‘Healthy’ sugar alternatives still largely sugar

This is the second of a three-part series for our Wheat and Chaff category, which focuses on the misinformation that makes basic life decisions so very difficult. We will take a slew of topics over time — most with a high degree of debate and misinformation — and try to provide the brass tacks of unbiased information. Don’t follow the fadish misinformation of the Internet. Find facts that can empower you to your healthiest, best life. Tune in later for Part 1: EFFin A rules to sugar, and Part 3: sugar substitutes.

The battle with sugar is not sugar itself. Sugar is addictive. Like salt, our taste buds adapt and want more. Like stimulants, it triggers within our brain a release of pleasure and energy. The more we eat, the more the brain wants it. Moderation is the root of the root when it comes to sugar.

What’s moderation? Way, way less than the typical American eats. So doing all we can to remove unnecessary sugar is a critical part of eating right.

This basic desire has spawned a vast industry of sugar substitutes. The list of sugars and their copy cats is longer than the alphabet. The organic movement and the desire for healthier options has muddied the issue rather than helped it. Natural honey, Agave in the raw, raw sugar, even Monk Fruit have been touted as “natural” and “healthy” alternatives to sugar.

But this topic is Exhibit A –provided by my new BFWF (Best web friend forever… in my imagination, that is) Andrew Wilder of Eatingrules.com—  of why I don’t like fads. Read on:

The health claims of these products can be quite infuriating (for skeptics like us.)  The brand Sugar In The Raw uses misleading (and completely meaningless) language, such as: “Nature’s own sweetener is gently converted into the natural crystals…” The Wholesome Sweeteners brand (the name alone is misleading) says “Organic Turbinado Sugar is made by crushing the freshly-cut sugar cane to squeeze out the juice, rich in, vitamins and minerals.”[sic] Of course, the next sentence tells us it’s evaporated and spun in a centrifuge — which means that they’ve just gone ahead and removed any of those “rich” vitamins and minerals.  (I also didn’t realize that sugar cane was so amazingly high in vitamins and minerals. Oh,wait — it’s not.) I’ve heard people sing agave’s praises, specifically thinking it’s significantly less-processed than other sweeteners. That may or may not be true, as the sugar is extracted and processed through a few different methods, depending on the type of plant. It always requires more processing than honey, too. The pros? You may not use as much. Agave tends to be sweeter than honey or regular sugar, so there’s a chance you’ll use less of it.

Or put a tad more succinctly, it’s all still sugar. It’s purpose is to make things taste better and like salt and really all spices, should be used in small amounts, only when necessary and always in moderation.

When setting what moderation is, consider a single can of soda pretty much blows your moderate sugar intake for a week.

So what about these alternatives? Honey is natural right? Agave is all the rage. Molasses is somehow back in vogue. Do any of these make the grade for replacing C&H?

Let’s take a look. Starting with the old stand by, the Winnie the Pooh favorite, Honey. Wilder offers a thorough explanation that ends pretty much where we started:

“The Bottom Line: Honey can be ‘closer to nature,’ and may have some benefits, but unfortunately it’s about as high in fructose as regular table sugar,” Wilder writes.

And in case your wondering, the exact same thing can be said for natural maple syrup. Cool concept, tastes way better than Aunt Jamima, but is still sugar.

So let’s go to Agave. The Bride really loves agave and uses it because it “feels” healthier to her. A health-nut, over-the-top eco friend I love very much basically told us we were bad people if we didn’t use agave instead of “refined” sugar. I  don’t use agave so I felt left out of the club, as if I lost my certified liberal card.

But alas, from authoritynutrition.com: “Agave is high in fructose. Fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar or insulin in the short term, but when consumed in high amounts it leads to insulin resistance… a long-term effect that will chronically elevate blood sugar and insulin levels.

And Wilder states, “The Bottom Line:  Depending on the type of agave syrup, the composition can vary. Some may contain 56% fructose and 20% glucose (and the rest is other sugars). Others may have as much as 92% fructose.”

It’s still sugar folks. You’re body doesn’t know the difference.

Wait, wait, wait, you say. BROWN SUGAR! It’s gotta be better right?

Uh, no. See the second word? Yeah, still sugar. Don’t take my word for it, ask Wilder who says it is brown because it has some molasses. It’s sucrose, which leads to insulin spikes, exactly like table sugar, because it is exactly sugar.

Molasses? Ah, now we are on to something.

“The nutrient-to-sugar ratio on molasses — especially blackstrap molasses — is far better than other sweeteners. However, molasses has such a strong, specific flavor that it may not be an acceptable substitute to many,” Wilder writes.

Also molasses has the least extracted sugar. It really leads the way in comparison as far as health standards. Use it when appropriate, say in baking certain items, to reduce overall sugar content. But…the taste is so strong it can’t be used as The Bride would, in say, coffee.

So let’s bottom line this shall we. My Wilder, please?

“Take Home Message

All the sugar you eat will go down to your intestine, get broken down into glucose and fructose and eventually reach the liver. Your liver does not know (or care) whether the sugar you eat is organic or not. The Bottom Line: Containing no fructose at all, and up to 65% maltose, Barley Malt Syrup is a promising alternative… if you like the taste.  Date sugar is similar with 45% maltose, so it too is a “promising” alternative.”

But they all share the same basic fact of life: they aren’t good for you and need to be used in moderation.

Our best bet, retrain your brain to like the taste of non-sweet foods the way they are intended. Let the natural sugars of whole fruits be your guide. Limit adding sugar to anything, and if you need a little treat, make it yourself and enjoy it thoroughly so you can go a little while until the next treat.

Your taste buds will adjust over time just as they’ve learned not to be shocked by the sweetness of added sugar. Just as people who don’t eat much salt complain something is too salty, if you scale back you’ll see what they mean. You’ll soon taste sugar in your coffee and it will not taste right. That is your brain telling you you simply don’t need it like you once did.


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