Sweet without sugar
Rashmi Rawat cautions us about the harmful effects of refined sugar. However, to comfort those with a sweet tooth, she offers some healthy substitutes
The world pelts candies on me. The people around offer cupcakes and chewing gums. There is no birthday party without creamy cakes and no festival without any exchange of cookie bags and yummy sweets. Well! These are some excuses by which I console myself after having eatables laden with sugar every day. There are moments when I feel completely drained even without doing any tiring job. Go for an energy bar or drink, suggests my mind. But is it okay to have these instant energy sources?
From so-called ‘health drinks’ that claim to be energy providers, to the energy bars available in the market, almost everything we put in our mouth contains sugar. And today, it’s almost impossible to come across food that doesn’t have processed sugar for flavour, preservatives, or both. According to the World Health Organisation guideline, adults and children should reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10 per cent of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below five per cent or roughly six teaspoons per day would provide additional health benefits.
Sugar plays with our mind by providing pleasure signals to our brain. That is why, by just having a chocolate bar or a sugary doughnut, we experience a spike of energy which drops after a short period. And without realising it, we habituate ourselves to having sugar in some way or the other. On a regular basis, we consume sugar in these forms:
• Sucrose—common table sugar
• Fructose—fruit sugar
• Glucose—simple sugars, also called building blocks of carbohydrates in the body
• Lactose—milk sugar found in milk and dairy products
• Maltose—found in malted drinks and beer
Why is sugar bad?
There’s a huge difference between the sugar that naturally occurs in fruits and vegetables, and ‘natural sugar’ extracted from cane, which is further refined in a chemical environment and then added in high amounts in the processed and packaged food items.
Explaining the concepts of natural sugar and processed sugar, Dr Rupali Datta, chief clinical nutritionist at the Fortis-Escorts Hospital, says, “When we talk about carbohydrates, we mean complex carbs that are derived from starches or natural sugars present in fruits. These give you nutrients along with energy.
Refined sugar that you add to tea, coffee, or in desserts is not a dietary requirement. It's used for flavour and doesn't provide your body with anything. It is the sweetest poison of them all.”
Excessive intake of sugar may lead to many diseases. A person may suffer from diabetes, behavioural disorders, terrible dental health (because it provides easily digestible energy for the bad bacteria in the mouth), and obesity which ultimately leads to the risk of cardiovascular diseases and stroke in adults.
Several studies confirm that sugar too can put us at a greater risk of hypertension, leading to complications including heart attack. When the body produces too much insulin and leptin in response to a high-carb diet, it causes blood pressure to rise. Therefore, cutting down on sugar would be a good step towards maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system.
Not easy to say ‘no’
Craving isn’t the call of energy from our body but an unnecessary reward that our brain demands. There are some iron-willed people who totally cut off sugar from their diet by going on a sugar detox plan, which has shown miraculous results in their health. But for many of us, cutting the sweet stuff completely can be a herculean task. Fortunately, for all the sugar-aholic people, there are alternatives which are directly derived from plants, have no side effects, are low on calories, and taste sweeter than sugar. They are:
Stevia is a natural sweetener which is extracted from the leaves of the plant species stevia rebaudiana. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, in a draft proposal, has described stevia as a white to light yellow powder which is odourless or has a slight characteristic odour and is about 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar.
It is a non-nutritive herbal sweetener that contains little or no calories. Being a versatile sweetening ingredient, stevia is used in products ranging from candies to beverages and has set a new platform for food and beverage manufacturers. Studies have concluded that stevia has shown minimal to no effect on insulin levels, blood pressure, body weight, and blood glucose. As it is a zero-calorie nutritive, one can indulge in sweet dishes without worrying about weight gain. Stevia even contains many sterols (which help in reducing cholesterol and obesity) and antioxidant compounds including kaempferol (an antioxidant found in fruits and vegetables). Studies have found that kaempferol can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer by 23 per cent. Isn’t that a healthy and stress-free way of having sweet dishes?
Yacon syrup, a natural sweetener, is prepared from the juice of the roots of the yacon plant. This juice, extracted, filtered, and evaporated in a chemical-free manufacturing process, is brown in colour and is viscous.
