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Sugar: should you go without? How?

We all love sugar, but we ought to give it up. True enough, avoiding added sugars is a priority for good health. Here are the solutions for cutting down on sugar without cutting out this smooth, comforting taste forever.

What’s the best “deal”? Swapping out sugar in favour of a healthier alternative. Here are a few spoonfuls of these swaps which are more in line with the Clean Eating trend.

We take in far too much sugar!

The figures are damning, because we currently still consume too much sugar. Some four times the recommended amount. That’s if we suppose that it’s recommended to eat it! In fact, sugar is a natural part of the diet – contained in plants – and those are known as natural sugars, as opposed to added sugars.

But are they all that different?

Added sugar (known as saccharose), sugar lumps (large or small) or icing sugar gets slipped into all mass-produced food products, sweet AND savoury (often in excessive amounts), most often in the form of glucose syrup. Not counting the sugar that we add liberally to homemade desserts, fruit salad or even some savoury dishes (tajines, stews, etc.). We could look no further than natural sugar (it’s no better, because it looks very much like added sugar, it’s just natural). This natural sugar develops in plants due to the effect of the sun, thanks to photosynthesis. So what’s the only difference of note? Well, in a plant, natural sugar is accompanied by fibre and minerals that make it more easily assimilable. In mass-produced food products, sugar goes straight into the bloodstream and triggers a spike in insulin levels… Which, later on, brings on that low blood sugar slump. As for the colour, both white and brown sugar are the same thing. That from sugar beet is white, and that from sugar cane naturally brown. In both cases, this sugar brings only empty calories to the table, so don’t go thinking it can do anything good for you.

A pinch nonetheless

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However, in the upbringing of each and every one of us, sugar is about the sweetness of childhood, birthday treats, high tea lovingly prepared by mummy or our grandparents and sweets given as “rewards”. Moreover, in the collective subconscious, sugar represents a reward. On maternity wards, some medics give sugar water to newborns prior to painful surgery, due to its analgesic properties. Furthermore, in the brain, sugar activates the neurological circuitry of motivation and reward thanks to the secretion of dopamine and endogenous morphine (that which the body makes naturally to relieve pain). We truly need sugar, and taking pleasure in eating sweet foods does not make you an addict.

Beware the risk of addiction

The little lab rats on which this totally addictive substance is tested, and a great many studies, provide proof that sugar is every bit as mind-bending as actual drugs (or even more so!). A study carried out by the CNRD think tank in 2007 provided proof that refined sugar exerted greater power of attraction on rats than cocaine did.

According to that same study, millions of people worldwide are affected by sugar addiction, which is now deemed a real addiction. It is said to cause obesity, diabetes and some cancers. Moreover, sugar intake has risen from two kilos per person per year in the early 19th century to 35 kilos per person per year nowadays. Sugar was a sign of elite membership and prosperity, and obtaining it was a kind of confirmation that a person had achieved success. It’s become a kind of subconscious addiction, since all too often we consume it without realising. Since the 2000s the scientific community has been dismayed about it, and has been trying to raise public awareness of the risk of becoming diabetic due to excessive sugar in the diet. This excessive sugar intake flies in the face of Clean Eating.

Laden with sugar? Yes, but hidden sugar

You can’t always see sugars, but they are there, and they think that they can go unnoticed by hiding behind outlandish names. Here are their pseudonyms that will enable you to hunt them down: saccharose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, galactose, dextrin, maltodextrin, glucose syrup, rucose, isoglucose, corn syrup, inverted sugar, molasses and caramel. Even if they have a little more to offer, the following sugars often have no business showing up in savoury dishes: date syrup, barley malt, corn flour, potato flour, corn or wheat starch and rice starch. Some of them show up brazenly in most freeze-dried vegetables, and even stock cubes! Also, don’t forget to rein in your intake of (very) sweet soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, cured meats and mass-produced steaks (including plant-based steaks) and breakfast cereal. This even applies to so-called “healthy” granola if it’s mass produced.

Cut down on all pre-packed deli vegetable sides, couscous -style sides and salads (often packed full of sugar and salt – the whole shebang!) and sliced bread. That’s a real false friend full of sugar (and not all honey), devoid of fibre, full of gluten and super sweet. Tomato sauce is every bit as insidious, not to mention a great deal of savoury products found in the nicest-looking organic aisles, of all places.

Sugar is powerful and imperious, and we’ve loved it for so long that it’s hard for us not to give in when it turns on the charm. So it’s no surprise that corporations don’t put up a fight either, even though they know full well that sugar (like salt) is super addictive.

Swapping out sugar is on trend!

