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Sugar and natural alternatives

With so much information about processed sugar around...

Sometimes, it's hard to get a good sense of what is right for each of us. The pendulum has swung towards "quit sugar" or "no sugar" in the healthy living realms, and much of it seems just as unbalanced as the overconsumption of sugar that plagues much of the developed world. Is there a middle road? What are the alternatives? Are we too scared of sugar to enjoy the beauty of a piece of fruit? Jude Blereau's recent post about balancing our dietary approach in greater context of our lifestyle had me thinking about how important it is to have a little sweetness in our lives. It can be from the food we eat, the people round us or even seeing the beauty of the world we live in. Sweetness is at the core of our celebrations in life, linked into our happiest moments. Imagine a birthday party without cake, a summer without an ice-cream, or a wedding without a honeymoon? It is just for this reason that I am writing this, as there are many natural forms of sugar that can be enjoyed in small amounts that do not take away well-being like processed sugar can.

Onto the sugar line-up… in the processed corner we have:

Processed (white) sugar

White sugar is made up of sucrose, which is a combination of fructose and glucose. It comes from sugar cane, which is a natural plant – so why is white sugar so bad for us? In the refining process it goes through all vitamins, minerals enzymes, fibers and phytonutrients are removed and these are all essential for our body to be able to process it and slowly release the fuel it offers, thus keeping our system in balance. Instead, processed sugar goes straight into the blood stream in one dose, provides a huge high of energy and then it just stops. It's like a plane using all of it's fuel in the first 30mins of flight, and not having enough to continue the further 4 hours it has to fly, what happens? It crashes, and so do we. And then we eat more sugar to feel the energy high again… and round and round it goes. But nowhere in that does anything of nutritional value enter our system, leaving our amazing body to try to process it by bringing in nutrients from other sources, sadly having to take them away from other important functions they had been planned for.


Fructose isn't great either when removed from it's natural source – fruit. When we have fructose that is removed from the fibre content of fruit it is that metabolized differently to sugar and glucose and doesn't trigger the hormones that regulate appetite and food intake. Only your liver can break down fructose, and one of the results of this breakdown is triglyceride -- a form of fat. Be careful when you are shopping - many food are labelled low GI but that is because they have fructose in them. Think also juices, which may appear to be healthy but are just fructose without the fruit fibre. The whole food is always better! What does all this say? That eating white sugar or processed fructose provides no nutritional value or offers any fibre to fill us up… instead it actually take nutrients from the body to process it and leaves us feeling hungry for more. Can we call it food at all?

And on the natural side…

Agave is a plant mostly grown in southern United States, northern South America, and the hilly regions of Mexico, with the nectar used for centuries as a folk remedy for its medicinal properties. The agamiel (honey water) at the core of the blu agave plant the agave nectar available to us worldwide now. It does have a higher calories than white sugar but it is has a sweeter flavour so you can use less of it (generally 2/3 cup of agave to 1 cup sugar). However, it comes with a warning as it can be highly processed, so with it is important to buy organic agave processed at low temperatures like traditional methods, otherwise you may end up with a syrup more loaded with fructose than high fructose corn syrup, often for 10 times the cost! 

One tablespoon (20 g) contains 75 calories (240 kJ), 20g of carbohydrates, which is 15 g of sugar which is approx. 75% fructose and 20% sucrose.

Coconut Palm Sugar

While coconut palm sugar has an extremely low glycemic index of 35 it does also have fructose so it is about the same as honey. It is more nutritious than sugar, containing trace amounts of vitamin C, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron and copper. Coconut sugar also provides small amounts of phytonutrients, such as polyphenols, flavonoids and anthocyanidin, and antioxidants. You'll also find the B vitamin inositol, often used as a mood booster, in coconut sugar. Finally, it is a very sustainable sugar, being drained from coconut flowers and causing no damage to the tree itself which can grow on for many years (though it does prevent coconuts forming). 

One tablespoon (20 g) contains 60 calories (240 kJ), 16g of carbohydrates, which is 16 g of sugar which is approx. 75% sucrose, 5% glucose and 5% sucrose.


