Which sweeteners are bad for you? Are they all bad? Which are okay to use? Which are the best to use?
What is sugar?
Sugar is a name for sweet tasting carbohydrates that can be added to drinks and food as they can be dissolved.
Simple sugars are monosaccharides. Some are amongst others: glucose, fructose and galactose. They are the building blocks of disaccharides such as sucrose (sugar) or lactose (milk sugar)
Table sugar or granulated sugar is also known as sucrose. This is a disaccharide, which means that it is a combination of two monosaccharides, in the case of sucrose they are glucose and fructose. In the body sucrose is metabolised into fructose and glucose. Lactose is made up of galactose and glucose
Where does sugar come from?
The two most commonly used plants for the production of sugar are the sugar beet and sugar cane.
Sugar cane come from South East Asia originally.
There is a lot of sugar produced yearly. In 2017 there were about 170 million metric tonnes produced. in 2018 that went up to about 190 million metric tonnes.
The use of sugar cane for the production of sugar is very old. The jury is out on how old as different historians have different thoughts on that. It is either way a very old product. Some evidence shows that sugar cane was used in Papua New Guinea around 8.000 BCE. It seems to have spread by the seafaring peoples from around 3.500 BCE around the Eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean. It appears in India around 2.500 BCE. From there it spread further through Asia. So it is indeed very old in its usage.
Which sugar should you avoid?
White sugar, as this is processed and fully stripped of any nutrients. This is not a healthy product and hasn’t been in our food supply for very long. Only since 1852, when David Weston first used a centrifuge to separate the molasses. Before that the molasses was always included, so the sugar used in those days was the complete product, not the stripped product that we have now. Furthermore in human history sugar was for a long time very expensive and in certain times it was considered a “spice”. Therefore it wasn’t eaten in the huge amounts that we eat it now, which is the reason why our bodies are not used to it at all and struggle with digesting and metabolising it.
There are also artificial sweeteners, they are also a processed factory product. They are not a healthy product and should therefore be avoided. I’ll go into the reasons below.
Which sugar can you use?
Unprocessed sugars / sweeteners are the only ones you should use as they are complete products which have the nutrients still in there. But, that said, you should make sure that you don’t use a lot of unprocessed sugars / sweeteners. Only use sugars in moderation. Examples of good sugars are sucanat, rapadura, unprocessed honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, palm sugar, jaggery
How does it get metabolised in your body.
The body is pretty good at metabolising sugars into simple sugars.
For the metabolism of sugar or sucrose the sucrase, which is an enzyme produced in the small intestines of the human body.
Lactose requires lactase to do this. The viili in the human gut create the enzyme lactase to do this. Lactose itself cannot be absorbed by the human body, but galactose and glucose can.
The glucose streams with our blood to all our tissues where it gets used. All the cells in the body burn it to get energy.
The fructose gets taken up by the liver and gets metabolised there.
Too much of either ends up getting converted to body fat and stored, which leads to weight gain. That is one of the reasons why white sugar isn’t good, as it’s easy to get too much of it, which leads to weight gain. It is added to many, many processed products to make them palatable because of the low fat world we live in. Often white sugar is the replacement for what was once upon a time the fat that was in that product. This is definitely not a good step that has been taken.
Insulin gets produced by the pancreas. It regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It does this by promoting the absorption of carbohydrates into the liver, fat and muscle cells of the skeleton. In the tissues the glucose is converted into glycogen or fats, i the liver the glucose is converted into glycogen and fats. Glucose production in the liver is inhibited by high levels of insulin in the blood stream.
Insulin circulating in the blood stream affects the blending of proteins in a large amount and variety of tissues.
Low levels of insulin in the blood promotes the breaking down of large molecules into smaller units.
We keep hearing about Insulin resistance these days. We read about it in the media, in leaflets and such. I have noticed that many people do not actually know what it really means. They know it’s not good, but that is usually where it ends for them.
That’s why I’m going to explain it here, so that you know what it is and why sweeteners have an impact on it and what you can do to make sure that you will not end up with this problem.
