Most of us love a sweet taste – we have evolved to like it. Natural sweetness comes from sugar, which is a source of energy. During our evolution, people didn’t always have an abundance of food and when they found something sweet, it meant a valuable source of energy and signal to the brain to search for more.
That was then but now there is too much sugar everywhere and we have the opposite problem – how to enjoy the taste but not overload on it.
Sucrose aka Sugar
Sucrose, commonly known as table sugar, is a simple sugar made up of glucose and fructose and usually extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet. When you eat sucrose, the enzymes in your gut split the molecule into glucose and fructose and they then each follow their own absorption route – glucose increases your blood sugar levels, provides energy to cells and excess may be eventually stored as fat. Fructose, on the other hand, is processed in the liver and may also be turned into fat so it follows that eating more than just small amounts of sugar can cause weight gain.
Note: Golden syrup is pure sugar syrup and nutritionally is no different to table sugar.
Molasses (Black Treacle)
Before sugar cane becomes sugar, it goes through several stages of processing – one of which produces a thick, syrupy liquid that still contains many of the plant’s natural vitamins and minerals – molasses. It contains a lot of sugar but is also rich in iron, magnesium, potassium and manganese. If you like the taste of molasses, it’s certainly a healthier option than sugar.
Brown, Cane and Muscovado Sugar
Brown sugar – unless it states specifically what it is – is usually just white sugar with a little molasses added to give it a darker colour. Raw cane sugar and its many varieties (such as muscovado, turbinado or demerara) are somewhat healthier as they retain small amounts of natural vitamins and minerals.
Agave syrup consists mainly of fructose, which is absorbed more slowly than glucose and doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes. However, that’s about the only benefit. Despite ‘natural’ claims, it’s still a very processed product and with minimal amounts of nutrients.
While maple syrup is mostly sucrose, it’s also surprisingly rich in riboflavin (vitamin B2), the mineral manganese and contains some antioxidants. However, thanks to its high sugar content, it’s only slightly healthier than regular sugar.
Rice syrup is made from rice starch and is clear. It is broken down in the body into glucose – pure sugar – and is not a healthy alternative.
Mainly composed of fructose but also contains fibre, protein, some B vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and antioxidants. A healthier alternative to other syrups but too much can contribute to weight gain.
Chicory root syrup
This syrup seems too good to be true! It’s sweet but two thirds of its weight is the fibre inulin and less than five percent are sugars, so it’s low-calorie and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. We can’t digest inulin but it’s used by the good bacteria in your gut and while this is a good thing, too much can cause bloating and people with IBS may need to test it to see if they can tolerate it.
Also called inulin syrup, it is great with granola, drinks or pancakes. Stick to small amounts and you should be fine.
Stevia is a plant with leaves that contain steviol glycosides, which taste very sweet but contain no calories. Stevia leaf extracts are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and extensive tests showed they are safe. On the downside, stevia can have a bitter aftertaste and its best mixed with other sweeteners.
Extracted from birch trees, it is low-calorie and doesn’t promote tooth decay. Only little is absorbed and your liver converts this into glucose. Be warned – it has a laxative effect in larger amounts.
Beware of giving anything containing xylitol to your dog as it is highly toxic for them and can cause seizures and liver failure!
• Sorbitol – a low-calorie sweetener derived from glucose. It produces a mouth-cooling sensation so it’s often used in toothpaste. It is safe but too much can cause bloating and diarrhoea.
• Erythriol – a sugar alcohol which has zero calories and is not used by your body – it is simply excreted in urine. Again, too much may cause bloating and have a laxative effect.
• Maltitol – a sugar derivative with half the sugar calories. It doesn’t promote tooth decay and as it’s absorbed more slowly than sugar, it doesn’t cause blood sugar highs, which makes it a popular sweetener. But it can have a laxative effect in anything other than small amounts and can cause diarrhoea and severe flatulence!
• Sucralose – derived from sucrose (sugar) and is completely calorie-free. Your body absorbs only some of it, which enters the bloodstream and is excreted in urine. Scientifically it’s safe but some people say it’s a migraine trigger.
• Acesulfame K (E950) and aspartame – just a brief mention as they’re not the healthiest options. They are officially safe but many people report health issues from consuming them.
It’s a sweet maze so what are the best choices? Stevia is a healthy option but to avoid its aftertaste, it’ best to mix it with date or chicory syrup and these two syrups are also great for drinks or drizzling over porridge or pancakes. Molasses is a good sweetener for biscuits, while xylitol can sweeten small treats and desserts. Hot drinks are the trickiest to sweeten the healthy way but small amounts of cane sugar won’t ruin your health.