As discussed above, fructose isn't meant to be consumed without the fibre of the fruit it comes in. Which proves that Mother Nature is WAY smarter than us as she created the perfect vehicle for sweetness… fruit! Some fruit is sweeter than others, and I will go into this in a follow up post, but there is nothing better to turn to when the sweet tooth calls than a crunchy green apple or an energy laden banana. Do try to avoid fruit juices as they are fruit without the fibre. Blended juices (smoothies) do have the fibre but they won't have you feeling as full for as long, have a lot of fruit in one serve (hello, one banana, half an orange, a mango cheek and a kiwifruit, anyone?) and generally will have an ice-cream, yoghurt or sorbet base which is made from our friend white sugar. Do note though, dried fruit is a different case as it has had the water removed which concentrates the sugars. Just think, three or four dried apricots is the same as eating three to four pieces of fruit!


Raw honey is unheated, unpasteurized and unprocessed, just as the bees create it from concentrated flower nectar. The amylase that exists in flowers in concentrate stays in raw honey helps us digest more complex carbohydrates like bread and pasta. Also, honey is the only alkaline-forming sweetener, meaning it won't ferment in the stomach and can be used to balance acid indigestion – great news for those who suffer heartburn. 

One tablespoon (20 g) contains 60 calories (240 kJ), 17 g of carbohydrates, and 16 g of sugar divided amongst sucrose: 5.88, glucose: 2.38 and fructose: 2.56 g.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is sap drawn from maple trees, it's important to buy the pure syrup and not the imitation "maple-flavoured syrup". The calories in maple syrup are lower than in corn syrup and honey, averaging about 50 calories per tablespoon, and it is has high levels of manganese, zinc, calcium, potassium and iron and also a good dose of antioxidants. It also has a lower glycemic index than sugar, around 54. 

One tablespoon (20 g) contains 54 calories (226kJ), 13.42 g of carbohydrates, and 11.9 g of sugar which is mostly sucrose but varies between grades and locations.


Derived from cane sugar juice which is boiled to create sugar crystals. It usually goes through two boilings to become molasses, and a third and final boiling of the sugar syrup yields blackstrap molasses, which has an intense flavour, dark colour and thick consistency. The majority of sucrose from the original juice has been crystallised and removed here. Molasses contains trace amounts of vitamins and significant amounts of several minerals, and blackstrap molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron - one tablespoon provides up to 20% of the daily value of each of those nutrients. Best to buy organic molasses organic as cane sugar is highly sprayed with toxic chemicals and allergenic chemicals have been used in processing.

One tablespoon (20 g) contains 58 calories (243 kJ), 16 g of carbohydrates, and 10 g of sugar divided amongst sucrose: 5.88g, glucose: 2.38g and fructose: 2.56 g.

Rice Malt Syrup

Rice Malt Syrup - a versatile sweetener made by culturing rice with enzymes to breakdown the starches - then cooking it until it becomes a syrup. The final product contains soluble complex carbohydrates, maltose, and a small amount of glucose. It's not as sweet as honey so experiment with amounts. Best to buy organic brand with no other ingredients apart from brown rice. 

One tablespoon (20 g) contains 64 calories (268 kJ), 14.95 g of carbohydrates, and 11.1 g of sugar divided amongst maltotriose (52%), maltose (45%) and glucose (3%).

Panela (rapadura)

Panela (rapadura) brown sugar is unrefined, evaporated sugar cane juice obtained through boiling. It is still a traditional food in many tropical regions of the world, which has been displaced by refined sugar in wealthier countries. The main producer of panela is Colombia. The principal nutritional natural components of panela are sugars (sucrose, glucose and fructose), vitamins (A, some of the B complex, C, D and E), and minerals (potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc and manganese). Among the carbohydrates, the sugar sucrose is the principal constituent of panela with a content varying between 75 and 85% dry weight. Glucose and fructose are between 6 and 15% dry weight. Panela has 50 times more minerals than refined sugar.

One tablespoon (20 g) contains 64 calories (268 kJ), 20 g of carbohydrates, which is 20 g of sugar divided amongst maltotriose (52%), maltose (45%) and glucose (3%).

Lemon and Ginger Shortbread
Quit That Sugar Craving - from Sein magazine, 2014

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