The truth about su­gar al­ter­na­tives

Have you cut su­gar from your diet or re­placed it with some­thing you thought was “health­ier”? Su­gar al­ter­na­tives can ac­tu­ally be higher in kilo­joules, writes di­eti­tian

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - NEWS - Me­lanie Mc­Grice.

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 whole­grains, and cut down on your dis­cre­tionary food in­take.

Is a choco­late cake made with co­conut su­gar any health­ier than choco­late cake made with cane su­gar?

Agave syrup

Rice malt syrup

Brown su­gar

Co­conut su­gar


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