Continuing with the theme of natural sweeteners I decided the next blog should focus on the natural sugars that are available on the market. These sugars will resemble the sugar granules you are used to and will also affect your blood sugar levels. However, it’s important to know what these sugars are and how they differ from one another.
But first, let’s go back to basics - Sugar, in all forms, is a simple carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose and uses for energy. But the effect on the body and your overall health depends on the type of sugar you’re eating. We already touched upon some natural plant sweeteners and the beneficial effects on your health with introducing Stevia and Monk Fruit. Natural sugars, on the other hand, are found in fruit as fructose and in dairy products, such as milk and cheese, as lactose. The key with both fructose and lactose is that when you consume them, you consume them with other important nutrients, namely fibre in the case of fructose, or protein in the case of lactose. These nutrients help to stabilise your blood sugar levels, which prevents you from feeling hungry soon after eating.
We are a nation of sugar lovers. Britons consume well over the recommended amount of sugar each day. The official recommendation from the government is to limit sugar to no more than 5% - around 30g or seven cubes of sugar per day. However, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) produced by Public Health England, found that sugar makes up 13.5% of 4 to 10-year-olds, and 14.1% of teenagers’ (11 to 18-year-olds) daily calorie intake respectively - almost three times the recommended amount.
A diet high in refined sugar can lead to obesity, tooth decay and their related health complications, including type 2 diabetes. This is why it’s important to address this topic now as many find it very difficult to limit sugars to the recommended amount. Natural sugars, although they may have better nutrient profiles than their refined counterparts, can still contribute to obesity and other conditions. Therefore, they should also be limited. This blog will explain the differences between the natural sugar varieties so that you are better informed at making the right choices.
Types of Natural Sugars
Here are the common natural sugars that are readily available on most market shelves:
Molasses is a sweet, brown liquid with a thick, syrup-like consistency. It's made from boiling down sugar cane or sugar beet juice. Blackstrap is the highest and most nutritious of all grades of molasses. It’s created as a by-product from the process of creating refined sugar and contains the lowest sugar content of any sugar cane product. It contains vital vitamins and minerals (unlike refined sugar, which has zero nutritional value), such as vitamin B6, magnesium, calcium, manganese, copper, iron and selenium. What sets it apart from refined sugar is its ability to break down slowly in the body, preventing spikes in blood sugar, making it a good option for diabetics.
Uses: Molasses has a unique, rich flavour. It may not be appealing for some to use for topping toast, porridges or other concentrated applications. However, it’s a perfect sweetener for marinades and to use in baking.
Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by honey bees. Honey is loaded with essential vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, folate, iron, manganese, and fluoride. It’s also known for its immune-boosting properties due to its numerous bioactive compounds that fight inflammation and also give honey its anti-cancer properties.
Raw honey also contains strong antioxidants, such as quercetin and caffeic acid, explaining its effectiveness for instantly boosting energy and performance. The glucose in honey is quickly absorbed by the body to provide an instant boost in energy while the fructose is absorbed more slowly, preventing spikes in blood sugar and provides sustained energy.
Uses: First, don’t cook with raw honey. Drizzle it on breakfast cereals, over your sprouted grain toast, on yogurt and for salad dressings. Honey can also be added to your tea and coffee but wait until the drink is tepid enough to sip comfortably, and then add honey to taste. This way you help the raw honey to maintain those valuable nutrients.
Check out my blog on Raw Honey also for more interesting facts!
True Maple syrup is a thick, sugary liquid that's made by cooking down the sap of maple trees. The health benefits come from the nutrients and minerals found in pure maple syrup (and not the processed variety) such as manganese, zinc, iron, calcium, and various antioxidants. All these minerals help our bodies in hundreds of ways — whether it’s boosting brain health to building and maintaining stronger bones to protecting us from the damaging effects of free radicals to preventing heart disease, stroke, or atherosclerosis. Select darker, Grade B maple syrups, as they contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups.
Uses: Maple syrup is heat stable, so you can use it in virtually any application. Add it to marinades, glazes or sauces and use for baking. Use it to sweeten homemade granola and your morning coffee or tea.
Dates are such an incredibly nutritious sweetener that the scope of health benefits will impress you! First, they’re a great source of natural sugars like glucose and fructose, making them the perfect afternoon snack for a quick energy boost. They’re also an excellent source of dietary fibre, which makes it easier for the body to absorb nutrients, while promoting colon health and boosting heart health by binding with LDL (bad) cholesterol and getting rid of them.
Dates are an excellent source of copper and iron by ensuring the production and maintenance of healthy oxygen-containing red blood cells, keeping you from feeling sluggish. They’re also rich in essential minerals, such as calcium (great for bone health), magnesium (anti-inflammatory, reduces blood pressure, supports heart health) and copper.
Uses: Use in your favourite cookie or cake recipe to cut out refined sugar and boost the nutrients. You can also use date paste to sweeten your favourite muffins and pies. For fruit pies, mix 1–1½ cups of puree with four cups of fruit, and bake as normal. Depending on the water content of the fruit, you may need to add a thickener, like tapioca.
Coconut Palm Sugar
Coconut sugar is extracted from the sap/nectar of the flower buds of the coconut palm. Packed with polyphenols, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorous and other phytonutrients, coconut sugar is versatile and now readily available. It also has a lower glycaemic index than sugar, which may be partly due to its inulin content. Inulin is a type of fibre that has been shown to slow glucose absorption. It's also very high in fructose, which is the main reason why it needs to be consumed in moderation. Date sugar (made from dried dates) and coconut sugar are often used interchangeably in recipes because they provide similar flavour.
