In recent years, the society experienced a demonisation of sugar, with a bloom on the market of more or less natural alternatives, supposed to be better for health. Agave syrup, stevia, rapadura, xylitol, fructose, honey… Food industry is vaunting the merits of all these products, and people can see them everywhere: in organic stores, supermarkets, in healthy recipes books and trendy cafés. This article aims to inquire about the origin of these products and their potential effects on health, so you can form your own opinion on the matter.
Before starting to talk about the different types of sugars, first let’s define sugar. According to Oxford dictionary, it is a “sweet crystalline substance obtained from various plants, especially sugar cane and sugar beet, consisting essentially of sucrose, and used as a sweetener in food and drink.”
Why is it so difficult to resist to sugar? This is a matter of survival. Indeed, glucose is a fuel for our cells and is the only usable energy source for the brain. When deprived of glucose, it stops functioning normally and deteriorates rapidly. In case of prolonged deficiency, the damage becomes irreversible, leading to coma and death. Thus, over the evolution, our body has learned to appreciate sweet taste. When eating something sweet, it activates the corresponding receptors on the tongue, the brain receives signals that trigger the activation of the reward system located in our archaic brain, causing the release of hormones, among other dopamine.
Then breast milk, the first food assimilated by a child, has itself a sweet taste. For infants, intake of sweet breast milk is thus associated with satiety, comfort, security and tenderness. Emotional association between sweet taste and pleasure is well illustrated by our vocabulary: the word ‘sweet’ applies to describe both the sweet taste of food as well as a kind behavior.
It is our deep nature that urges us to be attracted to sugar. Our ancestors, who did not have a pantry nor a fridge, had access to sugar only through fruit, at tiny doses compared with our processed foods: 100 gr of ripe melon contain 6 gr sugar, against 18 gr for the same amount of strawberry jam or 25 gr for shortbreads! You got it: the problem is not sugar itself, but the amount we eat.
Thus, global sugar consumption has increased from 2 kg per person a year in 1700 against 25 kg in 2015. This is an average value, of course there are disparities across countries: Americans own the World Champions title with a consumption of over 46 kg per year, while Indians have less than 2 kg!
“The glycemic index or glycaemic index (GI) is a number associated with a particular type of food that indicates the food’s effect on a person’s blood glucose (also called blood sugar) level. A value of 100 represents the standard, an equivalent amount of pure glucose.” (Wikipedia)
Thus, the higher the glycemic index of a food, the sharper blood glucose levels rise after eating it. Conversely, when a food has a low glycemic index, the impact it has on blood sugar is lower. The glycemic index reference food (GI) is glucose, with an index of 100. There are foods with high (GI> 50), medium (35 <GI <50) and low (IG < 35) glycemic index. Besides the chemical composition of the food, various parameters have an influence on the glycemic index, such as the physical state (solid or liquid) and the cooking method. It is now an accepted fact that excessive consumption of high glycemic foods is harmful to health.
Sugar and natural sweeteners available on the market
In this section I will introduce several natural sweeteners – that is to say, the sweet molecule exists as such in nature – commercially available. I will start with those sold in the form of powder, such as white sugar, then by those with a syrupy texture, before finishing with the products sold under other forms.
White sugar is a refined product from sugar beet or sugar cane, obtained after various laundering and crystallization phases. The final product is a white powder made of colorless crystals, devoid of vitamins and minerals. It is 99.8% sucrose. This is the most common and most widely used type of sugar. Its GI is 70.
White sugar is sold as powdered sugar, sugar cubes, icing sugar, granulated sugar, crystallized sugar, candy or invert sugar.
It is an unrefined cane sugar and it still contains molasses. It is made by extracting cane syrup and evaporating it. Rapadura, moscovado, demerara and jacutinga sugar are all different names for raw cane sugar. Of course they contain minerals naturally present in cane syrup, but remember they are composed of 1-7% water, 1-7% glucose, 1-7% fructose and 72-78% sucrose! Their micro-nutrient content is negligible considering the amount of sugar one should eat to cover their daily needs! In addition, its GI is identical to that of white sugar, that is to say: 70.
