So, too much sugar is bad for our health – but are sugar substitutes really any better? We caught up with nutritionist Cassandra Barns to find out if swapping the white stuff for the likes of stevia and coconut sugar is really worth it…
Are some sugar substitutes better than others?
Yes and no. While artificial substitutes like aspartame, saccharin and sucralose (found in Splenda) come with chemical baggage and are best avoided, remember that naturally derived sugars are still sugars – they’re not a health food. If you’re going to have sugar, there are more nutritious ways to get it than refined white sugar; for example, raw honey – in particular manuka honey – contains small amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, your standard supermarket honey may be no better than sugar, as the refining and pasteurising process removes most of these substances. Maple syrup and unrefined coconut sugar are also good options as they contain nutrients and antioxidants, but remember these aren’t significant sources of nutritional value.
How do they fare on calories?
Weight for weight, standard sugar and most natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, agave syrup and coconut sugar provide similar amounts of calories; typically around 60 calories per tablespoon. However, when it comes to how quickly sugar hits your bloodstream, not all sugars are created equal. The likes of coconut sugar and agave have a lower glycemic index (GI) than other sugar alternatives, meaning the body absorbs it more slowly than refined sugar, so you avoid the typical blood sugar spikes.
What about stevia – isn’t that calorie free?
Absolutely. Stevia and xylitol are two sugar alternatives that have fewer calories than sugar. Stevia is virtually calorie-free, and xylitol has around two-thirds of the calories of sugar, and a much lower glycaemic index. However, xylitol can trigger digestive issues for some people and stevia has a bitter taste. Also be wary of buying stevia in the supermarket, as many popular brands are highly refined.
Does stevia trick the body into thinking it’s sugar?
Quite possibly – stevia may not be as harmless as people think. Research shows that when we eat stevia, or foods flavoured with stevia, it has the effect of tricking our brain into thinking we’re going to get sugar. Then when no sugar arrives, this could actually increase our cravings for it. So although stevia is considered a safer alternative than artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, and it doesn’t contain any calories, it may not be that helpful in the long term for supporting weight loss or cutting sugar cravings.
So should stevia be avoided?
Not necessarily – stevia can provide the sugar fix without the calories and doesn’t impact blood sugar levels in the same way as regular sugar. But to beat sugar cravings in the long run, it could be worth taking a break from all forms of sweeteners to allow your taste buds, and brain, to readjust. If you’re looking to cut down on sugar, I’d also suggest taking a chromium supplement. Chromium is a trace mineral that helps maintain a healthy blood sugar balance – this is key for beating cravings. Try Quest Nutra Pharma EquiGluco (from £11.98, Qnutrapharma.com), a specialist supplement containing chromium.
Are there any sugar substitutes to completely ditch?
First and foremost, avoid anything containing artificial sweeteners. The main culprits are aspartame, acesulfame K and saccharin. Remember that these may be listed by their E numbers rather than by name, so in general avoid anything with E numbers too. If you’re trying to cut out sugar, then watch out for all the different forms of sugar that can be listed on a label. These may include glucose, dextrose, glucose-fructose syrup, honey, malt, sugar syrup or golden syrup. If several of these are listed then they can all add up to a serious amount of sugar.
What about baking – are some sugars better than others?
Coconut sugar, maple syrup and some honeys can be slightly healthier alternatives, but at the end of the day, baked goods are still a treat, and just because they’re made with healthier sugar it doesn’t make them good for you on a daily basis. If you’re a keen baker and looking for an alternative, it’s definitely worth considering coconut sugar, which can often be swapped directly for white sugar in recipes.
The bottom line?
Remember that all forms of natural sugar – whether honey, maple syrup or fruit – impact blood glucose levels to some extent and lead to the release of insulin. No matter how natural or nutrient rich a sugar may be, the body will respond in much the same way. For this reason, all sugars should be used in moderation, regardless of their source.