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Oh Sugar!!

March 30, 2014

These are some of the sweeteners I use. I have run out of coconut sugar!

These are some of the sweeteners I use. I have run out of coconut sugar!

Sugar can be said in many ways.

As a term of endearment: “Ooooooh sugar, that is beautiful!” or expletively: “SUGAR!” (#$% – my dad used to swear like this when I was a kid!) or as it is said these days: sugar, the forbidden utterance of the word!

Such is the mark of disgrace that sugar has these days. And don’t get me wrong – I wholly believe and support the anti-sugar advocates that say we have way too much in our diet; that it has infiltrated our food supply to make commercial processed foods more palatable in the wake of the “low-fat” debacle. But that’s another huge story.

I do believe that too much sugar is making us sick. I also believe that my dog, such a gentleman he is,  is the reincarnation of Jimmy Stewart!

The action of sugar in the body raises your blood glucose levels for good reason. It sends energy to our cells for our body to function. Realistically, our bodies need a very small amount so our body has an in-built sugar regulator system (pancreas) to process the excess (insulin).  Because we regularly have an overload of sugar in our systems this process is compromised and we get sick (diabetes). The excess energy cannot be removed and so it gets stored as fat (obesity).

This isn’t a biology lesson, this is about sugar, but I just wanted this simplified detail understood.

One of the criticisms of sugar is that it is a highly processed, nutrient void food. Yes it is. Enter the less processed sugars: rapadura, coconut sugar, coconut nectar, molasses. These have been marketed as “healthy and more nutritious” sugar alternatives because they retain more of the nutrients from the original plant. And, technically, that may be true. But sugar cane doesn’t have many nutrients to start out with. Any traces that remain in raw sugar are so trivial, they can barely be measured.

Now I am talking about sugar here, derived from sugar cane. We grow it abundantly here in Queensland and we all know what it looks like: thick woody stems with a sweet sap. A lot of processing needs to happen before it gets on our tables.

And then there are natural sweeteners: honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave, yacon syrup, xylitol erythritol & stevia.

Believe it or not, the last 3 on the list do occur naturally in nature. They are just heavily processed. But it is little known that the previous 4 on the list are also processed to varying degrees. Honey would have to be the least processed as we can get it raw. But maple syrup, brown rice syrup and agave are commonly very heavily processed (boiled, filtered, added to, boiled again) and have no more nutritive value as cane sugar. BUT their composition differs from cane sugar and our body processes them differently, which makes them “healthier” and more acceptable.

The less processed sugars and the first few natural sweeteners all affect blood glucose levels, which impacts on the body and I view them as equally as sugar.

Then we have artificial (chemical) sweeteners: aspartame, sucralose & saccharine which have known side effects and have been banned in many countries. These are not on my radar. Period.

What I am interested in is xylitol, erythritol & stevia. Yes they are processed. But no, they don’t spike blood sugar and set off the hormonal chain reaction that occurs with too much sugar.

Both xylitol & erythritol are sugar alcohols which is a type of carbohydrate. It’s cross between a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule and, for the most part, our bodies do a poor job of digesting and breaking it down. Because of this, over-consumption can include bloating and gas. Xylitol & erythritol are very low caloric, and impact minimally on insulin and blood glucose levels.

Sugar alcohols pop up in nature, in fruits like apples and pears, hence calling them natural, but any commercial product that contains them must list the specific alcohols in the ingredients.

Stevia is a plant which has a high concentration of very sweet tasting molecules in its leaves called stevioside and rebaudioside.  The stevia that we can buy is either the raw, green leaf powder, or more commonly, in a processed & bleached powdered or liquid form.

The different glucosides have different tastes: stevioside is the most prevalent and many complain about its bitter aftertaste; rebaudioside has less bitterness but forms a smaller component of the plant. Different brands of stevia have different ratios of these glucosides  (even the green “raw” powder) which is why I choose to use this one as it has less bitterness. But I have found that any stevia that is over used (too much in a recipe) has a residual bitterness. And overusing it is easy as it is so concentrated – hence many people loving it or hating it!!

Lots of people will shout me down in flames for advocating a non-whole food but I am a realist. I also have a sweet tooth and I love baking. I want the sweet without worrying about an impacting physiological effect – an insulin spike, a blood glucose dip, or even a migraine. When I commenced my Paleo journey I was eating honey & maple syrup and coconut nectar. Sugar alcohols and processed stevia are definitely NOT paleo!!!! But in order to satisfy my sweet tooth, using these alternative sweeteners is a concession I am prepared to make. Some Paleo-istas advocate dairy, I do not. You’ve gotta do what works for you.

So having had researched this topic for the last few years, this is what I have come up with:

* Xylitol has a greater glycemic index (9) than erythritol (0) so I prefer erythritol. It is also extremely TOXIC to dogs so I don’t keep it in the house.
* Erythritol is not quite as sweet as xylitol, so it is often mixed with stevia to give a comparable cup for cup measurement.
* Using sugar alcohols in your cooking will result in a slightly drier mix, so add a little more liquid.
* Erythritol does not caramelise whilst Xylitol will. This is good to know for some recipes.
* Over using stevia will always result in an “aftertaste”. Start conservatively then add more if you need.
* The best way to get a natural flavour in your recipes is to mix your sweeteners. Adding some natural sugar to the mix will result in a far superior (undetectable) flavour. I will often add a tablespoon of rapadura or brown rice syrup to the recipe with erythritol. Lets face it a recipe made with 1 tablespoon of sugar has to be better for you than one made with 1 cup! This has something to do with the way our taste buds detect the sweetness. Don’t know how but it works!
* Most cooking stevia products on the shelves are a mix of stevia and a granulated filler such as erythritol or inulin so they measure cup for cup. For example: Natvia, Nirvana, Purevia, Equal, Truvia etc. Check your labels!
* Lo Han is another newbie on the block and has a nice flavour – it is mixed with erythritol.
* The pure, undiluted stevia powders, come with a teeny tiny spoon, smaller than a  baby pea! Most stevia powders have some bulking agent in them to make them easier to use. Because of this, all amounts stated in recipes are estimates as no two products are the same in sweetness. Add cautiously and check your product label.
* Raw green stevia powder is the pure leaf, dried and ground up. It has a slightly grassy, aniseed taste. Use about 1 tab to replace 1 cup sugar.  You can buy it here. Learn how to make your own extract from plant here.
* Pure stevia liquid is a clear liquid that is added drop for drop. 2 drops usually equal 1 teaspoon of sugar.
* I think that to bake with,  Natvia and Monk are the more superior products but they are super expensive, given how much I bake. I buy my erythritol, stevia & lo han online here and mix up my own blend.
* Yes you can get organic stevia and erythritol but it’s still processed!
* I LOVE yacon syrup but it has a higher glycemic index than erythritol and costs too much to buy!
* After not using cane sugar after a while, your tastes do change and you will find that you use less & less sweetener. Eating something made on pure sugar is just about unpalatable for me!!
So there you have it, that’s my basic take on sugar. I would love to hear your comments on this very emotive issue!



2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2014 7:20 am

    THank you Sarah for such hard work laying it out, easy to understand. I’ll keep this as a handy reference. A great community service, sharing your knowledge. Thanks again.

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