Phew! Healthy eating key opinion leaders (naturopaths, chefs, dieticians, etc.) are crazy about natural sugar substitutes that shove sugar out of the kitchen. The good news is that the list of sweet alternatives is getting ever longer. On the menu:

Whole sugar

Sucre intégral - WE ARE CLEAN - CLEAN EATING

What’s its ISP? It comes from sugar cane, and is non-refined and therefore less processed than its white counterpart. Accordingly, it holds onto its nutritional value (primarily from potassium and magnesium). Be aware that brown sugar is not whole sugar, and in some instances is even white sugar coloured brown.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup - WE ARE CLEAN - CLEAN EATING

Yielded from maple sap, it’s harvested in spring via a boiling process. It’s high in antioxidants and in terpene (an acid that plays a role in metabolising sugar). It also has anti-inflammatory properties. It has more character than agave syrup, and accordingly is used more sparingly, as it has a very distinctive taste.

Honey

Miel - WE ARE CLEAN - CLEAN EATING

It’s the number one competitor of the white stuff. With so much more to offer, since the nectar of the beehive contains magnesium, potassium, calcium, vitamins B and C and antioxidants. In addition, you need much less of it to get the same sweetening power as sugar (about half as much). Opt for organic honey, from a dependable source (within the European Union). Steer well clear of blended honey (which bears the epithet “blend of non-EU honeys” ) whose origin is dubious, as is its makeup (sometimes it’s cut with sugar or water.). While honey is high in fructose, it’s still sugar, and has the same drawbacks (fast absorption, which is of less benefit than eating a whole fruit containing the same amount of fructose).

Coconut sugar

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You know coconut flowers? Nectar can be yielded from their sap, once it’s been heated and the water evaporated off. High in vitamin B, minerals and antioxidants, it has a slightly lower glycaemic index than white sugar. But the difference lies in the face-off between beneficial nutrients versus empty calories, and that’s where coconut sugar wins out.

Agave syrup

Agave - WE ARE CLEAN - CLEAN EATING

You could be forgiven for mistaking it for honey! It comes from a Mexican cactus species, and if good quality has a lot of sweetening power with quite a low glycaemic index. Like all sweetening substances it is high in fructose, and gets stored in the form of fat if consumed to excess.

Birch sugar

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Birch sugar comes from birch bark. This sugar-a-like tastes almost like sugar, but has a lower glycaemic index, making it more beneficial. Exercise caution over the amount used, as it has laxative properties.

Stevia

Stevia - WE ARE CLEAN - CLEAN EATING

With a low glycaemic index and a low calorie count, it packs much more sweetening power than sugar (some 200 times more!). So it’s easy to keep intake to a very small amount. It comes from a South American plant species, with a slight liquorice taste that’s not for everyone.

Cereal and fruit sugars

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Less well-known, natural derivatives of rice or barley in the former case, they are used a lot in savoury stews. Fruit sugars, which come from dates, pears or apples, are beneficial because they supply some of the nutrients of the plant matter from which they are extracted.

And aspartame?

It was the very first to have tried to take the place of sugar, to the point of no longer having anything sweet except a similar taste. However, it manages to trick the body so effectively that it gets it to secrete insulin to metabolise it… Whereas there’s no sugar there. Not bad! As a result, everything is out of balance. This little game has been going on since the 1960s when aspartame was developed. It’s totally artificial and obviously devoid of any nutritional value.

They have clever ways with sugar

La guingette d'angèle - WE ARE CLEAN - CLEAN EATING

Angèle Ferreux-Maeght, a naturopath and head of La Guingette d’Angèle, swaps out sugar with certain ground dried fruits (like apple) or Medjool dates. Lili Barbery-Coulon, a Kundalini yoga instructor and author of Pimp My Breakfast published by Éditions Marabout (available in French only), swaps out sugar with banana (when making her famous super easy pancakes: mashed banana + beaten egg + oats with a little salted butter!).

Angèle’s recipe
Chocolate courgette cake

A nice-looking birthday cake for children (or grown-ups!) free of sugar, salt, gluten and lactose
Use 3 cake tins
Makes 10-15 slices

  • 70 g cocoa powder
  • 100 g corn starch (Maizena or similar)
  • 250 g dark chocolate
  • 12 eggs
  • 600 g courgettes (go for nice firm courgettes and grate them very finely)

Preheat the oven to 180° C
Melt the chocolate on a very low heat
Set aside 5-10 tbsp of melted chocolate for the cake topping
Beat the egg whites into nice stiff peaks
Mix the corn starch with the egg yolks and cocoa powder
Once the mixture is evenly blended, add the grated courgettes and gently fold in the egg white
Oil the cake tins, pour in the cake mix and bake for 45 mn
Take the smallest cake out 10 mn prior
Leave to cool, then turn out
Stack the cakes up
Pour the melted chocolate over the top
For an even creamier topping: mix the melted chocolate with a very ripe avocado. It’s very smooth and really delicious… Says Angèle!

© La guingette d’Angèle

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