Most of us will have had it drummed into us from a young age that sugar isn’t nutritious. But despite our best efforts, it’s so easy for us to end up consuming excess sugar without even realising it. Marketing is getting smarter at fooling us into thinking we are picking the ‘healthiest’ sugar option, when in reality, it’s often packed with the sweet stuff. Consuming too much sugar increases our risk of obesity and other chronic diseases, can negatively influence our hormones and metabolism, increasing our risk of dental issues, worsening mood disorders and inflammatory conditions, as well as being problematic for our skin. So we’re going deep on sugar, but we’re also exploring: Are sugar alternatives healthy?
What is sugar?
All sugars are a type of carbohydrate, which are the primary source of energy for our body. Broken down into their simplest form, sugars are building blocks that can come together to create different types of carbohydrates.
To help people understand which types of carbohydrates they should be regularly consuming in their diets and the ones that should be limited, we rank them in terms of their glycaemic index, or GI. Simply put, GI is a value used to measure how quickly foods increase our blood sugar levels. Foods are classified as low, medium or high, using a scale of 0-100. The higher the GI of a food, the greater the impact on our blood sugar. High-GI foods are digested and absorbed rapidly, which results in large, fast changes in blood sugar levels. In comparison, low-GI foods are digested and absorbed slower, resulting in gradual rises in blood sugar levels.
It probably comes as no surprise that fruit juice, table sugar and dried fruit have a high GI, whereas whole grains and legumes have a lower GI.
How much sugar should you eat each day?
The Australian Dietary Guidelines currently don’t state a recommended daily intake of sugar, but the World Health Organisation recommends that ‘free’ sugars make up no more than 10% of our daily kilojoule intake to prevent weight gain, chronic disease and dental issues.
While that might initially seem like a lot, you would be amazed at how quickly most people meet and exceed that limit. It’s also important to remember that these recommendations are a limit, not a target.
Natural versus free sugars
It’s important to clarify the difference between naturally-occurring sugars and free sugars.
Naturally-occurring sugars are sugars that are naturally present within foods, such as the fructose in fresh fruit, or the lactose in dairy products like milk and cheese. These sugars are naturally carefully packaged up with other nutrients that neutralise their effects in our body and, therefore, aren’t the sugars we need to be concerned about.
Free (sometimes referred to as ‘refined’) are sugars that have been added to foods. These sugars are derived from sugar crops, fruit juices or concentrates and are added into foods and drinks by manufacturers. It is these sugars that you find in soft drinks, cakes, pastries, sauces, cereals and processed meals, and are the ones to limit. There are over 40 different names for refined ‘free’ sugars (no wonder it is so hard to read labels!). Here are some of the most common ones to look out for: Dextrose, Fructose, Galactose, Glucose, Maltose and Sucrose.
But what are sugar alternatives made from?
1. NATURAL SWEETENERS
We’re afraid this is where it gets a bit confusing, as many of us misunderstand the meaning of the word ‘natural’ when it comes to sugar alternatives and deem them a healthier option. While these natural sugars aren’t processed and do contain a few more vitamins and minerals than the classic refined sugars we see added to foods, it’s important to remember that the sugars they comprise of are still processed the same way by the body and therefore they still count as free sugars.
Sources include: Honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, molasses and palm sugar.
2. DRIED FRUIT
The process of drying fruit results in the contents within the food becoming highly concentrated, which increases the sugar content by approximately five times! This doesn’t mean you need to avoid dry fruit altogether as dried fruit still contains fibre and other beneficial nutrients, but it does mean being conscious of overdoing marketed ‘sugar-free’ treats and desserts, such as bliss balls which are often packed full of dates and therefore offer a big sugar hit. For example, many of us would happily eat a big bag of raisins, but would we regularly eat a full box of grapes in one sitting? Probably not. It’s not necessarily that they contain more sugar than their fresh counterparts, it’s that they’re more compact and we are capable of eating way more of them.
Sources include: Dates, apricots, mangos, figs, raisins and sultanas.
3. NON-NUTRITIVE SWEETENERS
Non-nutritive sweeteners (also known as artificial sweeteners) provide a zero-calorie alternative to sugar in foods and beverages, while still giving them a sweet taste. This seems like the ideal option for sugar addicts, right? The reality about these sugar alternatives isn’t so sweet. Many studies have found no link between non-nutritive sweeteners and long-term improvements in weight management, with some studies even showing sugar substitutes may cause people to crave more sweet and sugary foods.
Additionally, there’s emerging evidence to show that these sweeteners could negatively alter our gut microbiome. So, while these sugar alternatives may seem like a great option and may be a good substitute for some people, they certainly aren’t the answer to everyone’s sugar addictions and should still be eaten in moderation, at best.
As with most things in the world of nutrition, moderation is key. Our bodies can cope with small amounts of sugar in reasonable doses. While it can be tough to dial down the sugar, you will be amazed at how much better you feel once you do. Sugar packaged up in its whole food form such as fruit? No need to worry. Sugar packed into other products, making up the majority of the ingredients list? Definitely a sometimes-only food, regardless of whether it’s the sugar from a date or table sugar.
If you’re looking for more information, check out our article on working to reduce sweet cravings. Our founder, Chloe McLeod, has also written a great article on the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners.