Trying to reduce your sugar in intake? Do you eat a fair bit of fruit everyday thinking its a much better alternative to regular sugar? Not always the case! Fructose is a type of sugar that increases our risk of things like heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes, so eating too much fruit isn’t really ideal. Keep reading for more on this.
There’s a lot of popular sweeteners out there that health conscious people are using in place of regular sugar, such as coconut sugar, agave syrup, molasses, honey, and maple syrup. These sweeteners might come with some nutrient benefits but the trouble is they still contain fructose, which is the type of sugar we want to be avoiding.
Why do we want to avoid fructose?
Every cell in our body can metabolise glucose but fructose is metabolised (broken down) only in the liver, in the same way that alcohol is, and too much of it can put a real strain on our liver. It can make you gain weight, increase your appetite and create that all too well known fat around the middle, not to mention non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
How does it do this?
Because fructose doesn’t affect blood sugar levels (and so doesn’t spike insulin) it was thought of as an ideal sweetener for diabetics and given the label of having a ‘low GI’ for that very reason. Fructose interferes with your production of appetite-regulating hormones like leptin, which should send a signal to your brain that you are full and happy, if leptin gets ‘switched off’ this signal can no longer get to the brain and we are left feeling hungry pretty much most of the time. To add to that fructose can raise our levels of a hunger hormone called ghrelin, which too increases our hunger!
Fructose is of course naturally found in fruit, and in fruit it comes with vitamins, minerals, fibre, and other nutrients. When we eat fruit in its whole form the fructose is combined with glucose, which is the natural sugar that we should be using for energy, and because there is also fibre contained in the whole fruit this can help to slow how quickly the glucose is released into the blood stream.
However it’s still beneficial to reduce the amount of higher fructose fruits you consume, just to ensure there isn’t too much fructose heading for your liver. The lowest fructose fruits include berries (e.g. blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries), apples, melon, peach, plums, lemons, grapefruit, and sour cherries. Just note that when it comes to sugar intake we should ideally stick to no more than 2 pieces of low fructose fruit per day.
Sucrose is your regular white table sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar and rapadura sugar. It contains 50% fructose and 50% glucose. So the fructose will hit your liver whilst the glucose will affect blood sugar levels significantly so we want sugar in general kept to a minimum.
So what are the alternatives?
Below is a list of popular alternatives with a brief description, I hope you will be able to see from this list that there isn’t really a perfect alternative to regular sugar but there are a couple that are more ideal than others. However, the key is really to reduce your need to sweetness, and when you do fancy something sweet its in moderation and uses the more ideal sugar alternatives.
Agave syrup: a sugar substitute made from the same Mexican succulent that tequila is made from. It is about 90% fructose. Look out for it on labels of ‘healthy’ bars, smoothies and other ‘healthy’ products and avoid!
Coconut sugar, nectar or syrup: This is more commonly used nowadays in a lot of healthy food products. But it is between 38% and 48% fructose so it’s not an ideal choice.
Honey: whether raw or organic it doesn’t matter when it comes to the fructose content. It’s about 40% fructose so best avoided.
Maple syrup: often used as a healthier sugar alternative, and it does contain good amounts of the minerals zinc and manganese. But it can contain up to 40% fructose so use sparingly. There are a few different grades of maple syrup so make sure you get a higher grade one.
Dates: a popular choice for sweetening ‘sugar-free’ recipes, but they are about 30% fructose and quite high in sugar per date compared to other fruit. Plus you will usually need to use a lot of them to properly sweeten a recipe in place of regular sugar, so your sugar intake is likely to be no better.
Blackstrap Molasses: a very strong flavoured sweetener made from heated raw cane sugar and sugar beet. Sugar crystals are extracted leaving a black tar-like substance. It’s rich in iron, calcium & magnesium which is great but its about 25% fructose and high in glucose so use it sparingly.
Xylitol: the name sounds worse than it is but it’s still not the most natural of sweeteners as it’s usually been highly processed and the end product will contain some chemical residue. It doesn’t spike blood sugar levels at all so it’s a good choice for diabetics. Just make sure you source xylitol from the bark of a birch tree as opposed to xylitol from corn. It’s best used in moderation as it’s known to have laxative effects.
- Brown rice malt syrup: made from fermented cooked rice. It’s a blend of complex carbohydrates, maltose and glucose. It’s 100% fructose free which is great, and it would be my favourite choice, and certainly the sweetener I use when I need one.
- Stevia: a plant-based sweetener that’s also completely fructose free. It’s 300 times sweeter than sugar. I’d just avoid using it in large amounts because it can leave a bitter aftertaste, but as its so sweet you don’t need to use much. Just make sure you use ‘whole leaf’ stevia (in powder form or drops) and nothing that’s been processed and made into a sweetener. You might need to source it online or somewhere like Whole Foods or Planet Organic.
- Yacon Syrup: It’s natural and has a lovely flavour but its not as sweet as the others. It has a very low effect on blood sugar levels so is suitable for most diabetics without being full of fructose. Yacon is a root vegetable and the roots contain inulin, a type of fructan, the syrup contains 50% fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which is an important prebiotic that helps our gut’s beneficial bacteria to grow. Note that the root contains about 35% fructose so practice moderation.
- Lucuma powder: a low sugar sweetening powder that’s made from a Peruvian fruit similar to a peach. It contains some beta-carotene, iron, zinc, vitamin B3, and calcium. The powder can be added to food or smoothies to give it a small sweet kick, some say it tastes like a cross between sweet potato and maple.
Obviously we want to avoid using white table sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar and rapadura sugar. We also want to avoid high fructose things like fizzy drinks, which are very high in processed fructose. Avoid processed foods and check food labels for the ‘of which sugars’ part which should be ideally less than 10g or sugar per 100g of the product. Anything over 15g is too high in my book. Know that one teaspoon of sugar is about 4g so if you see a label on a healthy bar for example that shows ‘of which sugars’ as 16g that’s about 4 teaspoons which is too high and will just raise your blood sugar level too high and spike insulin, energy crashes and fat storage. So start checking labels on foods like pasta sauces, other sauces, bread, dressings, ‘healthy’ mueslis (which are usually detailed per a 40g portion and most of us will pour a lot more than 40g into our bowls!), and ‘healthy’ bars and drinks. The other day I picked up a bottled smoothie in a health food shop and it had 38g of sugar, that’s 9 and a half teaspoons, and the World Health Organisation (in 2015) says adults should have not more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per DAY (not including the sugars in fresh fruits and vegetables, or those naturally present in milk).
When it comes to sugar alternatives these should be used in moderation and the ones highest in fructose shouldn’t be used at all e.g. agave and even honey. The best thing to do is to reduce our need for sweetness gradually so that we soon need to use less and less of the ideal sweeteners I’ve mentioned here.
I hope this guide has been helpful and will help you on your quest to reduce your sugar intake and who knows one day be sugar-free!