So, you've decided to give up sugar. Well, that's great if you're one of the many New Zealanders who consume more than the recommended 10 per cent of their entire energy intake in sugar. There's no doubt Kiwis as a whole consume too much sweet stuff and with 67 per cent of us overweight, we don't need it.
Yet before you toss out your cookbooks and join the anti-sugar campaign raging at the moment, I'd like to stop and ask you one key question: what are you going to replace it with?
You see, the problem is this: although we consume too much sugar, sugar consumption has actually declined. In Australia, this decline is as much as 23 per cent over the past 30 years, according to The Australian Paradox, a Sydney University research paper that looked at the decline in sugar intake over the same time-frame that our intake of discretionary foods – and consequently our waistlines – continued to expand.
Twenty years ago, it seemed that fat was the ingredient to blame for our bulging waistlines and what good did that do?
Recipes, food products and restaurant meals were all designed to be "low fat", yet fat was substituted with sugar, salt and other miscellaneous ingredients to continue to make them tasty for consumers, resulting in us still eating too much of them – and it seems to be happening again.
Sugar is being vilified, yet the same recipes and food products are being made with sugar alternatives such as rice malt syrup, dates and coconut sugar instead. The question is this: is a chocolate cake made with coconut sugar any healthier than a chocolate cake made with cane sugar?
Are artificial sweeteners better?
Vicky Pyrogianni, a spokesperson for the International Sweeteners Association, says that low-calorie sweeteners, such as stevia, aspartame and saccharin, are better options than sugar and other nutritive sweeteners such as rice malt syrup and agave syrup.
"By swapping from sugar to low-calorie sweeteners, people can keep the sweet taste and palatability of the diet while reducing the energy density in foods and drinks. This means they can still enjoy sweetness while reducing their overall daily calorie intake and managing their body weight."
However, researchers from the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre recently completed a comprehensive review which questions the validity of these opinions.
Lead researcher Professor Lisa Bero stated that a review of studies analysing the side-effects of artificial sweeteners revealed that reviews funded by artificial sweetener companies were nearly 17 times more likely to have favourable results. Does funding by artificial sweetener companies impact the results of the research? According to Professor Bero, it can.
Conversely, research in animal studies suggests that although artificial sweeteners may not contain kilojoules, they can increase our preference for sweetness, which may lead to increased consumption of treat foods. Furthermore, new research from Boston University has found that artificially sweetened soft drinks are associated with a higher risk of stroke and dementia.
"After thoroughly reviewing the current research on low-calorie sweeteners, I don't believe the research is strong enough to be recommending that we replace sugar with them," says Professor Bero.
"I recommend that people should reduce sugar in their diet, but I wouldn't recommend using low-calorie sweeteners to do so."
Sugar by a different name
There's confusion about "sugar" and "sugars". Fruit naturally contains fructose, a natural fruit sugar, and dairy products contain lactose, a natural dairy sugar, so foods containing fruit or milk can exhibit high "sugars" on the Nutrition Information Panel even if they don't contain any added sugar or sweeteners.
Dietitians used to advocate reading the ingredients list to check if sugar was listed in the first few ingredients as an indication that the food was high in added sugar (ingredients lists are ranked from most to least), but the food industry has now got around this by using a combination of sweeteners, such as sugar, dextrose, honey and barley malt extract, so that they only need small amounts of each.
Although hidden sugars are an issue, the largest source (81 per cent) of free sugars in the Australian diet is still from discretionary or "treat" foods and drinks, such as cakes, muffins, scones, sweetened drinks and confectionery. So, whether made with stevia, rice malt syrup or table sugar, the key message is to bulk up your diet with core foods such as vegetables, fruit, lean meat and meat alternatives, dairy products and whole grains, and cut down on your discretionary food intake.
From agave to stevia, which sweetener is which?
Agave syrup is actually higher in kilojoules than table sugar (88kJ vs 67kJ per teaspoon), but because it is at least 30 times sweeter than table sugar, you won't need as much.
Agave syrup is produced by crushing the leaves of agave plants to extract the sap. The sap is then filtered, heated and treated with enzymes to convert fructans (longer chain carbohydrates) into sweet, short chain fructose and glucose.
As a result of its high fructose load, some people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome may be sensitive to agave syrup. It's also one of the most expensive options on the market.
Rice malt syrup is often used as a vegan alternative to honey. Although it has the same number of kilojoules per teaspoon as sugar, it is 70 times sweeter, so you don't need to use as much.
Rice malt syrup has a very high glycaemic index (GI) of 98 compared to sugar's 58 so although it's a great choice for replenishing during endurance sports, such as a marathon, those with diabetes need to ensure that they only consume it in small doses.
Coconut sugar is equal in sweetness and kilojoules to table sugar so, spoon for spoon, will result in equal amounts of weight gain. Coconut sugar is made from the sap of the coconut blossom, not from the coconut fruit as believed by many. It may contain small amounts of micronutrients.
Stevia is a natural herbal sweetener that is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. In contrast to the other sweeteners discussed above, it is what is termed a "non-nutritive" sweetener, meaning that it doesn't contain any carbohydrates or kilojoules.
Stevia is often combined with anti-caking or bulking agents to provide texture as such minute amounts are required for sweetness. It can sometimes leave a bitter aftertaste and can have a laxative effect if you consume too much.
Brown sugar is, contrary to popular belief, not a less refined version of white sugar, but is actually made by adding molasses to white sugar. Brown sugar has the same sweetness and kilojoules as white sugar, but may be slightly healthier as it contains tiny amounts of micronutrients such as calcium and iron.
By dietitian Melanie McGrice