It is a partially refined cane or beet sugar, composed of 85-96% sucrose, depending of the way it has been refined. It contains some molasses, which gives it color and aroma. Its GI is 70. Please note, sometimes what looks like brown sugar is actually a refined white sugar, colored and flavored with caramel… Check the labels before buying! Brown sugar can also be marketed in the form of candy sugar.
This is the sugar naturally present in fruit. Think again, however, the powder available in supermarkets is as much a processed product as white sugar. In Europe, it is extracted from chicory roots. Its sweetening power is 20 to 40 times that of sugar. It can cause digestive problems if consumed in excessive amounts.
Fructose is the subject of controversy after a study on rats by UCLA, led by Dr. Fernando Gomez Pinilla, which demonstrated a high fructose diet disrupts acquisition faculties and memory in the brain, and that the synapses of rats that had consumed a high amount of fructose were damaged, communication between brain cells being thereby altered.
This study also demonstrated that rats developed a resistance to insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar and enhances synaptic connections, thus allowing cells to better record information and communicate. Fructose over-consumption therefore leads to deterioration of cognitive function.
Other studies have shown that in addition to insulin resistance, a high fructose diet increases blood triglyceride levels, promoting cardiovascular and liver diseases and type 2 diabetes. Although its GI is only 22, it should therefore be used in moderation 22.
Coconut blossom sugar
This sugar has beautiful golden brown colour and a caramel taste. It is produced in tropical regions. Producing coconut requires climbing the coconut trees, tying the stems of the flowers, and then hitting them to collect the flowing sap in a container during a few hours. Note that the extraction of sap process is non-destructive, and the tree will continue to blossom and bare fruit after the sap is recovered. Sap is then heated to be concentrated by evaporation, giving coconut sugar ist characteristic caramel colour and taste. Thus, contrary to what is commonly believed, coconut sugar is not suitable for people on a raw food diet!
With a GI of 24.5, it is composed of 75% sucrose and also contains glucose (3-9%) and fructose (3-9%). As with cane sugar, content of trace elements is negligible, except for potassium, which contains 25% of the recommended daily intake to 100g – the equivalent of 25 teaspoons! You’ll understand that it is not by eating sugar, no matter which type, that you will provide your body with the micro-nutrients it needs 😉
Palm sugar is also called jaggery. It is produced the same way as coconut sugar, but from date palm. Sometimes the sap is extracted directly from the trunk. The golden yellow colour of jaggery is lighter than that of coconut sugar. Its aroma is also more discreet. It is marketed in the form of powder, paste or of small round loaves. Its glycemic index is 30. Unfortunately I found no information as to its composition.
Molasses is a product derived from sugar cane. This dark brown syrup is packed with mineral – 2 tablespoons molasses cover daily iron needs – as well as vitamins B2 and B6. Its glycemic index varies from 55 to 60. Beware though, some products sold as molasses in supermarkets are in fact a mixture of glucose syrup and caramel!
Honey is the sweet substance produced by bees from the nectar of flowers. It is therefore not appropriate for vegans. Composed of 38% fructose and 31% glucose, it also contains maltose and sucrose and has a glycemic index of 60. It has a translucent colour ranging from pale yellow to brown. Its flavor and colour depend on the type of flowers that bees have pollinated to produce it.
It can be toxic when it contains andrometoxine or colchicine, a toxin from the nectar of certain varieties of flowers. In addition, honey can carry the spores of botulism, a paralytic illness to which young children are particularly susceptible. Thus, children under 1 year and pregnant women should never est honey.
Honey contains two proteins with antibiotic properties: inhibins, which inhibit bacteria proliferation, and defensins, which play a role in the immune system of humans, and which has been effective against several types of bacteria during in vitro experiments.
