People often ask me about what to use instead of sugar when baking or cooking. We are all looking for something that can help us eat sweet foods without any consequence! My main advice is to try to retrain our taste buds to crave less sweet things. We’re naturally wired to want sweet foods, but we can support our taste buds to change.
Sugar is sugar when it’s broken down to a molecular level and eating too much of any sweet food has the same effect on our body as eating sugar.
There may be a higher nutrient content in some alternative products but these nutrients are in such small amounts it wouldn’t make that much difference. For example, people cite coconut sugar as higher in a fibre called inulin as well as iron, zinc, calcium and potassium. However, the amounts of these are so tiny you’d have to eat a huge amount of coconut sugar to get any benefit from them. There are other foods which will give you the same nutrients in much higher doses.
Why we need to eat less sugar
There is no added nutrient value to sugar on it’s own, it doesn’t provide any protein, fats, vitamins or minerals. We mostly all eat too much added sugar, it’s often hidden in foods where you least expect it. It tastes nice so we tend to eat a lot of it.
When we eat a lot of any kind of sugar there are health implications because it increases our overall calorie intake. The risk of metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes and heart disease all increase on high sugar diets.
If you are looking for something to use instead of sugar when you’re baking and cooking here is a little summary of the sweeteners available:
- Honey – raw honey contains antimicrobial benefits for us, and can help fight of viruses. It may even reduce cholesterol and inflammation. Also if you source locally made honey it is said to help with pollen allergies. I use quite a bit of honey in my baking as it is very sweet and I find you don’t need to add much to get a sweet taste. Honey is broken down into fructose and glucose in equal amounts, so it has a different profile from sugar. Honey has a small prebiotic effect, in some studies honey has supported beneficial gut bacteria.
- Stevia – made from a plant stevia is useful if you need to control your blood sugar or if you have diabetes, because there is no glucose involved at all. It is a zero calorie sweetener, so often used in weight loss. It’s a little bit controversial as it works like an artifical sweetener, and some studies have found it may confuse our insulin response. Stevia was used traditionally in South America as a contraceptive so it may affect fertility if used in large amounts. Avoid if you’re concerned about fertility.
- Maple Syrup, Coconut Sugar, Blackstrap Molasses – These can be very expensive, but these are lower in GI than sugar. This means it’s better for people who want to balance blood sugars. Composition-wise, these are relatively similar: they’re mostly sucrose, with some glucose and fructose. There are some benefits, but these are in very small doses. They are a good alternative if you want to mix things up.
- Dates – high in fibre these are food that contains sugar rather than a sugar, and the fibre helps slow down the release of the sugars. I use dates a lot in energy balls.
- Xylitol – made from birch wood this is sometimes used in toothpaste and chewing gum as it has been associated with less dental caries. However in high doses it can be abrasive on the gut and cause IBS symptoms. It’s also highly toxic for dogs.