The Star Malaysia - Star2

The sweet life

More people are turning towards sugar substitute­s in lieu of refined sugar. But are these any healthier than the real deal?

- By ABIRAMI DURAI star2@thestar.com.my

More and more people are incorporat­ing sugar substitute­s like honey and agave nectar into their diets in the belief that these sweeteners are healthier than refined sugar. But are they?

ON supermarke­t shelves, restaurant menus and in many homes, there has been an increasing shift towards healthier food options. And nowhere is this more evident than with refined white sugar. Long considered an evil villain in the fight against obesity and its twin scourge – diabetes – refined sugar is being usurped in favour of other options perceived to be healthier.

In Malaysia, this trend has been gaining momentum, especially as people are waking up to the reality that Malaysia is the fattest country in South-East Asia, with nearly half of the population either overweight or obese.

In the Malaysian Adults Nutrition Survey 2014, sugar ranked second in foods consumed daily among the Malaysian adult population living in both rural and urban areas. Based on the survey, average sugar and condensed milk intake daily was 75.5 g, which grossly exceeds the World Health Organisati­on’s (WHO) recommenda­tion of 50g of sugar (12 teaspoons) a day.

While sugar is not the sole contributo­r of the obesity epidemic, there is a strong connection between sugar consumptio­n and weight increase.

In light of this, there has been a considerab­le shift in the means and methods of incorporat­ing sugar into diets, with consumers, food producers and eateries rising to the task of making “healthier options”.

Most notably, this has manifested in the increased use of sugar substitute­s like honey, agave nectar, stevia, molasses, palm sugar, maple syrup and artificial sweeteners like Sweet ‘N Low.

The end products can take many forms from artisanal granola sweetened with honey, cakes made with dates or molasses and carbonated drinks enhanced with stevia instead of sugar.

Many of these products are marketed as being healthier, and various websites and online articles substantia­te these claims by pontificat­ing about the virtues of different sugar substitute­s. Over time, this, coupled with refined sugar’s bad reputation, has led to the widespread belief that sugar substitute­s are somehow healthier than sugar itself.

“Yes, there is a trend for individual­s to choose sugar substitute­s in the hope that these substitute­s would dampen the effect of excessive sugar intake. Obesity and the increasing prevalence of diabetes in the country clearly are the driving force for individual­s to seek healthier substitute­s in their diet, as processed sugar has been termed the culprit leading to obesity and diabetes,” says Asst Prof Dr Satvinder Kaur, the head of the nutrition with wellness programme at USCI University.

Are sugar substitute­s better ?

According to Satvinder, in terms of calorie intake, there is very little difference between consuming refined white sugar (a disacchari­de known as sucrose that is made from glucose and fructose and which contains 398 calories in 100g) and consuming substitute­s like honey, palm sugar or maple syrup.

“One teaspoon of any form of sugar provides approximat­ely 20 calories. So calorie-wise, it does not differ greatly from each other, thus using it as a ‘healthier’ substitute may be misleading.

“As for metabolism, our body metabolise­s glucose, fructose and galactose (which are all the simplest form of sugar) differentl­y. While glucose requires the hormone insulin for metabolism, fructose is metabolise­d in the liver.

“As such, although the balance of glucose and fructose in refined sugar and sugar substitute­s differs, the metabolism of table sugar and other sugar substitute­s may not vary greatly as all share similar end products (glucose and fructose) which are absorbed in the body,” she says.

For people looking to reduce calorie intake, zero-calorie artificial sweeteners may be the way to go, although these sweeteners themselves have come under increased scrutiny, especially as a recent study (commission­ed by WHO) and published in the British

Medical Journal indicated that artificial sweeteners were no healthier than refined sugar.

Satvinder also cautions against over-consumptio­n of sugar substitute­s as the effects of consuming too much can be as harmful or worse than consuming refined sugar.

Citing honey as an example, she says, “Honey mainly consists of fructose and clinical studies have shown that excess fructose is often the culprit behind metabolic syndrome and weight gain, so high consumptio­n would translate to obesity and metabolic irregulari­ties.

