I recently purchased a children’s recipe book in my ongoing quest to increase the amount of vegetables my children eat. One of the recipes (courgette brownies) included coconut sugar – and although I had heard of this before I hadn’t tried it but thought that with the increased amount of baking going on during lockdown perhaps this is the time to try it! So what are the sugar alternatives?
There are various types of sugar – is coconut sugar better than the sucrose in terms of nutritional value?
Let’s start with a bit of science. The white stuff which you put in tea, baking etc..is sucrose – it’s a disaccharide made up of fructose and glucose. You’ll also find naturally occurring sugar in maltose (2 x glucose) and lactose (glucose + galactose). So not all sugars are bad – we don’t think of lactose in milk as being bad apart from if someone is lactose intolerant, but that’s a different story (that’s due to a missing lactase enzyme which results in the lactose not being broken down into its two monosaccharides).
Of the three monosaccharides (fructose, glucose, galactose) fructose is the least favourite in terms of our health. Fructose is 1.5 times sweeter than glucose and is therefore used in a lot of processed food (often abbreviated as HFCS High Fructose Corn Syrup) as it’s cheaper, however it is metabolised differently than the other sugars. Fructose is not directly absorbed into the blood so it doesn’t affect insulin or blood sugar levels – we used to think therefore is was a good alternative to glucose! Instead, fructose is mainly metabolised in the liver which in greater amounts results in higher liver fat (triglycerides) leading to fatty liver. The spanner in the works is that fruit is high in fructose…..so should we stop eating fruit?
Is fruit good?
Fruit is part of the recommended 5-a-day, but we should limit fruit to less than two pieces per day – due to its sugar/fructose content.
Health experts specifically target “free sugars” – these are sugars added to food/drinks e.g. cakes, biscuits, fizzy drinks, flavoured yogurts, cereal etc (link to more info from NHS). They are also found in natural sources e.g. honey, maple/agave/golden syrup and unsweetened fruits juices (fruit juice should be limited to 150ml per day). We don’t consider fruit within the “free sugar” category but it does count towards the total sugar daily amount. The government recommends free sugars should be less than 30g (7 sugar cubes) per day – remembering a can of cola can have up to 9 cubes of sugar. Unfortunately labelling does not specify how much of the “of which is sugars” is free sugar.
So we know to reduce the amount of “free sugars”, but what can we use in baking or in hot drinks?
- Fruit – perhaps an obvious one but using banana or other stewed fruits in baking as a natural sweetener. Banana and chocolate chip muffins are always a favourite (and no sucrose has been added).
- Coconut sugar – sucrose has no nutrients, it’s empty calories. Coconut sugar contains calcium, iron, zinc, potassium due to minimal processing, and its glycemic index is 54 compared to glucose 100 (so it also has less dramatic effect on blood sugar levels).
- Honey – it’s natural so it does have some nutrient value but around half of the product is fructose.
- Agave – sourced from a Mexican plant, but heavily processed and has a higher fructose content than honey.
- Stevia – made from the plant leaf which is 300 times sweeter than sugar and doesn’t impact blood sugar or contain any calories.
From a health perspective we would therefore suggest replacing sucrose with fruit in the first instance, and if not possible or it doesn’t work for you perhaps try stevia or coconut sugar. You may find them difficult to track down at your supermarket but they can be bought online or health food stores.
To find out how to improve your health check out our other blog articles https://www.natural-alternative.co.uk/blog/