The sweet life

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

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By ABIRAMI DURAI [email protected]­

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

— 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.


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.


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.

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