Insulin resistance means that the cells in the body are not properly reacting to the insulin produced by the pancreas in the body. This results in your blood sugar levels remain high after eating carbohydrates of any sort.
Insulin resistance is considered part of the metabolic syndrome package, which leads to various health problems in the long run, when it is not properly managed. The current school of thought is that insulin resistance happens because of genetic and life style factors. You can definitely influence the life style factors. The usual recommendations are to lose weight and to move more. Of course this is not as easily done as it is said for many people, especially when they do not have any accountability buddy or a coach to help them stay on track. It also needs to be done well thought out. Just trying to eat less is not going to work as it is more complex than that. Going to the gym 7 days a week is not either as there is very little benefit from doing more than 3x a week for health. So talking to a health coach will help you much better as we are trained to help people develop a healthy life style.
Usually ending up with insulin resistance means that it is the first step towards developing diabetes type 2, which can also lead to heart disease and other problems. It is fully reversible from what I have read in the research. Research also supports the use of a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet for that purpose.
The organisation Diabetes,co.uk recommends doing a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet. From anecdotal evidence it also seems that a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet makes people feel much healhier and fitter and they just do much better overall and many can prevent getting diabetes type 2, others manage to postpone it with many years, some even several decades. So it’s defiinitely worth trying. You don’t have anything to lose as a low carbohydrate and ketogenic diet is healthy for you, so it will not cause you any other problems, but it can postpone the development of diabetes type 2.
White sugar is not good for anyone. Replacing it with better versions is the way to go. But for that you’ll need to know a bit more about it all. For those who prefer getting the “rules” and not the reasons why, here is the list.
Good alternatives are: honey, especially local raw, maple syrup, sucanat, rapadura, palm sugar, jaggery, and coconut sugar
Avoid: white sugar, agave syrup, evaporated fruit juices or syrups like that. Anything that is really high in fructose tends to be more trouble than it’s worth for most people.
Stevia is a product on which there is very little agreement. I personally don’t use much of it as it does give the sweet taste in the mouth and with that your body starts to make insulin, which then cannot be used up as there is nothing sweet to take care of. Furthermore it has a bitter after taste, which doesn’t make it all that great. If you want to use it, use the green powder, which is the plant that is powdered, nothing taken away, nothing added.
Lower amount used
Lowering the amounts used isn’t all that difficult when you know what you’re looking for and when you know where to find sugars. The more you cook yourself, the more you can avoid added sugars.
One of the things you need to know is that “no added sugar” means very very little. It just means that they didn’t add any white sugar. It doesn’t mean that the product is low in sugar, as fruit sugars are also an issue. It also doesn’t mean that there are no artificial sugars added as they are not sugar. Many products that have the label “no added sugar” on there are actually really not healthy, frequently they are full of chemicals, which you do best to avoid as well.
In the UK we eat 700grams of sugar per week. Just think about that, 700grams is nearly a kilo. That is an awful lot of sugar for a species that never had that to it’s disposable until fairly recently in history. So there is likely something going wrong there. In the paleolithic times we didn’t have sugars available to us the way we do now. Plain sugar, wasn’t there as the process to extract sugar from beets and canes was not developed yet. So there was honey and some sweet foods. Honey required quite some effort to get that. But people did, so there was that when it was available. Some sweet foods were the odd type of fruit, though most fruits were actually quite sour. Those are the fruits that are still the most healthy as that is why we evolved with. Fruits were only for a short period available, but they were eating, just not as often as now. Savoury was where it was at.
So how to do you go about lowering the amount.
First read labels and make sure that all products you buy do not have a lot of sugar in there. In the ingredient list you can see what in the product has the highest amount and what has the lowest amount. The first thing in the list has the highest and the last thing the lowest. Also add up which types of sugar are in a product. Sometimes you see sucrose, fructose and barley malt. They are all sugars that add up very quickly to an unhealthy level.
Tips to lower:
* avoid fizzy drinks. They are loaded with sugar.
* avoid fruit juices. Fruit juices are very high in fructose.
* avoid cereal breakfasts. They are usually loaded with sugar and are in all not healthy at all. Good alternatives are bacon, sausages, eggs, full fat yoghurt, frittatta and foods like that.
