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
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?
Rice malt syrup