The subject of how to sweeten one’s food is packed with differing opinions, cautions and recommendations.
As we try to move away from heaping spoons of refined sugar on to meals, snacks, or into drinks, we could well have found ourselves stepping on far unhealthier ground without realising it.
Most now know about the possible carcinogenic effects of synthetic sweeteners like Aspartame (commercially known as Nutra Sweet, or listed as E951 on food lables) and Saccharin, and how these products actually have similar effects on our body’s blood sugar (im)balances as regular sugar. So, what are the healthier options?
Organic, true Maple Syrup, local honey and coconut sugar are three alternative sweeteners packed with nutritional benefits and antioxidants, but all have calories, some more than sugar, which isn’t going to do muffin tops any favours.
For a while, the big hero was agave syrup; nutritionists everywhere were singing this natural beauty’s praises. Sweeter than sucrose – table sugar – this is the nectar from the Blue Agave plant found in Southern Mexico, and can be substituted directly for sugar wherever and however needed. However, in addition to now being mass-produced and thus often compromised of its original nutritional benefits, agave is 90 per cent fructose, which means it is metabolised by the liver differently to sucrose. Instead of immediately being converted to glucose for the body to use as energy, it is synthesised into fatty acids and laid down for later use. Yup, unless instantly needed (a rarity), it’s converted and stored on your body as fat – just the same way as that villain of 21st century obesity, high fructose corn syrup. So, bin the agave, there are better alternatives.
Other options that have been around for a while are the natural sugar alcohols, like Xylitol, which are far sweeter than sugar (so a little goes a long way), lower in calories and with a zero glycemic Index number, they don’t interfere with blood sugar levels. Xylitol can be used in baking, added to hot drinks and sprinkled on food, just be aware that too much may have a laxative effect!
So, what to do if still in need of a low-cal solution? Well, have you heard about stevia? It’s extracted from the Stevia Rebaudiana plant, has zero carbs, zero calories and zero GI, so again, no effect on the body’s blood sugar balance. It is about 300 times sweeter than sugar, so only a tiny amount is needed – just try a nib of the end of one of these leaves and you’ll see what I mean. As well as being found in health food stores (Ireland’s Raw Kitchen do a great product), Canderel now manufacture stevia in various sweetener formats, readily available in good supermarkets. Some report a slight aftertaste, but no substitute is ever going to be a replica.
Worth a try as bikini season beckons?
Melanie Morris is the editor of IMAGE Magazine and our resident health guru @melaniemorris.