* avoid sugary desserts, try to replace with yoghurt, baked fruit with cream or such foods. When you use sweet you want to have fats as they slow down the digestion. That can be helpful in the evening to get you through the night.
* avoid table sauces that are high in sugar. Ketchup is often loaded, make your own with a better sweetener. Use tomato paste, home made mayonaisse, mustard, pesto or such if you like.
* avoid low fat foods. Most of those have a lot of sugars add to make them palatable. Full fat is much healthier.
* avoid tins and other processed foods that have a lot of sugar added. The label will tell you.
* for baked goods you can often lower the amount, experiment with it. At times only half of the amount will give the right consistency. Sugar serves a purpose, but you can swap out with better versions and keep those at a lower level. With honey you can often get away with using half of the recommended amount. Some other sugars need 2/3 to keep it good. Just experiment and have a good time. Do remember though that baked goods are a treat, they should not be a daily occurrance as they are in and of itself already high in carbs. Those carbs become sugars in your blood stream.
Other names of sugar:
Keep in mine that anything that has the name sugar in there is a sugar / sweetener, also anything that has syrup in there is a sugar / sweetener. Anything that ends in *ose tends to be a sweetener, mostly not a healthy one. Names with malt in there tend to also refer to sugars of some sort.
* fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, fruit sugar, dextrose, grape sugar, date syrup, date sugar
* corn syrup
* invert sugar
* hydrolysed starch
* buttered syrup
* high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
* agave nectar
* cane sugar or cane sugar crystals
* florida crystal (for those in the USA)
* barley malt
This list is not exhaustive, but it give you a good idea on what names you can find on labels, which really do mean sugar or sweetener of some sort.
Most plants contain some sort of sugar in their fibres.
Sucrose is most prevalent in sugar cane and sugar beets.
These 2 are mostly used in the commercial production of sugar. They tend to end up as refined white sugar.
Sugar cane came from India and Southeast Asia.
Sugar beets are known in Europe, North Africa, Macaronesia and Western Asia.
The first writing on the usage of the sugar beet was in 1575.
White sugar is completely stripped from everything except for the sucrose.
It’s known as regular sugar, table sugar or granulated sugar. It is most commonly used in North American and Europe. It can be made from either sugar cane or sugar beets.
During the refining process the molasses is completely removed and with that the minerals are fully stripped from the product. It becomes 99.7% pure which C12H22O11,which means that after the refining process it’s not easy to tell whether the sugar came from beets or cane as it’s the same.
Normal brown sugar isn’t all that different as the amount of molasses in brown sugar is minimal. There are hardly any minerals left, so the brown sugar normally purchased in the supermarket isn’t hardly any different from white sugar. The biggest differences are just colour and flavour, not nutritionally.
Rapadura and sucanat are definitely different as they have the molasses fully present, which means it is a whole food with the minerals in there.
Glucose Fructose Syrup
Glusose fructose syrup is also known as glucose-fructose, isoglucose and high fructose corn syrup. You read a lot about how bad high fructose corn syrup is for you. But that is always linked to the USA. Most people do not know that it’s just a name thing. It’s that it’s not in Europe or other areas of the world, it sort of is. It’s just marketed under another name and derived from other plants than corn. With that it doesn’t seem to have the bad reputation that high fructose corn syrup has in the USA.
Many people know that high fructose corn syrup has been linked to obesity in the USA, but at the same time they think that it is not in their food supply, so that they are safe. If only we were….
Dr. Mark Hyman has written quite a bit about why it is so bad for you. You’ll find his article in the references, but I’ll give a short summary here.
In history we have never consumed as much sugar as we do now. Our bodies aren’t equipped for that and it causes health problems.
It is a highly processed product. It causes depletion of phosphorus, which is crucial for teeth health and regeneration. It causes leaky gut.
It contains toxins like heavy metals.
Independent research shows how questionable this product is.
When a syrup like that is use it is guaranteed a low quality product as they have clearly gone for the cheapest options.
