These days, for anything you read about sugar, there is something else to contradict it. So what are we to do?
To start with, I think we need to realize that our bodies do require some sugar, in the form of glucose, to function well. What we need is stored in our cells for energy (and incidentally, any extra is stored as fat). We are genetically conditioned to seek out sweets – think of our long-ago ancestors coming across a patch of wild berries! - and some of us are more predisposed to want sweets than others.
The difficulty is that where sweet foods used to be hard to come by, and largely seasonal, they are now prevalent and highly refined. Our fruits and vegetables have become sweeter as decades pass through the cross breeding of different varieties. Foods in this natural state are still preferable because they automatically come “packaged” with fibre, which serves to slow down the rate of absorption in the body.
Mass production has made sugar plentiful and has refined any beneficial nutrients right out of most of our options. Sugar is now added to just about everything you can buy. Personally, I don’t think this is any accident as manufacturers know that the more sweets we eat, the more we crave, and the more we will likely buy. Do you want that to be dictating your food choices? I sure don’t. In 1900, the average person in the U.S. consumed 5 lbs of sugar per year; today it’s 152 lbs per person per year. Now that’s a lot of sugar!
Here are some ideas to help you with sugar decisions. I am continually experimenting with choices and recipes to cut back on the amount of sugar that my family consumes, but I am definitely not the sugar guru! You will need to see what approach works best for you.
1. Read ingredient lists on whatever processed foods you do buy. Remember that any type of sweetener (honey, molasses, syrups, etc) count as sugar. Carbohydrates, especially refined ones such as flours, also count as the body converts them to sugar pretty quickly.
2. Don’t buy processed foods and instead make your own as much as possible. That way you can control your ingredients and quantities. I bake cookies for my kids (and myself!) like most moms, but there is no way I am adding 2 cups of sugar, which is typical for many recipes. I’ve found you can easily cut back to 1/3 or 1/4 of what’s called for.
3. When you’re eating sweet foods, combine them with protein and fibre, so that the body can absorb the sugars more slowly.
4. Add more flavours like cinnamon and vanilla so that you don’t need as much sweetener. These also help to control blood sugar.
5. Choose sweeteners that are less refined. Unless you’re growing the plants yourself, or can source them locally, the reality is that these are all refined. However, the less refined you can get a sweetener, the more nutrients are still included in them.
· Monk fruit, also known as Lo Han Guo and processed as “Lo Han sweetener”, is considered the best option right now. I haven’t tried it because I haven’t been able to find it anywhere that I shop yet. If you come across it, you may want to give it a try.
· Stevia. This has a very strong aftertaste that I don’t find particularly pleasant. It comes in powdered and liquid form, and you may want to experiment with this too.
· Blackstrap molasses
· Coconut palm sugar
· Local organic raw honey
· Rice syrup
· Coconut sugar – the flavours vary widely between brands, so find one you like.
I do still use maple syrup and occasionally agave. From my research, these are higher in fructose which puts more strain on the liver, so moderation is important here too.
Xylitol and sorbitol are other sweeteners that are often recommended. At this stage, I’m still researching how these are made before I decide whether I will try them out.
As for artificial sweeteners, avoid these altogether. Aside from the questionable additives, recent studies are showing that they still produce an insulin response, and create cravings for more sweets, while at the same time they don’t trigger any response in the body that tells it it’s full. There is just no benefit .
Overall, it’s about eating sensibly, as close to a natural state as possible, and homemade as much as you can manage. Your tastebuds do change, so while you may be used to very sweet foods, it is possible to cut back and begin to appreciate more subtle sweetness again.