Everywhere I turn, new ‘sugar-free’ products, blogs, recipes and advocates are popping up. And while it is wonderful that more and more people care about what goes in their mouths, I would like to take some time to clarify a couple of things.
When I first went off sugar a about 4 years ago, I went cold turkey. I suffered through the cravings, and upon noticing that eating bread made my sugar cravings flare up, stopped eating bread as well. A couple of years later, I went off sugar again but this time, began experimenting with wholefood alternatives to ease the transition. As my diet overall was less extreme, so was my transition. Licorice tea and dates became my new best friends. When I came home with agave and my foodie housemate balked and didn’t want to eat it, I was puzzled. Super low GI, what was the problem? Since then, I have spent a lot of time considering the alternative sweeteners available on the market, and have reached a number of conclusions. First, a little background, as I understand it. Bear with me and hopefully you will get the gist of what is going on in your body when you consume sugars.
The body needs a constant and certain amount of glucose in the blood to function. Too much damages the nerves, not enough creates a feeling of being tired and the brain will be foggy. The pancreas is responsible for monitoring blood sugar. When sugar is absorbed by the blood stream, sugar levels rise and the pancreas releases insulin. Insulin metabolises carbohydrates into glucose. Insulin acts as a fat-storing hormone that rapidly ushers glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells. Elevated insulin levels cause low blood sugar because insulin opens the cells to pull the sugar from the blood, and prevents the cells from burning fat. In this way heavily processed foods such as white pasta can cause sugar cravings as a result of the blood sugar rising and then dropping. When blood sugar levels fall too low, glucagon, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, raises blood glucose levels by encouraging the liver to convert stored glycogen into glucose. Thus, glucagon and insulin are part of a feedback system that keeps blood glucose levels at a stable level.
The’GI’ (the glycaemic index) was developed as a measure based on how quickly an amount of the food containing 50grams of carbohydrate can raise the blood sugar level. GI is a useful calculation for diabetics looking to stabilise their blood sugar and achieve biochemical balance can be achieved through foods.
The presence of fat, fibre or protein slows the digestion and breakdown of sugars in the body. In it’s natural form, cane sugar contains A LOT of fibre, which changes the way it is broken down in the body. Wholegrains contain a lot of fibre in the husk, which is removed on processing into white flour. Sugar cane, apples or the carbohydrates found in grains are not inherently bad. It is when they are refined and consumed in the absence of the buffering effects of the wholefood that the body struggles to manage them.
So that’s the bio-science of blood sugar. As far as the sugar we eat is concerned, table sugar (sucrose) tends to be half glucose (as discussed above) and half fructose, the sugar in fruit. Fructose is lower in GI, and sweeter than glucose. Every cell in the body can metabolize glucose, but it is the liver that is the primary location for fructose metabolism. When fructose reaches the liver, “the liver goes bananas and stops everything else to metabolize the fructose” (William Whelan). When fructose enters the body, its metabolism is complex, but basically, the result is fatty acid triglycerides, which are linked to heart disease. Fructose results in less insulin and leptin circulating in the blood, and so the body doesn’t receive signals that enough has been eaten. Continuing to eat then results in elevated blood sugars and weight gain. Similar to glucose, the sweet taste of fructose acts on the reward centres in the brain. It also has a similar relationship with fibre, as the fibre in fruit slows the absorption rate of fructose. Fruit’s fibre may even reverse the negative impacts of the fructose on the liver. Furthermore, the greatest absorption rate of fructose occurs when it is administered in equal quantities with glucose, such as it is as part of the disaccharide sucrose (table sugar).
Agave is a highly processed sweetener made from a plant. Using the agave glucose and inulin found in the plant’s roots, manufacturers subject it to a chemical enzymatic (using genetically modified enzymes) process that converts it into nearly pure fructose (70 percent or higher). The fact that it is primarily fructose means it is incredibly low GI, barely affecting the blood sugar, and is thus a godsend for diabetics. However, most people overlook the effects of fructose (in the absence of fibre) on the liver, with the resulting blood triglycerides, and the interference with appetite control. The effect of apple juice concentrate, fruit juice, and other refined fruit product is similar.
Conversely, rice malt syrup made from brown rice contains about 30 percent soluble complex carbohydrates, 45 percent maltose (grain malt sugar, two molecules of glucose joined), 3-4 percent glucose, and 20 percent water. The glucose is absorbed into the blood almost immediately. The maltose takes up to one and a half hours to digest, and the complex carbohydrates are gradually digested and released for up to four hours. Rice malt syrup does not include malt (it is gluten-free) and has been traditionally considered the most balanced of the sweeteners from a macrobiotic perspective.
Coconut palm blossom sugar is often raw and low GI (35), is sustainable, and with all nutrients intact. It is estimated to be around 35% fructose, which is half that of agave. Both honey and maple syrup are wholefoods, especially when raw. However, both are relatively high in both GI and fructose (maple syrup slightly more so). Other sweeteners include Yacon root, which is composed of fructooligosaccharide which cannot be absorbed by the body and Stevia a herb which is sweet in it’s natural form.
As far as artificial sweeteners are concerned, studies have suggested that rats fed artificial sweeteners are no better off than those fed on glucose and may even be less active. Sweet tastes are implicated in many bodily processes and having sweetness in the absence of energy may disturb the brain chemistry and hormones involved in bodily processes.
In conclusion, the more wholefoods, the better. My sweeteners of preference are brown rice malt, home-grown stevia, dates and whole fruits. When these are not available, I use honey or maple syrup. I do not use agave or any other powdered sweeteners. I also do not use any cane derivatives.
Let us cease pretending that toothbrushes and toothpaste are any more important than shoe brushes and shoe polish. It is store food that has given us store teeth.
~Ernest Hooten in Apes, Men, and Morons.
High fructose corn sugar is primarily used in America. Here, we have have refined cane sugar instead. The ratio of fructose to glucose is similar, only in HFCS the glucose and sucrose molecules are not bound together.