Uses: Use coconut sugar in your favourite recipes, for it measures just like traditional sugar. It’s a bit more coarse than refined sugar, so just add the amount of sugar called for in a recipe to your food processor and give it a whirl until you get the desired texture. Or you can dissolve the coconut sugar in the liquids called for in the recipe. However, dissolving the sugar is not recommended when making a recipe that calls for “creaming” ingredients together — like for cakes or cookies.
Check out my blog on Coconut Oil also for more interesting facts!
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup starts with brown rice that is fermented with enzymes to break down the starch. The liquid is then heated until the syrup consistency is achieved. This results in a thick, amber-coloured, sweet syrup perfect for recipes calling for corn syrup and other unhealthy sweeteners.
The fermentation process helps to break down the sugars into ones that are easily digestible. Some brown rice syrups are fermented with barley enzymes, meaning it contains gluten. Purchase brown rice syrups that are labelled gluten-free.
Uses: A great corn syrup substitute. Use a one-to-one ratio. To replace regularly processed white sugar, use one cup for each cup of sugar called for and decrease liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup. Use brown rice syrup to make healthy granola bars and granola, nut clusters and to sweeten nut and fruit pies.
Rapadura sugar is an unrefined cane sugar that preserves the natural caramel taste of the sugar. However, unlike white sugar, it has a grainy texture rather than a crystallised one because it is not as heavily processed. Rapadura sugar is slightly richer in some nutrients than white sugar is because it is not spun during processing to remove the nutritious molasses and it doesn’t contain chemicals or anti-caking agents. Nonetheless, it should still be consumed in moderation.
In Brazil, where it is produced, ‘Rapadura’ is the traditional name for this kind of sugar. Similar non-centrifugal sugar products exist all over Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, although they all have different names and small differences in the processing: Jaggery (Asia/Africa), Gur (India), Panela (Colombia), Piloncillo (Mexico), Tapa dulce (Costa Rica), Namtan tanode (Thailand), Gula Melaka (Malaysia), and Kokuto (Japan).
Uses: Rapadura has a fine-grained texture and can be used in place of white sugar in all recipes. However, the taste will be different with a deeper caramel flavour. Rapadura dissolves quickly in liquids, especially warm liquids. Granules of rapadura sugar may also be used to sweeten baked goods. You can also buy rapadura which has been solidified and formed into cakes. These can then be grated and sprinkled onto puddings and tortes.
There are many more natural sugars not covered in this blog, such as applesauce, fruits juice concentrates/jams, carob syrup, chickory root fibre, yacón syrup, sweet potato syrupand tapioca syrup. With all these varieties on the market there’s no need to reach for the bag of white sugar.
Recipes for Health
1. Soak medjool dates in hot water until soft. If the water reaches room temperature and the dates aren’t soft enough, soak in hot water again.
2. Reserve the soaking liquid, as it’s integral to making a good paste!
3. Add the soaked dates to your food processor, along with one tablespoon of the soaking liquid.
4. Blend until smooth.
5. Add more water as needed to create a thick, rich paste.
Key Lime Pie
· 1 Gluten-Free Pie Crust
· 2 cups evaporated or condensed coconut milk
· ½ cup lime juice
· 1 teaspoon lime zest
· 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
· ½ cup maple syrup
· 1 tablespoon coconut oil
· 2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
· ½ teaspoon sea salt
· 2–3 limes, sliced for garnishing
1. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine arrowroot powder and coconut oil. Whisk to create roux.
2. After about one minute, add coconut milk. Whisk continuously until mixture thickens into a custard-like consistency, about 10 minutes.
3. Add lime juice, lime zest, vanilla, maple syrup and salt. Whisk until mixture thickens even more, about five minutes.
4. Pour mixture into pie crust and allow to cool, then chill the rest of the way in the freezer, about one hour.
5. Top with sliced lime for garnish and serve.
It’s important to remember that even if you’re using natural sweeteners, you still need to be mindful of not consuming too much added sugar in your diet. Eating too much added sugar can lead to poor nutrition, tooth decay, weight gain, increased triglycerides and other significant health concerns. Also remember you shouldn’t give children under the age of one year old any honey.
Although natural sugars contain more beneficial nutrients that refined sugar, many of them are high in fructose and some can even be extracted chemically. They also still contain a considerable amount of calories which is why I recommend using natural sugars sparingly just like refined sugar:
Calories in 1 tablespoon:
· Coconut sugar 45
· Blackstrap molasses 47
· White sugar 49
· Maple syrup 52
· Raw honey 64
· Dates (1 medjool date) 66
If you are being treated for any ongoing health concern, especially diabetes, check with your doctor before incorporating any new sweeteners into your diet.
To Sum Up…
There are so many different varieties of sugars out there from natural to refined. A search on wiki will give you a vast list of what’s available. They all come from different plants and processing procedures giving them their distinct taste and texture.
Refined sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, which are processed to extract the sugar. It is typically found as sucrose, which is the combination of glucose and fructose. Food manufacturers add chemically produced sugar to products to boost their flavour and satisfy the sweet tooth of the population. It’s generally added to nutrient-poor, processed foods, which can harm your health when eaten in large quantities.
Natural sugars like honey, maple syrup and molasses also contain fructose but are typically found in whole foods. This gives it that added bonus of containing beneficial components the human body recognises in the form of key vitamins and minerals. However, not all natural sugars are equally good. Natural sugars can also be processed in a way that removes virtually all of their fibre and a good portion of their other nutrients. In their whole form, fruits offer chewing resistance and are loaded with water and fibre.
Regardless of being natural or refined sugars they both contain a vast amount of calories and can contribute towards increasing the risk of diabetes, obesity, tooth delay and related conditions. All sugars need to be consumed in moderation but opting for natural sugars give you the opportunity to take advance of their beneficial constituents rather than just being fed empty calories.