Fluid when just out of the hive, honey naturally crystallises over time, taking a creamy, then grainy texture. This process is natural and does not affect in any way the quality of the product. Gently warming up honey in a water bath will make it decrystallise. Alas, as the food industry aims to provide standardised and stable products, pasteurisation of honey has become common, so that it does not crystallise when put in jars. Pasteurisation involves heating the honey to about 77 ° C for 5 to 6 minutes. During the operation, honey enzymes are destroyed, aromas are altered and the glucose and fructose are converted to sucrose.
To fully enjoy the aromas and virtues of honey, choose a raw one, with traces of pollen and wax. If you want to incorporate it into a cooked dish, add it when cooking is complete, away from the heat.
Agave syrup is a sweetener derived from agave, mainly produced in Mexico and South Africa. It is often cited as a natural sweetener, although its production process is complex: the juice is first extracted from the heart of the agave, before being filtered and heated. It is then concentrated to a syrup of brown to golden colour, with a more fluid texture than honey. It contains iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium.
Agave syrup is composed of fructose and glucose and, has a sweetening power 1.4 times higher than white sugar. Its composition and glycemic vary depending on fruit maturity and method of manufacture. Thus, agave syrup is contained between 60 and 90% fructose, and GI is about 30. Because of its high fructose content, it can potentially lead to insulin resistance and increased triglycerides, thus promoting type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Maple syrup is produced mainly in Canada and in some US states. It is produced from the sap collected in early spring, which is concentrated by boiling. Its GI is 65. Maple syrup contains 68% sucrose, 0.4% glucose, 0.3% fructose, and water (31%). It naturally contains potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus.
Rice syrup is produced from the fermentation of brown rice grains and sometimes added malted barley. Its texture is similar to that of honey, it has a caramel taste. Its sweetness is twice that of sugar. It contains half of complex sugars (oligosaccharides) and half of simple sugars – 45% maltose and 3% glucose. These components are absorbed at different speeds by the organism, it can provide energy for a period of 2 to 3 hours. One should however not forget that its GI is 100, ie higher than sugar! Thus, it is not recommended for people who monitor their blood sugar levels and should be eaten in moderation, just like any other sugar.
Barley malt syrup
Also known as malt syrup or maltose, it is derived from the fermentation of barley grains. These are sprouted, dried, roasted and then ground before being fermented to obtain a thick brown syrup, with a characteristic aroma. Malt syrup sweetening power is half that of sugar. Consisting of 75% maltose and 16% complex carbohydrates, it has a GI of 42.
Glucose syrup is a sticky translucent paste obtained by enzymatic hydrolysis of corn, wheat or potato starch. It has a lower sweetening power than sugar. It is an industrial product widely used by the food industry, especially in pastry and confectionery, as it has anti-crystallizing properties. Its glycemic index is 100.
This is a thick, sticky liquid used in the food industry as glucose syrup. It is also known as glucose-fructose syrup, isoglucose syrup or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Its glucose and fructose content varies depending on the manufacturing mode. HFCS 90 contains 90% fructose and 10% glucose for a GI of 31. It is widely used in baking because of its strong sweetness. HFCS 55 is composed of 55% fructose and 45% glucose, and has a GI of 58. It has a sweetness similar to table sugar. It is added to sodas and other processed foods. HFCS 42, with 42% fructose and 58% glucose is used to sweeten isotonic drinks. Its GI is 68.
Little known, yacon syrup, whose appearance is reminiscent of caramel, is extracted from a Peruvian tuber. With a IG close to 0, it is composed of fructo-oligosaccharide, a sugar that does not penetrate the body and which does not cause insulin spikes, due to the fact it goes through the digestive track without being assimilated. Yacon syrup is also rich in potassium and antioxidants. IIt has laxative effects when consumed in excessive amounts.
Kitul syrup comes from the stem of the flowers of the palm Caryota Urens from Sri Lanka. The sap from flowers is collected flowers and then concentrated by boiling. Its colour is brown and its taste, slightly caramelised. Kitul syrup is composed of equal parts of fructose, glucose and sucrose. I was unable to find a source giving the IG kitul, but it is desctibed as “low” by companies selling it.