“Despite honey having health benefits through antioxidan­t properties, intake should still be in the recommende­d amount as over-consumptio­n would result in more harm than benefits,” she says.

Ultimately, Satvinder says reducing sugar consumptio­n should be the ultimate goal.

“Sugar substitute­s should not be characteri­sed as an alternativ­e without also looking into the amount consumed. Often the amount of sugar consumed leads to higher rates of obesity and diabetes rather than the type of sugar consumed per se. Using less sugar is the way to tackle issues related to obesity and diabetes. This is because foods that have high sugar are normally energy-dense foods that contain little nutrients,” she says.

A growing trend

Satvinder’s view about reducing sugar is echoed by Victor Yap, the owner of local healthy eatery Fittie Sense.

Yap is a seasoned baker who has created a

range of reduced-sugar desserts that incorporat­e sugar substitute­s like raw molasses, honey and coconut sugar, in line with the growing demand for these options.

But Yap consciousl­y uses less of these substitute­s, opting to cut sugar levels overall in all his desserts. Some of the most popular cakes in his eatery include an apple cake sweetened with dates and a carrot cake which incorporat­es the use of honey.

“The most common questions we get asked at the restaurant are, ‘How sweet is this? or ‘Does this have less sugar?’ So it’s either a trend or consumers are more aware of sugar and want to be more careful with what they eat and how much they eat,” he says.

Yap says when using sugar substitute­s, less is more as a lot of these sweeteners are naturally sweeter than sugar.

“You can definitely use less. Our carrot cake uses half the amount of sweetener than the traditiona­l recipe, but if you taste it, you can still get away with it. Our cakes don’t taste so sweet, which nowadays a lot of our customers appreciate,” he says.

Because refined sugar has become such a taboo ingredient, many people are led to believe that they are making better choices when they opt for a cake sweetened with molasses or honey but Yap says he is careful to avoid the “guilt-free” tag.

“For our restaurant, our strategy is that we do not use refined sugar purely because it is highly processed. We try not to market our cakes as healthier but people will label that for us. We call our cakes alternativ­e cakes,” he says.

Ultimately, when it comes to baked goods, Yap says there is a simpler solution than sugar substitute­s: use less refined sugar.

“You don’t have to follow recipes to a tee. If it’s an American recipe, cut the sugar in half. I know it sounds drastic, but it will be fine for the Asian palate – in fact, some people will still find it too sweet,” he says.

 ?? Photo: DAVID PACEY/Flickr ??
Photo: DAVID PACEY/Flickr
 ?? — Photos: Marco Verch/Flickr ?? Because refined white sugar has such a bad reputation, people are moving towards alternativ­es like honey and molasses. But the reality is, all these replacemen­ts contain about the same amount of calories as sugar.
— Photos: Marco Verch/Flickr Because refined white sugar has such a bad reputation, people are moving towards alternativ­es like honey and molasses. But the reality is, all these replacemen­ts contain about the same amount of calories as sugar.
 ?? — YAP CHEE HONG/The Star ?? Through a lot of trial-and-error, Yap has come up with a range of reduced sugar desserts.
— YAP CHEE HONG/The Star Through a lot of trial-and-error, Yap has come up with a range of reduced sugar desserts.
 ?? — Dr Satvinder Kaur ?? Satvinder believes that people should be looking at reducing their sugar intake.
— Dr Satvinder Kaur Satvinder believes that people should be looking at reducing their sugar intake.
 ?? — YAP CHEE HONG/The Star ?? Yap’s reduced-sugar desserts make use of sugar substitute­s, as he says there is a growing trend of people requesting for low-sugar desserts.
— YAP CHEE HONG/The Star Yap’s reduced-sugar desserts make use of sugar substitute­s, as he says there is a growing trend of people requesting for low-sugar desserts.
 ??  ?? While many people think sweeteners like honey are healthier than refined sugar, even honey can cause obesity if consumed in excess.
While many people think sweeteners like honey are healthier than refined sugar, even honey can cause obesity if consumed in excess.

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