We’ve all heard the bad press about sugar. Information about the health implications of eating refined sugar is widespread, and the modern affliction of over-consumption of sugar is a recognised global problem.
Refined white sugar is highly processed, high in kilojoules and low in nutrients, yet it has become a ubiquitous ingredient in modern diets. In its many forms (it is variously named as sugar, glucose-fructose, fructose, fruit sugar, corn syrup, glucose syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, and beet sugar), refined sugar is repeatedly named as the common culprit in a host of health issues including tooth decay, diabetes, obesity, suppressed immunity, depression, loss of libido, fatty liver disease, and cancer.
All bad news, right? But does this mean all sugar is bad for you, and that the only healthy choice is to eliminate sugar from your diet?
The benefits of healthy sugars
Certainly, there are many forms of sugar that are harmful to our health. A previous article that we published on our blog—Sweeteners: the good the bad and the downright ugly—explores this topic in some depth. Often, the advice accompanying sugar warnings is to quit sugar altogether. But we don't have to tar all sweeteners with the same brush.
In the right form, sugar is an important nutrient that supports metabolic health and cellular energy. Natural, unprocessed sugars—such as fresh ripe fruit and pure fruit juice, honey and maple syrup—are nutritious, delicious to eat and can actually support good health and wellbeing as part of a healthy, wholefoods-based diet.
Sugar and nutrition
Sugar is an important nutritional component for healthy liver function and the production of glycogen. The liver stores sugar and so, while it’s important to avoid consuming excessive amounts of processed sugar, it is equally important to ensure a steady intake of healthy sugar to maintain glycogen production. Glycogen is essential to healthy thyroid function via the conversion of thyroid hormones—a process that requires glucose to occur.
Glucose is also the substance that fuels cellular energy. If the body can’t derive this glucose from healthy sugar in the diet, it turns to the body’s stored protein and fat and converts these to glucose—creating an inflammatory response in the body. The body also creates energy far more easily from sugars than it can from fats and proteins, making this a far more efficient metabolic process.
Choosing a healthier alternative
The key to success here is to choose the right sugar to include in your diet—in combination with a balanced intake of nutritious, unprocessed wholefoods—and to avoid highly-processed, refined sugars like the proverbial plague.
There are many delicious, healthy sources of natural sugar that will not only add important nutrients to your diet, but also provide a delicious alternative to refined sugar.
Sugar-free diets often recommend limiting or eliminating fruit, but common sense tells us that fresh fruit, with it high nutrient content, is good for our health. Fresh, ripe fruit has reached a point in its life where its starch content has been converted to sugars that are easily digested and processed by the body. Vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content is also generally highest in ripe fruit, making this simple, wholesome food an essential source of nutrients.
Honey is not only extremely tasty but also contains enzymes, proteins, trace minerals, flavonoids and other polyphenols, has antibacterial qualities, and has been used traditionally to treat a range of ailments, from sore throats to wound treatment. Some studies have also shown that honey consumption can increase serum antioxidant levels and reduce inflammation. The most nutritious form is raw honey—which is produced without heat, thereby retaining valuable enzymes and nutrients.
Stevia contains practically no kilojoules, and has a strong sweet taste. It has become a popular choice for people wanting to control their weight, and has also been used as a treatment for diabetes, with some evidence that it may assist with blood-glucose control. Some studies also suggest that stevia may also have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties, but more research is needed to determine the benefit to humans in this regard.
As a sweetener, Stevia is available in liquid and powder forms. Make sure to choose only whole, green leaf stevia, which has the highest nutrient content, and avoid highly refined, ‘white’ forms.
Rapadura sugar is a grainy, dark gold sugar created by cold-pressing sugar cane, filtering its juice and using low heat to evaporate the water and produce granules. Unlike refined white sugar, rapadura retains essential minerals and nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, iron and vitamins A, B and C.
One of the most recent inclusions in the sweetener conversation is monk fruit extract—a flavouring derived from this sub-tropical melon, which is native to the forests of southern China. Monk fruit is rich in antioxidant compounds known as mogrosides, which have an intensely sweet flavour, and a number of food manufacturers are turning to this natural flavouring to improve the nutritional profile of their products.
Coconut sugar is produced through a process of evaporating the sap of coconut palm flower buds to create a sweet, caramel-coloured sugar, similar in taste and texture to rapadura sugar. Available in granulated, paste or block forms, coconut sugar has a low glycemic index and contains important minerals, including calcium, zinc and iron.
Created through boiling the sap of the maple tree, maple syrup has a similar consistency to honey and contains minerals including manganese, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium. The best choice is pure, organic maple syrup that retains a high nutrient content.
Molasses is most commonly derived from sugar cane, which is boiled down to create a thick, dark syrup. Dark molasses has a rich flavour, contains nutrients including potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6 and iron, and is a healthy and tasty substitute for brown sugar.
Moderation is the key
As with all sugars, natural, healthy alternative sweeteners should be used moderately. But, unlike harmful refined white sugar and artificial sweeteners, natural sources of sugar contribute beneficial nutrients and are an important component in maintaining good health and wellbeing.
Simply by making the right choices, you can enjoy delicious, natural sugars as part of a high quality, high-nutrient wholefood diet. To find out more, visit our wholefood baking page.
So, what is the process behind ‘processed’ sugar?
Have you ever wondered how refined white sugar is actually made? The process may surprise you…
Step 1 Affination
In this step, raw sugar is combined with hot, concentrated syrup to soften the sugar crystals. The sugar is then separated form the syrup in a centrifuge.
Step 2 Carbonation
Carbon dioxide and lime are added to the melted sugar to form a calcium carbonate precipitate (or, solid). This substance is then removed through a pressure filtering process, to create a clear liquid form.
Step 3 Phosphatation
Phosphoric acid is added to the melted sugar, which is then filtered through sand to remove any remaining precipitate.
Step 4 Decolourisation
Liquid sugar is then passed through decolourisation columns to absorb colour molecules and create a clear liquid.
Step 5 Boiling
The liquid sugar is then boiled to create a concentrate, which is then seeded with fine sugar crystals. More liquid sugar is added to grow the crystals to the required size, which are then separated from the liquid in a centrifuge, dried with hot air and packaged.
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