Also known as date honey, date syrup has a syrupy texture and a dark brown colour. It is obtained by cooking dates in water, then pressing to extract the liquid, which is then filtered and simmered to be concentrated. Just like dates, date syrup is rich in glucose, fructose and sucrose. I have not found the source quoting an IG for date syrup.
The date is the fruit of date palm tree. It is about 5 cm long with an oblong shape and an elongated stone. Because they are delicate, dates are most of the times dried before being marketed. They are produced in North Africa, Middle East and California. They have a sweet flavor reminiscent of honey or caramel and are rich in glucose, fructose and sucrose. Thus, they are used as a sweetener in many recipes.
Dates have a high fiber content: 57% insoluble fiber and 43% soluble fiber. These favor the intestinal transit and help prevent constipation. They have a GI of 55.
Stevia is a plant from South America. Its leaves have a sweetening power 15 to 20 times higher than white sugar. Long banned in Europe, it is marketed since 2009 as a refined extract, patented by the giants of the food industry. Today, the unrefined whole leaf is not recognised as a food in Europe, only the patented extract with sweetening power 300 times greater than white sugar can be sold officially as a sweetener. 80% of stevia used for manufacturing this extract is produced in China. The IG of stevia is 0. Unfortunately, its first bitter taste and back taste of anise and licorice makes it difficult to integrate in some recipes.
Polyol is a contraction of polyalcohol. These sweeteners are high-intensity. They are sugar alcohols, derivatives of carbohydrates to which is hydrogen. This process does not change their sweetness, but reduced their absorption in the digestive track and thus their calorie intake. They are found naturally in plants.
Maltitol is chemically close to sucrose, but it brings less calories and has no impact on the health of teeth. Its sweetening power is slightly lower than that of sugar. It can have a laxative effect in case of excessive consumption. Its GI is 35.
Also called birch sugar, it is extracted from the bark of this tree. Its sweetening power is slightly higher than that of sugar, for 40% less calories. Its GI of 7 makes it a suitable sweetener for diabetics. Warning, it can have a laxative effect when consumed in high doses. Moreover, it is extremely toxic to dogs and should therefore be banned from among anyone who has one.
Known also as glycerin, it is found naturally in fatty acid esters (triglycerides) in animal and vegetable fats, as well as some fatty oils. It was discovered in 1779. Viscous, colourless, odourless and slightly sweet, it is soluble in water and alcohol. It absorbs water and is very stable, making it an excellent preservative. It has a low toxicity and is non-irritating, its impact on the environment is negligible.
Vegetable glycerin commercially available is derived from rapeseed. Thanks to its taste slightly sweet – its sweetness is twice lower than sugar – and its low glycemic index, it can be used for cooking to give a sweet flavour and a soft texture to your recipes, without affecting your blood sugar levels.
With less than half the sweetening power of sugar, sorbitol is named after the mountain ash, whose berries are naturally rich in sorbitol. It is produced commercially by hydrogenation of glucose derived from starch. As glycerine, it is ued as a stabilizer in drugs, cosmetics and foods. As the other polyols, it is laxative when consumed in high doses. Its IG is 4.
Mentioned below are artificial sweeteners. These molecules do not exist in nature and have been created in the laboratory. These sweeteners may be entirely artificial, or derived from natural substances. They generally have an intense sweetening power for a low amount of calories.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener accidentally discovered by a chemist in 1965. It is a dipeptide composed of two amino acids, which are themselves the basic building blocks of protein. 200 times sweeter than sugar, it is referenced in the EU under the code E951. It is used to sweeten drugs, drinks and food with the “diet” or “light” label. Aspartame is controversial because of its potential adverse effects on health. However, public health agencies have affirmed its safety when the amounts authorised in the food industry are respected. It is not recommended to cook aspartame because it can recombine in dioxopiperazine when heated to 105 ° C.
Aspartame is marketed in the form of tablets or powder. These products contain only about 3% of aspartame, they also contain maltodextrin and acesulfame K (E950).
