Sugar wars: are natural sweeteners actually better for you?
Now that our sweetening options are endless, we can't decide which one we should actually be using. The biggest cause of confusion and current debate is around the fructose content of natural sweeteners.
Unlike glucose, fructose isn't absorbed immediately into the bloodstream, giving it a low GI score that won't spike blood sugar levels. Fructose is absorbed by the liver, where it is converted to glucose to be used as energy or stored. This presents three key problems: first, fructose absorption is impaired in many people, second, we are adding more work to our already over-burdened livers and last, if the energy from fructose is not used, the body is very efficient at converting it into adipose tissue (the storage form of fat).
Unfortunately, there is no absolute answer to which sweetener is the best of the bunch, as everyone's needs are different. In truth, a sweetener is as it sounds - a treat to be used sparingly to sweeten the taste of our occasional foods. Varying our sweeteners and consuming them in moderation is key.
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Raw honey has many nutritional benefits: it's alkaline-forming, has antioxidant and anti-bacterial properties and a GI of around 50 (which is considered medium to low). Honey is about 30 per cent glucose and 40 per cent fructose. Commercial supermarket honey has been pasteurised to improve its shelf life, texture and look - and is no better than regular sugar - so always choose raw and organic.
Brown rice syrup
Primarily glucose, brown rice syrup isn't as sweet as honey and its fructose content is negligible, but with a very high GI, it's not a good choice for those monitoring their blood sugar. Ensure you choose Australian, organic and 100 per cent brown rice.
When raw and organic, agave contains minerals and phytonutrients. It has a very high fructose content, making it very sweet (about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar) so you can use much less of it to get the same effect. Its GI is low, so it's not a bad option for those watching their blood sugar. It should be avoided by anyone with fructose sensitivities.
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Made from coconut palm blossoms and considered one of the most environmentally friendly and sustainable sweeteners around, coconut nectar and sugar are low GI and high in vitamins and minerals. They still contain moderate amounts of fructose, but not as much as agave.
A tuber root from Peru, Yacon is sweet, very low in calories and acts a prebiotic (food for our intestinal flora) in the gut. It's the gold standard in sweeteners, with a very low GI and low fructose content, however it's also very expensive and can be hard to find.
Made from ground leaves, stevia is extremely sweet so experiment sparingly. With no calories, a GI of zero and no fructose content, stevia is a good option for diabetics. Avoid the white bleached powders and look for the green, unrefined version.
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