It's now well documented that excess sugar in the diet is harmful to health. Tooth decay, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease and Obesity. All health problems linked to sugar consumption. Many foods on the supermarket shelves (even savoury foods) are laden with sugar. When buying processed foods it's almost impossible to avoid a daily sugar overload. The problem with sugar (aside from its high calorie content) is that it causes a surge in blood sugar levels. This blood sugar and subsequent Insulin spike in the blood is responsible for causing inflammation which in turn is responsible for causing disease.
If you haven't checked it out yet, take a look at this page which lists all the different forms of sugar. Good and bad.
So what's the answer?
Well, eat natural and freshly prepared foods as much as possible. However if you have a sweet tooth and like to bake you may still be consuming a lot of sugar. Most cake and biscuit recipes have large amounts of sugar on the ingredient list. Fortunately more and more innovative recipe writers and bloggers are developing recipes with alternative sweeteners. I am going to discuss the best of these here.
Honey and Maple syrup
A quality honey will contain minerals and vitamins and is thought to cause a slightly lower release of sugar into the blood. However it will raise blood sugar levels and should be used in moderation. It may also change the taste or texture of a recipe if used as a substitute for sugar. Quality maple syrup is very similar to honey; it has some health benefits but is still a sugar and therefore like honey its intake should be limited.
Dates in particular are often used in recipes to add sweetness. The advantage of dates over honey and maple syrup is that they do contain fibre. However they are also high in fructose which will raise blood sugar levels.
Much like honey and maple syrup coconut sugar is a natural sweetener with some minerals and vitamins. However, although its effect on blood sugar levels is not as dramatic as that of sugar it will cause blood sugar levels to rise. Hence like honey and maple syrups it should be used sparingly.
Derived from brown rice the syrup is made of glucose molecules. Whilst these are considered to have a lesser effect on blood sugar levels than fructose rice syrup is another product to use in small amounts only.
Stevia is a plant native to South America which has leaves that are extremely sweet. It has been used traditionally for many years to sweeten teas and medicines. However because the leaf is so sweet the Stevia has to be diluted to make a powdered sugar substitute. A common ingredient added is Erythritol which is dubious in terms of its effect on health. Therefore my recommendation is to avoid Stevia unless in the form of a liquid extract and then use very sparingly.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol which when naturally sourced comes from the bark of the Silver Birch tree. Unlike sugar Xylitol does not raise blood sugar levels (unless eaten in excess) and does not feed bad bacteria in the gut. Also it does not cause tooth decay and in fact is protective of tooth health. In Scandinavia many sweets for children are made with Xylitol and their consumption is actively encouraged by dentists. Xylitol is low in calories and lower in carbohydrates than sugar but over consumption can cause loose bowel movements. Xylitol is a good sugar replacement in cooking although can cause baked products to be soft and less crispy than those made with sugar.
The best way to stay healthy is to eat a diet high in vegetables with some fruit, nuts, seeds, pulses, oily fish and organic meat proteins. By making these foods the mainstay of your diet you will come to appreciate foods which are not overly sweet and therefore will not crave them. However if you do find that you need a sweet fix make it a healthy one by making your own treats using natural ingredients and small quantities of natural sweeteners. Then freeze your treats in small portions to be enjoyed just a little at a time.