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Are sugar alternatives actually healthy?

3 min read

As a nation we are getting more health conscious it seems and this has let to certain buzz words doing the rounds, one of which is "refined sugar free". Products are using unprocessed alternatives instead but does that really mean it's healthy or are we getting duped by hype?

It's great that we're all no longer in the dark about the damaging effects off too much sugar and are much savvier about general health and nutrition but it's all too easy to believe hype when we want to.

Alternative sugars, also referred to as 'natural' sugars, are marketed to us prolifically as healthy alternatives - agave syrup, raw honey, maple syrup, date syrup, coconut sugar, the list goes on... we want to believe that they won't upset our blood sugar levels, that they won't send us soaring and then crashing into an energy slump, that we can have our yummy maple syrup laden cake and eat it. Unfortunately, we can't, sorry! There is no such thing as a healthy sugar...

Understanding sugar

White table sugar or granulated cane sugar is known by its proper name of sucrose. Sucrose consists of two components in a 1:1 ratio, glucose and fructose. Glucose is the bit that makes sugar taste sweet, and is the major source of energy for every cell in our body. Fructose, on the other hand can only be processed by the liver. Consuming excessive sucrose, more than the body needs for energy, can lead to weight gain.

Too much fructose is dangerous

Research shows that, when consumption is too high, it is the fructose part of sugar that can be particularly dangerous. It seems that the digestive tract doesn’t absorb fructose as well as other sugars. More fructose then goes into the liver. Too much fructose in the liver creates a series of events that can lead to hormonal imbalance, fatty liver disease, systemic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

It can lead to insulin resistance and it significantly raises levels of triglycerides in the blood (a risk factor for heart disease). It also increases fat deposition around the middle, which in turn puts a person at greater risk for chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

But isn't there fructose in fruit?

You might or might not be aware that fructose is the type sugar found in fruit, so you would be sensible to ask why on earth we're constantly being told we have to eat as part of our 5 a day. However the research shows that when fructose is consumed within whole fruit, it doesn't have the same negative effect on our metabolism. This is because of the presence of fibre, vitamins, minerals and a high water content that helps us to be fuller for longer. This is also why it's always advisable to eat the whole fruit rather than drink fruit juice. It is important, however, not to be scared of everything with any fructose in it, just be cautious when it's high up in the list of ingredients and moderate your consumption accordingly.

What are the components of 'healthy' sugar alternatives?

We now know that the components that make up refined white sugar (sucrose) are glucose and fructose. So what are the components that make up sugar alternatives such as honey, coconut sugar and date syrup? Yes, you've guessed it - glucose and fructose. This means that eating them in excess is just like eating refined sugar in excess, it is going to cause us problems. As far as your body is concerned that super sweet, date heavy pud is going to have a very similar effect to that gooey chocolate brownie you might rather have had. 

Ultimately it doesn't matter where the sugars come from, what matters is how high they are in GI (how fast they are absorbed into your bloodstream) and how MUCH you actually have of them.

Yes, it is true that sugar from natural sources are richer in vitamins and minerals than refined sugar but their associated health benefits are significantly outweighed by the detrimental effect eating these sugars in excess has on the body.

The key is to enjoy in moderation

The bottom line is to treat sugar substitutes like you would regular sugar, consume (and enjoy!) in moderation.

A little tip

There's also evidence that cinnamon can actually combat the effects of sugar - in one particular study, cinnamon was shown to have a significant effect on increasing the body’s HDL (good cholesterol) and decreasing glucose levels (counteracting how sugar raises them).

A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.