As a chef I have used a LOT of sugar – no more so than my time as a pastry chef where it was a principle ingredient in lemon tarts, chocolate ganaches, tuiles and numerous other delights.
However, whilst this little grain can bring us much pleasure, evidence against eating too much of the stuff grows by the day. And so, a few years ago I began devoting my time to hunt for alternatives. What surprised me in my quest was the amount of misinformation out there about it.
Making sense of sugar
Sugar has certainly moved up the health agenda in recent years but it can sometimes be hard to makes sense of it. After all it’s in pretty much everything we eat and has become ingrained in the very fabric of our society – just think about how we use it as a reward for children, or at times of celebration in cakes and other sweet treats. It seems that we are hardwired into seeking out this sweet substance – something that as hunter gatherers would have stood us in good stead to survive difficult times.
However, sugar, as we know, is firmly believed by the scientific community to be one of the most serious threats to health causing obesity and many chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
How exactly is sugar damaging us?
One of the main health issues with sucrose (the scientific name for table sugar) is the impact of fructose (sugar from fruits and one half of the chemical make-up of sucrose) on our blood sugar levels – measured through the Glycaemic Index (GI).
Fructose tricks our brain into thinking we’re not full and so we overeat. Moreover, excess fructose can’t be converted into energy. Instead our cells turn excess fructose into liver fat. That starts a cascade of insulin resistance (insulin promotes sugar uptake from blood) which leads to chronic metabolic disease, including diabetes and heart disease.
The trouble is the food industry currently uses significant amounts of substances high in fructose (such as high fructose corn syrup) as a sweetener, often in an attempt to create flavour to low fat foods.
As well as the health impacts, there are also links between the impact of sugar on the brain. Experts believe while a healthy diet can help improve your mood, a diet high in added sugar and processed foods may increase your chances of developing depression. Or in the case of children it negatively impacts their behaviour - an issue we try to tackle at Jamie’s Farm where I work. I have seen first-hand how reducing added sugar in children’s diet can very quickly lead to calmer, more focused children.
‘Free’ sugars: not as healthy as we like to think
In order to find out which sugars are more detrimental to our health we need a distinction between “free sugar” and those which are not “free”.
Free sugar is what we call any sugar added to a food or drink or the sugar found in honey, syrup and fruit juice. These are free because they're not inside the cells of the food we eat. Whereas the sugars found in fruit, vegetables and milk have a less negative effect on our health as the sugar is contained within their fibre meaning it gets released slowly.
But when fruit is turned into fruit juice, the sugars come out of their cells and become free sugars making it easier to consume extra sugar without realising. For example, you wouldn't eat four apples in a row but you might drink their juice in one glass of apple juice.
Government advice is for adults and children aged over 11 to eat no more than around 30g of free sugars a day, the equivalent of 400ml of fruit juice, making it easy to go way over that amount.
What about alternatives such as honey or agave?
Many people are now switching from granulated and caster sugar to sweeteners such as honey and agave. These are indeed natural free sugars and do have some minimal health benefits (e.g. honey contains antioxidants) but when it comes to their impact on GI and their levels of fructose the picture is not so rosey.
The GI ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 based on how quickly and how much they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high GI, including those with high sugar content are rapidly digested and cause substantial fluctuations in blood sugar. Foods with a low GI are digested more slowly, prompting a more gradual rise in blood sugar. Agave is 90% fructose (40% more than sucrose) and honey’s GI rating is 50 (only just below sucrose). See here and here for comprehensive lists.
So how can we reduce sugar in our diet and still enjoy our food?
At Delushious we firmly believe that you don’t need to compromise on flavour when it comes to enjoying food. By focusing on quality rather than quantity we can reduce our overall consumption of sugar. There are also plenty of natural alternatives to sugar that are better for us and far lower in calories we can use - over the coming months we’ll be talking about these.
You can use alternatives such as dried fruit (e.g. date paste) and natural sweeteners (e.g. stevia and erythritol) as a substitute for sugar. These have a much lower impact on your blood sugar levels. Our black bean chocolate cake is a good example of these used in combination to produce great results.