The native peoples of central Mexico used the agave plant in various ways for thousands of years. They used the plant as medicine and building their homes. These were different types of agave than are used to make agave nectar though.
They would also use the sap of one species of agave, the maguey, to ferment naturally. That would result in Pulque, alcoholic drink, which is milky viscous looking has a little bit of foam.
Mezcal is made from the cooked hearts of some agave plants.
Tequila is made from the blue agave plants.
As you can see the use of the agave plant is old. But native peoples didn’t make a syrup or sugar out of agave the way it is done now. There is a syrup made out of the sap. This is a molasses type of syrup as the juice is cooked down. This is produced very limited and it is a very expensive to make, so will not end up on our markets.
Agave nectar is a new type of sweetener. The process on how to make it was only developed around the 1990s. Therefore not a very traditional type of sweetener.
This sweetener is made from the starch of the bulb root of the agave plant. So not like the traditional alcoholic drinks, which were made from the plant itself, not the root.
The root contains a complex carbohydrate called inulin. Inulin is made up of chains of fructose molecules. Inulin is a indigestible fibre and it doesn’t taste sweet, but that is about 50% of the carbohydrates that are in agave nectar.
The process used to make the inulin and agave glucose into the syrup is very similar to how glucose fructose syrup is made. The starch in the agave is treated with enzymes and chemicals that processes the agave starch into a fructose syrup. This syrup contains about 70% fructose. This amount of fructose isn’t healthy and I wouldn’t recommend anyone using this product.
Agave nectar has another added problem. It contains saponins, The ones found in the agave plant are toxic to humans as they are steroid derivatives and can disrupt red blood cells and cause vomiting and diarrhoea. Not something you should consider consuming.
There is quite a difference between whole sugars and the refined ones. For a very very long time humans only had whole sugars. The refining process only started in the 12th century in Egypt. This slowly expanded to the rest of the world. There are these days more refineries in Europe, North America and Japan as those are the countries where people eat more sugar than people in other areas.
Whole sugars look very different than refined ones do. They look very brown. They also taste different. The treacle or molasses is still fully in there. This you can taste. Often the amount of treacle or molasses is over 10%. This means that that is 10% of nutrients that are normally stripped away during the refining process. That is a lot when you think about it. And that is all taken away.
Whole sugars can be used 1-1 in recipes. But it affects the flavour. So be aware of that. My kids don’t know any better, so they will simply eat muffins and all that are made with whole sugars. It’s too long ago that I used white sugar in recipes. It is good to start with recipes that are already somewhat more deep in flavour when you want to make the switch. Chocolate brownies or so are a great place to start as chocolate is already quite a rich flavour so the difference will be minimal. Pumpkin spiced treats have the same. I also found that it made very little difference in our St.Nicolas treats as they have speculatius spice mix, which is very rich. So you hardly notice the difference in that.
What you can do is to start introducing it is to first do it with 3/4 white and 1/4 whole. After a couple of weeks go half-half. Then move onto 1/4 white and 3/4 whole and then some weeks later go fully whole. You can definitely experiment with which. The sugars such as rapadura and sucanat are the easiest as they are 1-1, but you can also experiment with maple syrup, honey and such. They have a different flavour profile and may not impact your foods all that much. Honey can be really neutral in flavour, so for some recipes you may want to opt for honey. But with honey it means that you only use half of the amount as it is just that sweet.
Sucanat, rapadura, jaggery, panela, muscovado
So what are all these different types of whole sugar. I’ll explain below.
Sucanat is made from unrefined sugar cane juice that is cooked in while being stirred and then granulated. Because of that it retains all the treacle or molasses, which contains iron, calcium, potassium, chromium and B vitamins.
Rapadura is made from unrefined sugar cane juice that is heated over low heat while being stirred and then it gets processed into a grainy sugar. It retains all of the treacle or molasses, which contains iron, calcium, potassium, chromium and B vitamins.
Jaggery is made by boiling down unrefined sugar cane juice. The syrup is then poured into moulds where it hardens into cones. You scrape the amount of sugar you need off the cones as it is still somewhat soft when you buy it. It tends to be much cheaper, especially in the UK, than sucanat or rapadura. But it is essentially not much different. Jaggery comes from India. It retains all of the treacle or molasses, which contains iron, calcium, potassium, chromium and B vitamins.
