White sugar cubes

I have a confession to make, I’m addicted to sugar.  I take 2 teaspoons of sugar with my tea and coffee and on an average day that equates to 6 teaspoons.  6 teaspoons or 30grams and that’s without one cake, muffin or glass of wine!

Knowing I should do something about this addiction and not keen on the cold turkey approach, I have spent some time trying to discover a sugar alternative.  My cupboard is full of hopeful contenders; Agave syrup, Yacon, Rapadura and Coconut sugar.  They all have their uses but am I just fooling myself believing they were better for me?  I decided to do some research.

Firstly I wanted to know how much sugar was too much?  What was the recommended daily intake (RDI) of sugar?  If you believe the back of a Sanatarium or Kellogg’s cereal box the RDI for sugar is 90g.  Fantastic, after my tea and coffee I still have 60grams up my sleeve, what was I worried about?  When I delved a little deeper things got a little less clear cut.  A 2003 World Health Organisation report recommended that no more than 10% of your energy intake should come from sugar.  So if I had an average diet of 10 000KJ a day that would be a maximum of 1000 from sugar.  90g of sugar is the equivalent of nearly 1300KJs.

So where do these cereal companies get 90g from?  According to their websites these calculations are from the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the National Health and Medical Research Council.  So I dug deeper only to discover that neither of these authorities give recommended daily intake for sugar, in fact their recommendation is to consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars.

Not one to calorie count I began to think this was all too hard.  Perhaps I’m worrying about nothing and perhaps my sugar consumption isn’t that bad.  So I decided to ask Deborah Murtagh from Healthy Kitchen for her take on sugar and my alternatives.

As we know not all sugars are created equal, there are a number of things to consider including the glycemic load (GL), whether the sugar is a whole food, if it contains other health giving properties, is it acidic to the body and detrimental to teeth and is it pro-inflammatory, meaning it may exacerbate inflammatory conditions in the body.    I know that if I consume refined sugars my back aches.  Having had back issues since childhood my sugar consumption means the difference between living pain free or feeling twice my age.

Sugar consumption depends on a number of factors.  The individual’s metabolic type, meaning does the person vibe better on a higher intake of carbohydrates, protein or a good mix of both?  And are there any blood sugar issues we need to consider?  Many people are sensitive to insulin meaning sugar consumption can greatly affect energy levels, mood and hormones.

Lastly we need to consider the glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL), which is determined by dose. Simply put this is how quickly or slowly energy is released from food.  One product may say it has a low GI however that relates to a small serving size usually about 1 teaspoon.  The glycemic load takes this a setp further and gives a more accurate picture of what actually happens given a certain dose.  Low GI is often used as a clever marketing trick to fool people into thinking they are consuming something more healthy than they actually are.  When it comes to sugar we want the lowest GI and the lowest dose.  Sugars are generally a pro-inflammatory food and remember that sugars are also found in other carbohydrates such as grains, starches, fruits and vegetables.  Basically sugar is found in most processed foods and today we consume 2,700% more than our great grandparents.  It causes a myriad of health conditions and is now linked as a contributor to heart disease, diabetes and even depression.- Deb


sugar 015Yacon is a tuber originating from the Andes which looks similar to a kumara.  Eaten raw it taste similar to a water apple and is great in salads, can be baked and stewed.

The syrup is made using an evaporator similar to the way maple syrup is made.  Because Yacon contains up to 50% Fructooligosaccharide (FOS), a sugar our bodies can’t digest, Yacon gives you the sweet hit without all the calories of regular sugar.  Added to this Yacon contains a prebiotic which aids digestion.  It has also been said to have a positive effect on LDL Cholesterol.

The syrup is similar to treacle with a caramel, molasses flavour.  It can be used where you would golden syrup, in hot drinks, on porridge, dressings and so on.  For me Yacon ticks most of the boxes, although you can’t use it where you would sugar in most baking and the flavour in my tea is not the same.  But  the huge bonus of Yacon for me is it’s grown locally.

Yacon is one of my favourite sweeteners simply because of the health benefits.  I have a saying in the cook school that food either gives to health or takes away from it.  Yacon gives to health and the raw food community love it and class it as a superfood!  Our body is loaded with ten times more bacteria than human cells in the body and this means we need to take care of our precious little helpers that balance our immune systems, produce key nutrients and fight off pathogenic organisms.  Being a prebiotic, Yacon feeds our healthful bacteria.- Deb

Agave Syrup

Agave syrup comes from the same cacti as Tequila and originates from Mexico.  Around one and a half times sweeter than sugar Agave was the darling of raw food enthusiasts a few years ago, although now there has been much debate over the processing of Agave and many believe it not to be a raw product.  It contains iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium, so is considered to have more vitamins and minerals than regular sugar contains, although how much of this is lost through the processing of agave can also be debated.