The reason yacon is a healthy alternative to sugar is that it contains fructans (polymers of fructose molecules), which, after reaching the large intestine, feed the friendly bacteria, which promote health and immunity. While digesting the fructans, these bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids which regulate fat metabolism by promoting burning of fat, thereby keeping a check on obesity. It also lowers the ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin, thereby reducing appetite and unnecessary cravings—yet another reason why it can protect people from obesity.
A not-so-common household sweetener, xylitol is found in small amounts in most plant material, including fruits and vegetables. With sweetness similar to that of sugar, one gram of xylitol contains 2.43 kilocalories. Processed from trees like the birch, it is refined, white, and devoid of any vitamins and minerals.
Fructose increases cravings and causes resistance to the hormone leptin (which regulates energy balance by hampering hunger); this increases your weight and can lead to visceral fat accumulation. Since xylitol contains zero fructose, it is a good substitute for sugar. People suffering from diabetes, cardiac diseases, and obesity can go for this product as it has negligible effects on sugar and insulin levels.
A very common ingredient in sugar-free chewing gums, mouth fresheners, and mouthwashes, xylitol is a boon to oral hygiene and is approved by dentists. This is because streptococcus mutans (a type of bacteria responsible for the plaque deposited in teeth) feeds on glucose, causing tooth decay and, in worst cases, inflammatory gum diseases. The bad bacteria cannot use xylitol for fuel, but still, they ingest it, and when they are full of xylitol, no space is left for their beloved glucose; so, they end up dying. It not only kills the bacteria but also reduces these monsters by 30 to 75 per cent. Well played xylitol!
Note: Being a part of the sugar alcohol family, it has nothing to do with alcohol (as an intoxicant). One can consume it without worrying and as per the instructions given by the doctor.
Honey is the purest form of natural sweetener as it is directly extracted from the flower by the bees. Being raw and unprocessed, this ‘more than just a sugar’ liquid is loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and various other nutrients that are healthful. It has a high level of fructose and glucose, which makes it very sweet. but then it is unprocessed and natural. Be it any throat conditions, wounds, burns, or infections, this antibacterial wonder successfully cures these acute ailments without any side effects.
We can add honey to our daily diet by sweetening our dressings with it. Instead of regular sugar, one can stir it into coffee or tea. Apart from the usage in diet, practitioners of ayurveda use honey as the remedy for stress, weakness, sleep disturbance, obesity, and various acute problems. It is an anytime energy booster and may vary in terms of aroma, colour, taste, and texture, depending on the type of flower it is made from.
A very common item in Indian homes and probably the most inexpensive natural sweetener, gur (as we call it in Hindi) is the most versatile natural sweetener. This unrefined sugar is obtained from raw and concentrated sugarcane juice, which is dried and then cut into blocks. Jaggery is an ideal sugar substitute as it can almost be used in any sweet dish made by Indians.
This ancestral food of ours has various health benefits: It is a great ingredient for boosting one’s immunity and iron level, preventing constipation, detoxifying the liver, curing cough and cold, and warming the body in winters. Eating jaggery after a meal is quite common in India. Just eat it and forget about the digestion.
Despite a variation in the nutritional profile, jaggery is still a sugar. Along with the nutrition (which regular sugar doesn’t provide), you’ll also be consuming some calories. Therefore, one must be judicious regarding its intake.
Dates! A great winter food, it is sweet because of the fructose and the sucrose glucose content in it. Abundant in nutrients, dates are an excellent source of iron, a component of haemoglobin in red blood cells that determines the balance of oxygen in the blood. Additionally, it has potassium, an electrolyte that helps in regulating your blood pressure and heart rate. Dietary fibre in dates helps to move waste smoothly through the colon and helps prevent cholesterol absorption and other digestive issues. Additionally, it has potassium, an electrolyte that helps in regulating your blood pressure and heart rate. Dietary fibre in dates helps to move waste smoothly through the colon and helps prevent cholesterol absorption and other digestive issues. Additionally, it also contains Vitamin A which protects the eyes and Vitamin K which promotes blood coagulation.
Dates are a wonderful and healthy snack all by themselves. You can directly add chopped dates to porridge, sweets, and desserts. Today, date sugar is easily available but can also be prepared at home. All you need is some finely chopped dates and a grinder. Grind it, pack it into a container, refrigerate, and use when required. Dates are high in sugar content and calories, with added nutrients, and should be consumed in moderation.
But the tag of ‘sugar substitute’ does not warrant excessive consumption. Remember! Moderation is the key.
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