Global sugar consumption has tripled in the last 50 years, thanks largely to vast quantities of ‘hidden sugars’ in cakes, sweets and other convenience foods. We all know that too much refined sugar can make us fat, but did you also know that it’s highly addictive and can be extremely detrimental to our health? In this article you’re going to learn more about the dangers of processed sugars and discover four healthy superfood sugar alternatives that can be easily incorporated into your daily diet.
Processed sugar consumption on the increase
Ask the average Brit which food products contain sugar and they’ll most likely name obvious examples such as cakes and sweets. Yet sugar is found in nearly all processed foods including sauces, soups, bread, meat, salad dressings, soft drinks and even fruit drinks. You need only read the labels on the food products in your kitchen cupboard, to realise that most contain some form of sugar. Manufacturers are increasingly using sugar to prolong shelf life and add cheap bulk, which is why even though fewer of us take sugar in our tea and we sprinkle less of it over our cereals and puddings, we’re actually consuming more of it than ever before. In the last two decades, British sugar consumption has jumped by 31%, to 1.25lb per person, per week. Compare that to the start of the 18th century, when the annual per capita consumption of sugar was just 4lbs!
Why is processed sugar so bad for us?
Table sugar is made from sugar beet and sugar cane – it is a highly refined, white sugar, which has had all of its valuable nutrients, including fibre, minerals, enzymes and vitamins, removed. This type of sugar is also chemically bleached making it difficult for our bodies to digest and has an acidifying effect on our digestive system.
The NHS state, ‘It is generally accepted that excessive sugar consumption is bad for health and dieticians advise restricting sugar intake to the occasional “treat”.’
A constantly high consumption of sugars may cause or contribute to:
• Overweight and obesity
• A weakened immune system, which results in reduced protection against infectious diseases
• An increase in fasting glucose levels that can cause reactive hypoglycaemia
• A reduction in insulin sensitivity, which causes abnormally high insulin levels, an imbalance in hormones and even diabetes
• Premature aging caused by an increase in insulin, triggered by the sugar. Sugar also accelerates osteoporosis
• Fungal infections including candida albicans
• High blood pressure and damage to blood vessels, which can lead to high cholesterol levels and heart disease
• Cancer – sugar ‘feeds’ cancer cells and has been associated with the development of breast, ovarian, prostate, rectum, pancreas, gall bladder, stomach and lung cancer
• Varicose veins, haemorrhoids, gallstones, headaches, depression and autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, asthma and multiple sclerosis
• A rapid increase of adrenaline, hyperactivity, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and temper tantrums in children. Too much sugar may lead to learning difficulties and can worsen the symptoms of ADHD
In February 2012 a group of American Health Scientists led by Robert Lustig, professor of clinical paediatrics at the University of California, published an article which highlighted the toxic effects of sugar and provided growing evidence that an increase sugar consumption is partly responsible for the rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. According to the United Nations, these NCD’s now account for 63% of deaths worldwide.
How can I reduce my refined sugar intake?
We Brits are famous for our sweet tooth and many of us find it difficult to cut out sweet treats altogether. As they often increase our sugar cravings and may have carcinogenic and / or other worrying side effects, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are not the answer. Fortunately, there are number of natural superfood sweeteners (listed below) that you can swap for unhealthy, processed and refined sugars.
Stevia is an entirely natural sweetener made from the stevia plant, which grows mostly in Paraguay and Brazil. Usually available in liquid form, it contains no sugar or carbohydrates and boasts a glycemic index of just 0, making it completely safe for diabetics and a useful tool in combatting high blood sugar levels and Candida. Unlike refined sugars stevia is rich in beneficial nutrients including magnesium, chromium, potassium, selenium, niacin, manganese and zinc. Consuming stevia is known to significantly reduce sugar cravings and as it’s free from calories, it’s absolutely ideal for those aiming to lose weight.
Stevia doesn’t harm our teeth, has virtually no aftertaste and is a perfect sugar substitute in smoothies, shakes, lemonades and herbal teas.
Lucuma powder is a natural sweetener made from the Peruvian lucuma fruit, which has long been associated with fertility. Known as ‘Incas Gold’, lucuma has an exceptionally high nutritional value, boasts powerful anti-inflammatory properties and is crammed with antioxidants, which strengthen our immune system, help heal wounds and prevent our skin from aging. Lucuma powder also has a low glycemic value and is a particularly suitable sugar replacement for diabetics. In addition, lucuma is a valuable source of carbohydrates, fibre and B vitamins, which are crucial for healthy bowel movements, is rich in niacin, which helps prevent heart disease and contains iron, potassium, calcium and phosphorous, all required for healthy cell function.
Lucuma powder is delicious stirred into smoothies and fruit juices and can also be used as an ingredient in puddings, cakes, pastries and ice cream.
Mesquite powder is a temptingly sweet, natural sweetener prepared from the beans of the Mexican mesquite tree, often referred to as the ‘Tree of Life’. It has an incredibly high nutritional value, which boosts our immune system and, as it scores low on the glycemic index, actively balances our blood sugar levels. Suitable for diabetics, mesquite is also packed with proteins, vitamins, minerals (including magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron and zinc), amino acids and antioxidants that you won’t find in processed sugars. It’s rich in the healthy sugar, isorhamnetin-3-diglucoside for example, which helps protect our liver and also contains lysine, which helps fight viral infections (including herpes and shingles). Not only that, mesquite contains serotonin, which helps combat depression, apigenin, which boasts anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, antibacterial and antiviral properties, triptamine, known for its antibacterial effect and quercetin, which can help prevent diabetes.
With a flavour similar to molasses, mesquite is a delicious addition to smoothies, shakes and almond milks and can be combined with carob, raw cacao and maca. Try mixing mesquite powder into side dishes or use it as a topping for desserts too.
Xylitol is made from natural fibres found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. This low calorie alternative to table sugar was first discovered in the late 19th century. Thanks to its low glycemic index rating, which means that it is absorbed more slowly than sugar and doesn’t contribute to high blood sugar levels or the hyperglycaemia caused by insufficient insulin response, it rapidly became a popular sweetener for diabetics. It’s also beneficial for those suffering from metabolic syndrome, a common disorder that includes insulin resistance, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia and an increased risk of blood clots. Xylitol is additionally known for its unique, ‘tooth friendly’ qualities. Studies in Finland in the 1970s demonstrated that those chewing xylitol gum suffered from less decayed, missing, or filled teeth than those chewing sucrose gum. Recent research also concludes that xylitol has a plaque-reducing effect and may help prevent osteoporosis and a variety of infections including Candida.
Xylitol is available in powder or crystal form, which can be used in cooking and baking just like normal sugar. You can also sprinkle it on cereal, fruit and toast or use to sweeten tea and coffee.