Alternatives to sugar - what's healthy, what's not?
For those looking to give up sugar (whilst still satisfying their sweet tooth), it seems like there is a bewildering array of natural, and not so natural alternatives. But how do you know which is healthy and which could actually do more harm than good? We always want our readers to be able to make the most informed choices, so we thought we'd look at some sugar alternatives and sort out which ones you should be using on your morning porridge or in your protein shakes, and which ones you should leave on the shelves!
Why choose sugar alternatives?
Let's first look at why you might want to choose an alternative to sugar. Not all sugar is bad, but processed, refined white sugar can spike blood sugar levels and is seriously bad news for diabetics. This spike in blood sugar is what gives you the high and instant energy boost you get after eating, say, a chocolate bar. But it's followed by a 'crash' a few hours later, which could leave you feeling even more tired than you did before.
So it's safe to say that white sugar doesn't provide you with sustainable energy, but there are natural alternatives out there which can do just that. Sugar has been linked to health problems from tooth decay to obesity, and it hides in plain sight in many foods, from ready meals and tinned soups to 'healthy' cereal bars and even products you wouldn't think of, such as bread and savoury baked goods. With the average person in the UK consuming a whopping 1.25lb of sugar a week (1), perhaps it's time we all switched to a healthier alternative – but where do you start?
One of our favourite sweeteners has to be coconut sugar – I mean, coconuts are packed with good fats, vitamins and minerals, plus they taste delicious! With demand for coconut oil, coconut water and coconut sugar rising, you'll find this costs a bit more than regular sugar but we believe it's worth it. It's made by heating coconut palm sap, which evaporates the water and leaves 'sugar' granules, which have a similar taste to brown sugar. Coconut sugar scores low on the glycemic index, so you won't get the crash you get after eating white sugar. You'll find you can substitute it for sugar on most occasions.
Our verdict: Healthy - a great sugar alternative!
Honey is much sweeter than sugar, and although it's higher in calories, because of its sweetness, you'll use less! It also has antimicrobial properties and is loaded with vitamins. Choose organic, local honey wherever you can, and don't be afraid to experiment with different honeys such as lavender or orange blossom, as they can add unique flavour to your cooking. Honey works well for cooking or baking and it tastes great in tea.
Our verdict: Healthy – a great, natural alternative to sugar, but don't use too much!
For a while, it seemed as if all everyone was talking about was agave, which was hailed as the new 'wonder' sweetener. Everyone thought that because it was natural, that meant it had to be healthy, right? Not really. Made from the boiled down leaves of the blue agave plant, this sticky, sweet syrup is seriously sweet, so you hardly need to use any. However, it has been found to be extremely high in fructose (between 75 and 90%) - that's even higher than high fructose corn syrup! This means the body struggles to metabolise it and it raises your blood sugar levels, so you could feel lethargic and crave sugar again shortly afterwards.
Our verdict: Unhealthy – raises blood sugar levels
Most people have a bottle of maple syrup stashed in their cupboards – we love it drizzled over mango pancakes for a delicious weekend breakfast! With its distinctive taste, maple syrup can be used as a sugar substitute in baking, although quantities of other liquids may need to be reduced accordingly. Maple sugar is also available, which can be used an an everyday sugar alternative.
Our verdict: Healthy – it has a stronger flavour than honey, so it may take some time for your tastebuds to adjust!
Made from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant, Stevia's popularity has taken off in recent years (and we may have Breaking Bad to thank for bringing it to the attention of many people here in the UK!) It's 100% natural, with no calories and no carbs. It doesn't raise blood sugar levels and it's low glycemic. Sounds amazing, right? You can buy the raw dried leaves, the most natural form of Stevia, to add to smoothies and shakes. However, you can also buy processed powders such as Truvia, and it's here you should exercise some caution. Many brands only use certain active ingredients from the plant and add a whole host of additives. Stevia can also taste quite bitter until you get used to it.
Our verdict: Healthy, if you use the natural leaves. Unhealthy if you're going to be using a lot of the processed powder. You'll find that Stevia doesn't satisfy your sugar craving, leaving you still seeking a sugar fix!
Brown Rice Syrup
We know that brown rice is a healthy alternative to white rice, but sometimes we can't be bothered to wait 25 minutes for it to cook, especially when we've got a yoga class to go to. So why not use brown rice syrup as a sweetener? The gluten and wheat free syrup is made by boiling brown rice. Ok, so it's not great added to tea, but drizzled over your morning porridge or with pancakes, it's pretty delicious. Although brown rice syrup is quite heavily processed, it does still contain many of the nutrients found in brown rice.
Our verdict: Healthy – great in salad dressings and for home baking, not so much in tea!
You've probably come across Xylitol in chewing gum and sugar-free mints. It differs from normal sugar, which has six carbon atoms and is a 'five-carbon sugar' – this means it has antibacterial properties. Despite its chemical sounding name, it's actually found naturally in the body and can also be found in corn cobs and many other fibrous vegetables and fruit.
Our verdict: Healthy – just don't overdo it as it can cause stomach upsets in some people.
We love baking with dates – check our our raw banana bread bars recipe! They're great used as a natural sweetener in cakes, smoothies and energy bites. Date sugar is made from ground, dehydrated dates, with no additives. It's high in antioxidants, and packed with potassium, which can help to keep your heart healthy. However, it's clumpy texture means it's best used in recipes that call for brown sugar rather than regular sugar.
Our verdict: Healthy – use it in small quantities though, as it's high in fructose.
We hope this has given you an insight into which sugar alternatives might be the best choice for you – it's a matter of personal taste, but remember, the more natural the product, the healthier it will be for you!
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