Panela, chancaca, pilonchillo, etc
Panela is made by boiling down unrefined sugar cane juice. The syrup is then poured into moulds where it then hardens into blocks. The process is essentially the same as Jaggery. Panela is mostly made in Latin America and called that way in some of the Latin American countries.
Here are the other names used:
* Raspadura in Cuba, Panama and Ecuador
* Rapadou in Haiti
* Dulce de panela in El Salvador
* Panela in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador
* Rapadura in Cuba, Panama, Brazil, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic
* Chancaca in Peru, Bolivia and Chile
* Tapa de dulce in Costa Rica and Nicaragua
* Papelón in Venezuela
* Uluru Dust in Australia
* Gur or Jaggery or Vellam or Bellain India
* Gura in Afghanistan
* Piloncillo (“little pylon”, so named for the cone shape) in Mexico and Spain
* Nam oy in Laos
* Gula Jawa in Indonesia
It’s all made by the same process and that means they are whole sugars that you can likely buy cheaper in your local areas that sucanat or rapadura. And as with the other sugars, it retains all of the treacle or molasses, which contains iron, calcium, potassium, chromium and B vitamins.
Muscovado, khandsari, khand
This sugar can be partially refined, so it may not have all the treacle or molasses left. Therefore it may be better to use it as little as possible. Different manufacturers make it in different ways. So check with your manufacturer whether it is unrefined or not.
Honey (can use ½ amount)
Regular honey from the supermarket is often not the best of quality. When you need to use that, use organic only as the bees have been taken care of well to produce that honey. It also means that they have been collecting in areas where there are organic fields for them to find their honey. Honey is still a sweetener, but it is easier on the digestive system. That is why on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet honey is allowed as it does not feed the pathogenic bacteria that we do not need in our gut, contrary to sugar.
Raw organic honey is the best as it’s been untreated, which means it has all the nutrients in there that get killed off by the heating process that honey from the supermarket is subjected to. It also means that the beekeper has a vested interest in keeping his bee colonies healthy. Most beekeepers make sure that they have their bees fly in organic fields. Many have agreements with organic farmers for pollination.
Manuka honey is a special honey which comes from New Zealand where the bees have collected nectar from the manuka bush. The bees collecting are European honey bees. This result is a lovely manuka honey that has an anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory affect on humans. Traditionally it has been used for many health issues. I will name a few here, you can find a long version of it in the references: It can aid in wound healing, it promotes good oral health, it helps soothe a sore throat, it can help prevent gastric ulcers, it can help with digestive problems such as IBS, some have reported that it improved acne. We use it for sound healing and a sore throat mainly. But it was very interesting to read about all the other options that are there to try manuka honey with. Make sure you use it straight from the jar if you can as unheated it will likely have a stronger affect on you.
Honey comes in very different flavours, from very strongly flavoured to very mild honey. A few very light ones are: acacia and alfafa honey.
Very strong flavours are: eucalyptus and coffee. All have their place and all are really nice. They just have different flavours. I personally love acacia, eucalyptus and orange blossom honey.
How to use it
Honey is twice as sweet as sugar, so you can get away with using half the amount. I always use it by weight. So when a recipe says 200 grams of sugar, I cut it down to 100 grams of honey. You can also use the volume system if that is what you are used to, so that means 1 cup becomes 1/2 cup. I do think that the volume system is less accurate, but I don’t think it makes much of a difference with honey as there is not a lot of air in there usually, with flour and vegetables 1 cup can be 2 very different weights.
Maple syrup comes from North America. It is a syrup made from the sap of the red and black maple trees. Though some others can be used as well. The red one is the most widely used on for the production of maple syrup. The biggest producer is Quebec in Canada. About 70% to 80% of all maple syrup produced world wide comes from there.
