There is a worrying trend across wellness oriented food blogs and magazines to offer endless “healthy” and natural sweet treats. You have seen the pictures choking Instagram and Pinterest feeds – raw vegan paleo caramel slice, cacao peanut butter cups, raw cashew cream “cheesecake”. It appears that this is what all the healthy bods are eating … or at least dreaming about!
Starting your day with maple toasted granola, popping a few cacao balls at work then scoffing a slice or two of raw caramel slice after dinner is not going to put you on the path to good health in the long run. When transitioning from a high sugar diet to a low sugar one these substitutions are great, they move you from the empty calories of refined cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup to more nutrient-dense foods, they also allow time for your palate to evolve. Including them in significant quantities in your day to day diet long-term will simply keep feeding you sugar.
So why … oh why do we crave sugar and why is it so hard to cut down? Blame evolution for your sweet tooth – for millions of years, the sweet taste was a rarity found in nature, present only in things such as honey and root vegetables. Sugar cravings were intense because our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed to lay down plenty of fat to ensure that when food was scarce they could maintain their increasingly large brain and ability to reproduce.
Fast forward to now and we live in an environment awash with refined sugary foods and many of us stuck behind a desk all day, largely sedentary, hardwired to crave sugar… a recipe for disaster.
So what is happening when we are replacing refined cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup with natural sweeteners? They all contain the simple sugars glucose and fructose except of course the non-caloric sweeteners such as Stevia.
First, let us bust the myth that natural sweeteners such as coconut palm sugar or agave nectar are whole foods. Whilst they are generally unrefined they are not unprocessed. They have been extracted from their original source and concentrated to form the granules or syrup, packaged for you to buy at concentrations that would never be found in nature, except raw honey. Extraction also strips them of some vitamins, minerals and fibre. It is the fibre that helps the body slow down and regulate the way our body processes these natural sugars.
What about fructose? It is fruit sugar so it must be healthy right? Well, yes and no! Fructose in the context of eating whole fruit is healthy, it is bound to vitamins, minerals and fibre. Once extracted from fruit, concentrated and refined, it is then added to food in the form of fruit juice concentrates or via sweeteners such as agave syrup in levels never experienced in the human diet before the last one hundred years.
Emerging scientific studies demonstrate that the overconsumption of fructose may be having disastrous effects on our health. Because fructose is processed by the liver some scientists argue that eating too much can have a toxic effect similar to that of alcohol. Some natural sweeteners are very high in fructose – agave nectar contains 90%!
Excess fructose and sugar in general also provides unwanted calories that in turn are linked to health problems such as weight gain, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high triglyceride levels, all of which boost your risk of heart disease. Your body is not going to differentiate between fructose or glucose from refined or more natural forms of sweeteners if they are consumed in excess. Sugar is sugar!
As far as natural sweeteners go you are best to choose whole foods such as bananas and dates. Yes, they contain the simple sugars glucose and fructose that are also present in table sugar however they are embedded in the whole food. I think of them as the Trojan horse of natural sweeteners, the glucose and the fructose impart the sweet taste, they also sneak in a whack of fibre, vitamins and minerals that help our body process this sugar more effectively. Better choices after these are coconut palm sugar (not to be confused with palm sugar used in Thai cooking), raw honey and pure maple syrup.
So what is the verdict? I would have to say that some natural sweeteners are definitely a better choice than refined sugarcane-derived sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup BUT we should have the same relationship to them that our ancestors had – consider them a treat, make them scarce in your diet and truly enjoy their sweetness when you indulge.
References Available on Request