Does your day start with coffee and a dose of dilemma? Everyone knows that sugar is an evil ingredient that has a vice grip on us. We are constantly looking for sugar alternatives from natural sugars like jaggery, honey and maple syrup to low or no-calorie sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, stevia and monk fruit extract, to somehow reduce the ill effects of consuming sugar. Love for all things natural and the belief that ‘natural’ means ‘healthy’ is deeply ingrained in our Indian DNA.
There is a strong presumption that if an ingredient comes from natural sources, it is somehow nutritionally far superior to the same ingredient that was a result of processing. Unfortunately, that is not how the food chemistry works.
How The Body Processes Sugar
The body processes all sugars, whether natural or processed, in the same manner. Essentially, all natural sugars such as various types of jaggery, honey, maple syrup, or agave syrup, are recognised as sugars by the body.
Jaggery and sugar are both made from sugarcane. To make jaggery, sugarcane juice is extracted, clarified, concentrated by boiling and then cooled followed by moulding and storage. Sugar is obtained by extracting sugarcane juice followed by its purification and crystallisation. The crystals are then dried and packaged. Chemically, both jaggery and sugar are a blend of fructose and glucose, jaggery having traces of minerals and vitamins like iron, calcium, phosphorus and potassium. Honey in its raw form is collected from the hives and bottled. It also has the same composition of fructose and sucrose but with an addition of water and trace minerals.
The traces of micronutrients in jaggery and honey are absent in regular sugar, but that does not make it a more virtuous option than sugar as in the small quantities that we are expected to consume sugar and its variants, the quantity of micronutrients is also minuscule. No one should be eating jaggery for the iron or honey for its micronutrients.
Switching from white sugar to other natural sugars will make very little difference unless you also reduce your overall consumption of all sugars.
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Artificial Sweeteners Vs Brown Sugar
Let’s take a quick look at brown sugar. This one is just a cheat version of sugar, having the exact same calories, insulin response and complete lack of micronutrients. While a lot of us like to virtuously ask for brown sugar in cafes with our coffees, it isn’t a healthier option. It is just sugar tossed in molasses to give it a brown colouring, how caramel is added to white bread to make it brown bread, which again manages to fool people that it is a healthier option.
Non-nutritive sweeteners are compounds that deceive our taste buds into perceiving sweetness, yet our digestive system is unable to derive calories from them. They are metabolised differently from normal sugar. The advantage of these sweeteners is that they reduce your sugar-based calories in a day, and prevent peaks and dips in blood sugar thereby reducing insulin resistance and inflammation. There is no proven risk of cancers from artificial sweeteners but research suggests that if you consume non-nutritive sweeteners on a regular basis, it adversely affects the gut microbiome and the overall sugar control is impaired in the body.
These non-nutritive sweeteners fall into two categories: plant-derived sweeteners such as monkfruit and stevia, and synthetic variants like aspartame, acesulfame K, and sucralose (found in Splenda), which can be 200-600 times sweeter than regular sugar. Even though stevia is a plant-based sweetener, it goes through extensive processing to reach the pellet form that offers a consistent sweetness to the beverage or dish. The acceptable daily intake of these low or no-calorie sweeteners is calculated very conservatively - it’s 100 times less than the maximum amount that shows no side effects in animals.
1 can of diet cola has around 200mg of aspartame.
The acceptable daily intake of aspartame is 40mg/kg~2400 mg for a 60 kg adult.
Someone needs to drink over 12 cans of diet cola a day to exceed the permissible limit to make aspartame unsafe for consumption. Similarly, it will take 155 aspartame pellets a day to reach this limit.
How To Control Sugar Intake
If you are diabetic and struggling with your blood sugar control or if artificial sweeteners are recommended by your doctor for weight loss or sugar control, these can help. Don’t fall for the trap that consuming desserts and beverages with artificial sweeteners is somehow healthier.
The bottom line:
- We are consuming too much sugar – both in added and hidden form.
- Hidden sugars are something we need to worry about more and decreasing consumption of ultra-processed food will automatically bring that down.
- Don’t fall for sugar scaremongering. Adding a teaspoon of normal sugar to your tea 1-2 times a day does not make or break in the long term.
- Fruits have a lot of natural sugars but consuming them in moderation (and not a fruitarian kind of kind) has a lot of benefits from the fibre and antioxidants. Definitely choose whole fruits over juices.
- If you have to choose between a full-sugar drink vs one with an artificial sweetener, then the latter could be a better choice in preventing sugar spikes, insulin resistance and inflammation.
Don’t overcomplicate this. Worry more about ‘how much’ sugar you are consuming in a day and not ‘what kind’.