The other day I was asked a question about a different type of sugar. Rather than just going to find the answer for myself I thought it might be interesting to some more of you! So, here is a brief run down on popular sugars that you can now find on the supermarket shelf!
Sugar is totally carbohydrate. Pretty much 100% of the stuff. The sugar that we most often think of is white sugar or “table” sugar. It’s a disaccharide. Sucrose is made up of two monosaccharides; glucose and fructose. Having two (di-) “saccharides” means that enzymes are needed to break the bond between them before they can be metabolised. The type of sucrose that we put in our coffee is generally made from either sugar beet (root) or sugar cane (stem).
A question I often get asked is if brown sugar is better for you than white. White sugar is white as it has been refined more than brown sugars. You can taste this – try tasting the difference between Muscovado sugar (a very dark brown sugar), brown sugar (light brown) and white sugar. The colour of the sugar is the molasses which has been left in the sugar. Nutritionally brown sugars have an eensie weensie bit less energy than white sugar (but unfortunately not enough to write home about). But they do contain more minerals, mainly iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium – again due to the molasses. Is there enough minerals to make a significant impact on your health? Again unfortunately not. If you want to get minerals from this kind of source then have a tablespoon of good quality molasses instead.
Should you avoid sugar? No. As my mum has said on many occasion, and I have possibly said more! “Everything in moderation and moderation in everything”. Make sure you are aware of what you are eating and what contains added sugar so you can make a decision about where you get your sweetness from. People on GAPS or SCD diets will be avoiding sucrose and focussing on the monosaccharide sugars, as avoiding disaccharides helps to rest the gut and get those gut bugs back in line.
This is the question that started the thought process … when someone asked me what I thought about coconut sugar and I had to admit that I didn’t really have a clue (but it was on the long list of things I needed to go and read about). So, having done some reading, here is what coconut sugar is all about. Coconut sugar is like maple syrup, in that it is a sugar made from the sap of a plant. Maple syrup = maple trees; coconut sugar = coconut palm. Again, like cane or beet sugar, it is mainly sucrose. However, one study of the glycaemic index (GI) of coconut sugar has listed it as low GI 1, that is a GI of less than 55. This has been confirmed by research from the GI research group at the University of Sydney 2. Compared to sucrose which generally has a GI of about 65. As coconut sugar seems to have more inulin (no not a typo – I mean inulin NOT insulin), a type of fibre, then it is also absorbed more slowly than sucrose. Want to know more about what glycaemic index is, then check here.
So, should you have coconut sugar instead of white / brown table sugar? Well, if it is low GI it may be better for people with diabetes, or who find themselves affected by blood sugar spikes and drops. But remember, it has the same energy as white sugar and by some reports it tastes less sweet, so don’t get caught in the trap of putting an extra spoon in your tea!
Agave sugar / syrup / nectar
Now this is an interesting one! I first came across Agave sugar when I read a book years ago. Since then it has gone from a bit of a specialist products to being available in my local fruit & veggie shop! So what’s it all about? Well, Agave sugar is also known as agave syrup or agave nectar. Agave sugar is made from this plant called … an agave! How imaginative! It is a HUGE cactus looking plant that you see on all kinds of South American movies. It is mainly fructose and glucose rather than sucrose. And tooth-achingly sweet. Whereas coconut sugar can taste less sweet than sugar, agave sugar tastes more sweet than sugar.
So should I use this then as I might use less? Well, because it is mainly fructose, agave sugar again has a lower GI so might be a better option for people with blood sugar spikes. However, because it is mainly sucrose it might present a problem if you have FODMAP fructose issues.
Is just plain weird. Made from cooked rice which has an enzyme added to break down the starches. Traditionally (old ways) the enzyme was from a sprouted barley grain, however modern manufacturing does this with mass produced enzymes. Rice syrups are higher in a sugar called maltose rather than glucose or fructose. Maltose is a disaccharide made from two glucose molecules. It is high GI so might make blood sugar levels rise more, but likely to be okay if you have FODMAP issues. Traditional rice syrup made from sprouted barley is highly likely to contain enough gluten protein to cause a reaction in gluten sensitive people. Usually not the case in the modern produced rice syrup where it is often sold as maltodextrin.
I can’t talk sweet without talking honey. Talking about honey raises little images of fuzzy honey bees, lazy summer days and of course Winnie the Pooh. Well to me at least! One of my current favourites is raw meadow honey. It was such a thrill to find out about research on honey and cough’s in children. A Cochrane review 3 found that honey was better than no treatment for acute cough in children, and that it performed at least as well as cough medicine.
That’s slightly off topic, but honey is generally all good stuff … unless … you are a baby under 1 year old (in which case you want to not be eating honey), are allergic to honey or bees, or have FODMAP issues. As honey is high in fructose it can be a problem for FODMAP people who react to fructose.
Okay, I had to include stevia here. Why? Well, because it is so popular at the moment I thought it deserved a mention. Stevia is not sugar. It doesn’t contain and saccharide. No glucose, no fructose, no maltose. Nada. It is an “artificial sweetener” however not yet as artificial as other artificial sweeteners. It is made from a plant (go on, guess what the plant is called!) called … stevia! Yes! It is sweeter than sugar and contains no energy, or other nutrients. Some people complain of a bitter after taste, but some people don’t notice it.
What’s the bottom line here? Well, I’d summarise by saying that it is quite obvious that not all sugars are created equal. Some contain minerals, some contain fibres, some are lower GI than other. But generally if you have these sweet things regularly regardless of what it is, it is training your sweet taste buds to keep craving sweet. Trying to get used to less sweet is possibly more important than what sweet you choose. Maybe the exception to this is low GI sugars.
1 Trinidad T et al (2010) Glycaemic index of commonly consumed carbohydrate foods in the Philippines. Journal of Functional Foods Vol 2: Issue 4 p271-274
Katrina Pace, Dietitian
Gut bugs fascinate me. Diet and gut bugs intrigue me. Cooking is essential. Add them all together and you get a fairly interesting opinion on life! In my humble opinion.