Sugar has become a constant companion in most of our lives. Whether in the form of spoonfuls added to your tea or coffee, or the industrial amounts included in soft drinks and processed foods, sugar dominates our diet. With Britain’s obesity levels shooting up, and greater understanding of just how bad for us sugar can be, the hunt is on for alternatives. But there’s a problem. Many sugar substitutes are synthetics that are no better for us than real sugar. What’s more, some of these synthetics – aspartame and acesulfame-K to name just two – have been linked to cancer.
Sugar itself has been linked with numerous health problems ranging from obesity to tooth decay, in the US, Dr Robert Lustig (presenter of Sugar: The Bitter Truth) has called for a tax on sugar similar to those placed on alcohol and tobacco because of what he calls its ‘toxic nature’. In the UK our love affair with the white stuff began back in the 16th century when it appeared on our shores for the first time following the first wave of European exploration. Back then sugar was a luxury item, enjoyed only by the elite. Today, it is everywhere with the average Brit consuming a shocking 1.25lbs a sugar a week. Across the Atlantic, sugar consumption is even higher. Americans consume, on average, 22 teaspoon of sugar a day - double the recommended daily amount.
Most sugar comes from the sugar cane plant, a highly water intensive crop grown mainly under monoculture condition across the tropics but most notably in Brazil and India who between them, account for just under 55 per cent of global sugar production each year according to the FAO. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates global sugar production to be around 165 million tonnes while the World Bank calculates its worth at $11.6 billion a year. Because of the large areas required for sugar cane production, much of which takes place in ecologically important areas, sugar cane has been accused of being responsible for a greater loss of biodiversity than any other crop. So how can you avoid sugar and its synthetic substitutes without giving up sweet stuff all together? Try some of these natural alternatives on for size.
A herb native to South American, stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It has been used as a sweetener for centuries in South America, and in Japan, makes up 41 per cent of the sweetener market. So widespread is its use, before Coca Cola decided to ‘standardise’ the recipe, stevia was used in Japanese Diet Coke. The herb recently ran into trouble in the US with the Food and Drug Administration over the label ‘sweetener’ but has rebounded to become the second most popular sugar alternative in the US under the term ‘dietary supplement’. Stevia has no calories and no glycemic impact making it suitable for diabetics as well as weight watchers and eco warriors. It can be grown at home, although turning it from herb into a granular product isn’t an easy DIY project.
Try this: Naturally Green Stevia Powder, £4.99, www.naturallygreen.co.uk
If the name rings a bell, that’s because you can already find it in chewing gum. Xylitol is a five-carbon sugar (five carbon atoms in the molecule) unlike most other sugars, which have six. This subtle difference means it helps prevent the growth of bacteria. It is found naturally in fibrous fruits and vegetables, corn cobs, and some hardwood trees - even our own bodies produce it. Although it does cost more than sugar, it’s a healthier alternative.
Try this: Planet Organic Xylitol Natural Sweetener, £3.19, www.planetorganic.com
Coconuts are in vogue, particularly in the US, where a recent boom in the sale of coconut water has dovetailed with a growth in demand for coconut sugar. Sap from the coconut palm is heated to evaporate its water content and reduce it to usable granules. Coconut sugar is nutritious and has a low score on the glycemic index, which means you don’t get a buzz followed by a crash. It tastes similar to brown sugar but is slightly richer. You can substitute coconut sugar for traditional sugar pretty much wherever you use the latter. Once tapped for sap, the trees can go on producing for 20 years and produce more sugar per hectare than sugar cane. and benefit the local soil.
Try this: Organic Coconut Sugar, £4.39 at Healthy Supplies, www.healthysupplies.co.uk
Made from, as the name would suggest, dried dates; the fruit is dehydrated, then ground to produce the sugar. Retaining many of the nutritional benefits of dates, it has a rich sweet flavour that makes it an ideal alternative to brown sugar. Unfortunately it doesn’t melt and is difficult to dissolve, making it unsuitable for use in drinks and some baking recipes. However it’s a great additional to wholegrain bread.
Try this: Swanson Organic Date Sugar, £11 at Health Monthly, www.healthmonthly.co.uk
Sweeter than sugar, get honey that’s been organically and locally produced to reap the full benefits. Packed with vitamins, honey also has antimicrobial properties. It does have more calories than normal sugar but because it’s sweeter you use less of it. You can add it to your tea if you’re so inclined and works brilliantly in cookies and biscuits. The wide range of honeys out there also give you scope for varying the flavour in cooking.
Try this: Littleover Apiaries English Heather Honey, £4.75, www.englishhoneyonline.co.uk
Already a common bottle in many people’s cupboards, maple syrup can be used in place of sugar in most cakes but because it’s liquid you’ll need to reduce other liquids by about a quarter. Boasting a moreishly distinctive taste, the richer the cake the greater the benefits of using maple syrup. And if you want to use it for more than just cooking, you can also get maple sugar, which is made from dehydrated maple syrup. Like coconut sugar, it can replace regular sugar as and when you need it.
Try this: Vermont Organic Maple Sugar, £7.20 at Baldwins, www.baldwins.co.uk
Fruit is a great source of natural sugar, and comes in a range of strengths and flavours. While we wouldn’t recommend adding orange juice to your tea or coffee, juices are great for adding sweetness to cakes and cookies. You can also experiment to find the juice that perfectly complements your recipe. To get the full effect, make sure you use fresh juice as juice from concentrate loses some of its nutritional content. Also check the label to make sure your juice of choice doesn’t contain any added sugar.
Try this: PIP Organic Apple Juice with Cherry, £1.99 at Waitrose, www.waitrose.com
These are by-products of the sugar production process. Although producing sugar from sugar cane has a negative environmental impact, not using all the products only compounds it. Because of the way traditional tabletop sugar is produced (heating the top layer which forms the crystals you have in your bowl), many of the nutritional benefits are left in the molasses. Blackstrap molasses is perhaps the most beneficial and is a good source of iron and calcium. It’s quite thick and viscous and is best used in baking. It is also sweeter than sugar and so you’ll need less.
Try this: Meridian Organic and Fairtrade Blackstrap Molasses, £1.49 at Holos Foods, www.holosfoods.com
Brown Rice Syrup
Made from boiling brown rice, the syrup is gluten and wheat free. More suitable for cooking than adding to tea, it can also be used as a condiment and drizzled over pancakes or porridge. It has a slightly butterscotch flavour to it. Although more heavily processed than some of the others on this list, it does transfer many of the benefits of brown rice to the eater (and without the 25-minute cooking time). Especially good in muffins and salad dressing.
Try this: Crazy Jack Organic Brown Rice Syrup, £2.29 at Auravita, www.auravita.com
Barley Malt Syrup
Similar to molasses in texture, barley malt syrup has, unsurprisingly, a malty taste. This makes it ideal for baking in bread, but for those partial to a spot of home brewing, can also help take the edge off you concoction. It’s also easily digested and has a low glycemic index. It is however not as sweet as sugar, and its distinctive taste makes it a poor choice for tea and coffee.
Try this: Organic Clearspring Barley Malt Syrup, £2.89 at Goodness Direct, www.goodnessdirect.co.uk
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