I used to promote agave years ago until I did a lot of digging around and discovered there were some unfortunate issues with what I considered at the time to be the best tasting, low GI sweetener on the market. But as they say when you know better you do better and now I only use agave in one recipe because I haven’t to date been able to replicate its delicate sweetness in my raw chocolate avocado mousse!  Despite false advertising and clever marketing Agave is actually not a natural low GI product, instead it is extremely high in fructose at 67%, relate this to High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) at 55% and you start to see that this ‘health’ food isn’t healthy at all.  In fact fructose malabsorption affects 30% of westerners and is linked to an untold number of medical conditions including obesity and with an overwhelming amount of evidence fructose should be limited or avoided.- Deb

sugar 013


Common in South American countries Rapadura sugar is dried sugarcane juice.  As it is dehydrated slowly and the molasses has not been separated out Rapadura retains all of its vitamins and minerals.  It is high, among other things, in dietary iron, magnesium, zinc and calcium.

It still has the natural balance of sucrose, glucose, and fructose, and contains components essential for its’ digestion, which mean it is metabolized more slowly than white sugar and therefore will not affect your blood sugar levels as much as refined sugars.

You can use Rapadura sugar almost everywhere you do white sugar, the only downside being it is fairly expensive and can be hard to find.

This is one of my favourite sugars to use as an everyday alternative for families transitioning away from refined sugars.  It is versatile and has the added benefit of tasting delicious!  Kids love it and it is not acidic to the teeth like white sugar, and it contains chromium which helps balance blood sugar levels.    This whole food is the best all round alternative to brown sugar.

While Rapadura is a raw product Succanat is the non raw version, it is sugar cane that has been heated during evaporation.  This is a good alternative for family baking as it is cheaper than Rapadura.  Jaggery is another whole food sugarcane juice product that comes from India and often contains small sweet lumps of molasses.- Deb

Coconut Sugarcoconut sugar

Fairy new to New Zealand, coconut sugar is my current favourite.  Coconut sugar comes, not form the actual coconut, but the sap from the coconut flower.  It is similar in taste and colour to brown sugar with a slight caramel flavour, coconut sugar is loaded with potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron and B vitamins.  Coconut sugar only contains 9% fructose so Deborah would be pleased with that, but its other great advantage is that it is environmentally friendly.

In the Philippines, the largest producers of coconut sugar the coconut palm is known as the tree of life as it provides people with so much.  Coconut palms will grow just about anywhere, even in sand and use very little water.  Compared side by side a field of sugarcane and the same number of coconut palms, the coconut palms are less taxing on the environment and a lot more productive.

Yes! Yes! yes!  A brilliant and delicious tasting product.  I am a huge fan of all natural coconut products including coconut oil and coconut flour.  This sugar is so fabulous I would love to see the industry thrive.  The downside at present is the price, but the more we buy the cheaper it will become.

Coconut sugar contains 16 different amino acids including high amounts of glutamine which is required for healing and recovery.  It is also high in vitamins in particular Inositol, vitamin B8, known to benefit gut brain disorders such as anxiety, OCD, depression and other mood disorders, making coconut sugar a candidate as an alternative to people suffering with mental illness.- Deb


Stevia is an herb native of Paraguay and Brazil and now extensively grown and used in Japan and China.  Although you can buy your own Stevia plant and add its leaves to your herbal teas or perhaps when stewing fruit, how it is transformed into a super sweet powder is a little more complicated and often patented.

Stevia has no calories and is a great alternative to artificial sweetener for diabetics.  It can be used in cooking but not in baking as it won’t caramelise like sugar.  For me the after taste is the major down side to Stevia.

Stevia is the best natural sweetener on the market for people who really need to remove all sugar from the diet, however only in its 100% natural green leaf powdered form.  Once a food is processed the body no longer registers it as natural and tries to make sense of it and the race is on with food giants to chemically extract the sweetness and alter the flavour of stevia.  Beware of stevia derivates on the market.  Clever marketing would fool you into thinking you are consuming a natural product when natural and naturally derived are too different things.- Deb

Artificial Sweeteners sugar 007

For me the biggest problem with artificial sweeteners is that they are created in a lab.  I believe strongly in not eating anything that does not occur naturally so avoid artificial sweeteners wherever possible.  This belief has only been confirmed after researching this feature and discovering that many of the main artificial sweeteners in use today were discovered completely by accident.  This in itself is not an issue as many culinary delights are the result of an accident but very few started with Bunsen burners and the search for the ultimate pesticide!

This category of non-nutritive, high-intensity sugar substitutes includes ASPARTAME, ACESULFAME-K, NEOTAME, SUCRALOSE, and ALITAME. Numerous new sweeteners are currently in various stages of development and approval.

The scandal around aspartame (E951) is almost unbelievable when you start investigating.  It should never have been passed by the FDA and I will state right here in print I believe it will be phased out over the next 20 years.  It was pushed through before due diligence on its safety was performed through a raft of revolving doors between Monsanto (who owns Nutra-Sweet), the FDA and the US Attorney’s office.  Aspartame is linked to cancer, birth defects, diabetes, emotional disorders and seizures.
I would never suggest anyone use artificial sweeteners especially children.  Diet sodas MUST be avoided.  And while this is not politically correct; if you can’t avoid sodas completely, it is my opinion you are better off to have sugar than artificial sweeteners.- Deb


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