Known also as sodium cyclamate, it s a artificial sweetener discovered in 1937. With a sweetness 30-40 times greater than sugar, it is the least sweet of all artificial sweeteners. It is stable when heated and is marketed in the form of tablets or drops.
Artificial sweetener with a structure close to the sugar, it was widely used during the rationing of sugar during the Second World War. Originally it was made from toluene, a hydrocarbon! There are currently several different chemical processes to get it.
Saccharin has a sweetening power 300 to 400 times higher than sugar, but its unpleasant aftertaste prevents using it in large amounts. Thus, it is very often combined with other sweeteners. Saccharin moves through the digestive tract without passing into the blood, thus it does not provide any calories.
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener, but it has a surprising origin: it is made from sugar! Cane sugar to be precise. Thanks to a simple chemical manipulation, its sweetness is increased and its calorie intake is limited. This is the sweetener with the greatest sweetening power: 600 to 650 times that of sugar!
Its safety in humans could not be ensured for lack of studies. The European Union will undertake a reassessment in 2020.
Stevia extract (E960)
Also named steviol glucoside, stevia extract has a sweetening power 300 times greater than white sugar. Some people confuse the stevia leaves, which are 100% natural and cannot be used as a sweetener by the food industry, and stevia extract, sold as a liquid or white powder, which highly processed product obtained by a sequence of complex manipulations.
To get the extract of stevia, leaves are first crushed and soaked in water and sometimes also a solvent, such as ethanol. The mixture is centrifuged to remove any solid particles. After a first filtration, the solution is precipitated with calcium hydroxide. It is then neutralised with citric acid, then filtered a second time. Then the product is discoloured, concentrated and lyophilized. 8’% of stevia used for the manufacturing of this extract is produced in China.
Recent years have seen a demonization of sugar, some people trying to avoid it at all costs, while it is part of a balanced diet and is necessary for the proper functioning of our cells. Associated with diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, sugar consumption has become a public health problem in industrialised countries, where the average annual per capita consumption is over 20 kg – a figure that exceeds the limit recommended by WHO.
Could artificial sweeteners provide a solution to this social problem? Apparently not: a meta-analysis in 2015 concluded that artificial sweeteners, although not favouring type II diabetes, sugar consumption and cancer, seem neither promote weight loss, or help diabetics to manage blood sugar levels and neither reduce the risk of type II diabetes. If the potential harmful effects of sweeteners have not been demonstrated, it is clear however that they do not bring any benefit.
So how to get out of this mess? I think the solution is not to replace the sugar with a range of expensive products with an unpleasant aftertaste and unknown long-term effects on health. One should rather rediscover the taste of sugar as conceived by our ancestors: a nice flavor that should be kept for special occasions. If the idea of drinking your tea or coffee without sugar scares you out, rest assured, it is not about stopping everything overnight. Your taste buds are too accustomed to sugar and would struggle to adapt to the sudden change.
Start by gradually reducing your consumption. You usually put a teaspoon of sugar in your hot drinks? Put one half teaspoon to see. You will grimace the first week, but your palate will get used to it quickly. Once you get there, try not to put sugar at all.
Ditto for fruit juice lovers, which are real sugar bombs. Get used to dilute your juice, by gradually increasing the proportion of water. You will decrease your sugar intake and will save money because a fruit juice bottle will last you longer.
Are you used to eat cereals packed with sugar for breakfast? Replace them with oatmeal, millet or quinoa. You can add a teaspoon of honey at the beginning, in order to get used to the change, and then gradually decrease the amount of honey.
When it is about health, perseverance prevails. No need to feel guilty, to berate and punish you by eliminating at once all forms of added sugar. Better take several months to re-educate your palate and eliminate excess sugar for good, that to deprive yourself completely for a few weeks before getting tired and go back to your bad habits. Go slowly, but surely! Feel free to share your tips to reduce your sugar intake and to share your experience in the comments!
PS: I forgot to mention a sweetener, please contact me or leave a comment so I can fix it. Thanks in advance 😉
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