Dietary advice is varied, but if there is one thing most of us can agree on, it is to steer away from highly processed foods in favour of eating fresh produce such as meat (or other protein sources), eggs, nuts, dairy, fruit and vegetables. But while “eating clean”, we still like our occasional sweet treats! It seems like a good idea to replace refined sugars (such as table sugar) with more natural sources of sugar, but is it? Many “whole food” recipes call for dates, honey, rapadura, rice malt syrup or agave nectar to sweeten the prepared food. For those of us who don’t home-prepare, the health food store or supermarket aisle offers a number of “free of refined sugars” products. Is this food really any better for you than food made with refined sugar?
The human gut digests all available carbohydrate into simple sugars. It doesn’t distinguish where the carbohydrates came from; starchy vegetables, grains, fruit and honey all turn into simple sugars in the blood.
Yes, some carbohydrates have a lower glycaemic index (GI) than others. This means the rate at which they are absorbed and then increase the blood sugar, is a bit slower than carbohydrates with a high glycaemic index. It’s important to note that when consumed in significant amounts, all digested carbohydrates lift blood sugar. When blood sugar rises, the pancreas releases insulin. Insulin lowers blood sugar, often triggering a desire to eat more food as it falls. And this blood sugar, if not used by the body for immediate energy needs, is mostly stored as body fat.
Some carbohydrate sources do offer benefits. Whole grains and lentils, for instance, are good sources of fibre. Honey, in addition to providing sweetness, contains several vitamins and minerals. Some natural sources of sugar, such as agave syrup, are much sweeter than table sugar which means you can use less to give the desired sweetness. However, it is important to remember that all these types of sugar will still be converted into simple sugars in the blood.
Many natural sources of carbohydrates such as fruit (especially dried fruit and fruit juices) and honey contain fructose. As we eat fructose, we don’t get the usual “fullness” feeling which stops us overeating. For this reason, some dietary advice suggests we limit eating foods that contain fructose to an occasional treat e.g. eating a small amount of fruit only when it is in season.
So, when you eat, low GI, nutrient-dense carbohydrates in small quantities is the wiser choice. If you’re seeking the benefits of a lower carbohydrate diet, it’s better to limit carbohydrates to leafy green and other vegetables like zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, capsicum. See our quick reference guide for Low Carb veggies here
Rather than seeking products with “no added sugar” or “no refined sugar”, check nutritional information for total carbohydrate – less than 10g per 100g is a reasonable target (perhaps lower if it is a food you will eat plenty of). If the label says “no added sugar” or “low GI” or “made with dates/honey/agave” but its total carbohydrate content is more than 10% (10g per 100g), look for a lower total carb option.
If you want to add a sweet note to your food occasionally, consider using a small amount of Stevia with Erythritol or Xylitol rather than reaching for honey or rice malt syrup. Erythritol and Xylitol are naturally occurring sweeteners which are only partially absorbed by the body meaning their impact on blood sugar are minimal and they deliver much less energy compared with any sugar.
Remember sugar is sugar and starch becomes sugar.
Author of the article – Kim – In-house Food Scientist