to any degree, how they affect the body in terms of glycaemic index (GI) and whether there is any other nutritive value.
Remember GI is a measure of how quickly a food affects the body’s glucose levels and the insulin response to that glucose. A diet that is made up predominantly of low GI foods has been shown to improve health by reducing the risk of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease by lowering lipid levels, controlling blood glucose levels and reducing insulin resistance. It is also used in weight management as low GI foods are absorbed slower, therefore keeping you fuller for longer.
Agave syrup, processed, minimal levels of other nutrients, high in fructose (low GI: 10-19)
Maple syrup, processed, primarily sucrose and small amounts of glucose and fructose, contains some zinc and manganese with small amounts of calcium and potassium and some beneficial antioxidant properties (low GI: 54)
Golden syrup, processed, contains sugar and water, no other nutrition (moderate GI: 63)
Rice malt syrup, processed also known as brown rice syrup made from brown rice with enzymes to break down the starch. Made up of maltriose, maltose and glucose. Often reported as being low GI, however it is just about as high as you can get and much higher than table sugar (high GI: 98)
Glucose syrup processed, no other nutrition (high GI: 96-114)
Honey – pure, processed, fructose and glucose, some antioxidant properties. Manuka honey contains some antibacterial and anti inflammatory properties also (moderate GI: 58)
Stevia, processed, natural non nutritive sweetener derived from a plant in the daisy family, zero calories (GI: 0)
Table sugar, white, raw, organic, all processed, no other real benefits or nutritive value (moderate-high GI: 58-84)
Coconut sugar, processed, from the sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm, predominantly sucrose then glucose and fructose. Contains potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron plus vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6 (low GI:35)
Low GI sugar, processed, same calorie content as regular sugar, no other nutritive benefits (low GI: 50)
From this list you can see that some sweeteners come with a higher GI response than others, but ALL things sugar come to us off the shelves having been through some sort of processing and there is good reason for this. Foods need to be processed in order for them to be safe for our food supply and for them to be in a transportable form. Whilst collecting the sap straight from a Maple tree may make you feel virtuous and ‘healthy’, to get that distinct sweet flavour that we recognise as being ‘maple syrup’ it goes through an evaporation process to reduce the water content and leave the sticky sweet syrup, and hopefully eliminate any insects or bark pieces that might be floating around as well. So if packaging tells you their coconut sugar is healthier ‘cos it is in it’s natural and unprocessed form, don’t be fooled!
Basically all sugar has a similar calorie content, (except the stevia) but not all sugar types are absorbed as quickly as the next and not all sugar sweeteners have a package of other nutrients with them.
So is sugar the big bad wolf of food?
I personally believe that you should be able to enjoy everything in moderation. There may be times in your life when you might have specific goals and therefore this motto may need a slight adjustment. But for the most part, when following a healthful diet a little bit of sugar is not going to harm Red Riding Hood. You may want to use some of the alternative sweet options mentioned above in some instances to boost the nutritive value and flavour of your sweet treat. But if consuming sugar as a rare treat only, you will be just fine. If your diet is filled with a lot of processed, convenience foods then you may want to re-think what you put in your mouth. Take a look at the proposed new WHO recommendation to reduce sugar intake to 5% of total energy intake or 6 teaspoons of sugar/day (25g only except from whole fruit).
(If you want to take it a step further, and learn how the body metabolises different forms of sugar, think sucrose, glucose and fructose, then definitely have a look at this link if you haven’t already Huffington Post).