Maple syrup has been used by indigenous peoples of North American for centuries. They already collected it. Though in the meantime the process has changed very much. The European settlers got exposed to it and started doing the same. A grading system is used these days for showing what quality maple syrup is. Grade A is what you want to make sure you purchase. It is the most widely available.
There used to be other systems in place, a number system was once upon a time used and another letter system which gave the options of A, B & C. Grade A has always been the best, or number 1. Some area’s in the USA use the other letter or the number system. Canada uses the letter system and maple syrup coming from Canada is always grade A as that is produced for commercial sale to the public. For commercial purposes there are some other grades produced, but they tend to be in large containers and normally you won’t buy any other than half a litre to a litre.
Maple syrup has some vitamins, mostly B, and some minerals in there, so it is a much better sweetener than white sugar.
When the maple syrup is cooked in it becomes thicker. From there it can be dehydrated completely and made into a sugar.
How to use
You can use maple syrup 1 to 1. By weight or by volume. The same goes for maple sugar. It is very flavourful so it may not go down well right away. Though the flavour is very nice. You could start by using it on pancakes and waffles to let your family get used to the lovely flavour of maple syrup.
Coconut sugar is another healthier variety of sugar. But with coconut sugar there is a small downside. The sugar is made from the flowers, so the flowers that are tapped for the nectar will not become coconuts. The nectar is cooked into and dehydrated.
Of course producing coconut sugar can be done sustainably without having much of an effect on the production of coconuts. This used to be the case in many areas where coconut sugar, aka palm sugar, was the only sugar available, such as Indonesia. In the Indonesian kitchen it is usually called gula jawa, which means sugar of Java. But these days when it is all about profit, it may not be produced sustainably. Therefore it is wiser to go for organic as that has to be produced in a way which is not causing problems to the environment.
Some people choose to not use coconut sugar as it impair the production of coconuts and use other sugars. Others decide to purchase only organic. The choice is yours. Do a bit of research into the brand you’re buying and see what your best options are.
Other names for coconut sugar are palm sugar, gula jawa, gula melaka, gula merah. Sometimes jaggery is made from coconut sugar.
Coconut sugar is considered a low GI sugar, which means that it doesn’t make your blood sugar level spike as quickly as other sugars will do.
From my researching the topic of artificial sweeteners I have come to the conclusion that they are not a good substitute to use. My reasons are that because they do taste sweet, the receptors in your mouth will give signals to your pancreas and such, which means insulin will get made. But that doesn’t get used as there are no sugars entering the body. This seems to create hunger, which means that you will end up eating more. The insulin doesn’t just go away, it needs to be used up.
Here is a list of some of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners so you know what you’re looking for:
- aspartame – 200x sweeter than sugar
- acesulfame K – 200x sweeter than sugar
- cyclamate – 50x sweeter than sugar
- saccharin – 300x sweeter than sugar
- sorbitol – 200x sweeter than sugar
- sucralose – 600x sweeter than sugar
- xylitol – 180x sweeter than sugar
Most artificial sweeteners have no calories, some have very little calories, such as sorbitol and xylitol. Xylitol has shown to have some positive affect on teeth health in some studies. It remains a bit of a trick to figure out why and what, so use your own judgement on that.
Some of the sweeteners have been linked to a variety of health problems in some studies. Therefore I wouldn’t even risk it as there are safer options that do not have those links. They aren’t by any means conclusive as they would need to be studied for a long time in a double blind setting. Therefore you can see that they can come out as safe in some studies and unsafe in others as it’s hard to do a long term double blind study on these kind of things. Therefore I don’t recommend the use as there are simply too many unknown surrounding them.
When you want to improve your life style to prevent insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, please contact me. It has been part of my education to learn about this and how to implement a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet for this purpose.
In case you want to make sure that your family ends up eating healthier, please do contact me. I can keep you accountable and teach you which sweeteners are the better versions than the ones that are commonly used.
History of sugar
History of sugar 2
High fructose corn syrup, Dr. Mark Hyman
Agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup
Health Line on Manuka Honey
Wikipedia on Manuka Honey
Wikipedia on Maple syrup
Wikipedia on Coconut sugar
Dr. Weil on Coconut sugar