Sugar is a carbohydrate that the body converts to glucose for energy for daily activities. Growing up, and even now, you must have heard more than a couple of times that too much sugar is bad for the teeth and unhealthy. But, sugar is sweet and boosts the flavours of foods it is added to.
Refined sugar is frequently used in various food items, including processed foods, beverages, candies, cakes, pastries, and ice creams. You might be wondering if there are other types of sugars, and if they pose the same health risks as refined sugars. This article elaborates on refined sugar in relation to other sugars, and alternatives to refined sugar.
Understanding refined sugar
What is refined sugar?
Refined sugar is sugar that has undergone processing to change it from its original form.
Naturally, sugar is found in many foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, nuts, and seeds.
Refined sugar is commonly available as table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Other names for refined sugar are glucose, dextrose, and maltose. Since refined sugars have little to no nutritional value, they differ from natural sugars found in whole fruits and vegetables. They are devoid of the vitamins, minerals, and fibre found in fruits and vegetables, and diets containing these sugars often lack the necessary fibre to support digestion.
Refined sugars cause a blood sugar spike because of how rapidly the body breaks them down and absorbs them. This rise in blood sugar results in a rise in blood insulin, causing you to feel less full. This is followed by the typical sugar high and a crash in energy shortly after eating. Due to this, alternatives like unrefined sugars have generated a lot of interest as a healthier substitute.
The American Heart Association advises keeping daily added sugar intake to no more than 6% of total calories. For women, that amounts to no more than 100 calories or around 6 teaspoons of sugar each day. For men, it amounts to 150 calories or around 9 teaspoons each day. The AHA guidelines concentrate on all added sugars without mentioning any specific varieties.
The AHA also advises that children between the ages of 2 and 18 should have no more than 6 teaspoons (or 24 grams) of added sugar per day. It also recommends that the weekly intake of sugary beverages should not exceed 8 ounces.
Sources of refined sugar
Refined sugar is mostly processed from sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn.
To make table sugar, which is pure sucrose, sugar cane or sugar beets are washed, sliced, and soaked or cooked in hot water, which extracts the sugary juice. The juice is then filtered and turned into a syrup that’s further processed into sugar crystals by spinning it until it’s dry and grainy. It is then cooled and packaged into sugar (granulated, cubed, or powdered) and sold at grocery stores.
For High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), the corn is first milled to make cornstarch and then further processed to create corn syrup. Next, enzymes are added, increasing the sugar's fructose content, ultimately making the corn syrup taste sweeter.
Benefits of refined sugar to our health
Given the elaborations above, it is safe to say that refined sugar has no health benefits. One might argue that it provides energy, but the energy refined sugar gives is an energy spike that later crashes, intensifying the craving for more of that type of sugar that is unhealthy and of no nutritional value.
Alternatives to refined sugar
On occasion, it is okay to enjoy foods containing refined sugars. However, to reduce your risk of developing health conditions associated with consuming refined and added sugars, you should consider alternatives to refined sugar. There are quite a number of healthy alternatives to choose from below.
Dates are dried fruits of the date palm tree. These sweet, chewy fruits have many health benefits and make a great replacement for refined sugar.
Unlike refined sugar and many other sweeteners, dates are packed with nutrients, including fibre, potassium, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B6, and antioxidants like carotenoids and polyphenols. Dates have a sweet flavour, so you may use them as a sugar substitute in recipes for energy bars, cakes, and cookies. They can also be blended with homemade nut drinks and smoothies to add flavour and sweetness.
Even though dates are high in calories and natural sugars, studies note that they don’t significantly affect blood sugar levels like table sugar, even in people with diabetes. Date fruits can be used as they are, and are also available in powder and syrup form for ease of use.
Stevia is a natural sweetener from the leaves of the South American shrub Stevia rebaudiana. This plant-based sweetener is about 100 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, but it has no carbohydrates, calories or artificial ingredients, which makes it a good alternative to refined or added sugars.
For many years, people have used stevia leaves to sweeten drinks like tea in South America and Asia. Not everyone likes the taste, but you could try it in drinks that you would normally add sugar to. Stevia would most likely be found on the baking items or health food aisle. Additionally, human and animal research suggests that replacing sugar with stevia may help prevent weight gain and reduce blood sugar levels.
Maple syrup is a thick, sweet liquid made by cooking the sap from maple trees. It has trace amounts of calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese, among other minerals. Additionally, maple syrup contains a lot of phenolic substances, including lignans and coumarins, which may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Even though maple syrup contains some healthy minerals and antioxidants, its sugar content is still relatively high. However, it has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar, making it a good option for diabetics. This does not imply that it should be used excessively, but should be taken in moderation just like any other sweetener.
Sugar alcohols, also referred to as polyols, are a type of naturally occurring carbohydrate present in fruits and vegetables.
Unlike regular sugar, sugar alcohols aren't fermented by the bacteria in your mouth, so they don't damage your teeth. In addition, they contain fewer calories and don't significantly affect blood sugar levels, making them a smart alternative for diabetics.
Erythritol, xylitol, and maltitol are three popular sugar alcohols that are used as sugar substitutes. While table sugar contains 4 calories per gram, erythritol contains just 0.2 calories per gram, while xylitol provides 2.4 calories per gram.
It is generally considered safe to eat sugar alcohols, however, when consumed in large quantities, some may cause digestive upset. For instance, 20 to 50 grams of sorbitol may have laxative effects, whereas 455 mg of erythritol per pound (or 1,000 mg per kilogram) of body weight may result in stomach upset.
It is important to note that xylitol is highly toxic to dogs, so it's a good idea to keep it out of their reach if you live with any.
Honey is a common and widely known alternative to refined sugar. It is produced by honeybees and is thick and primarily golden. There are trace levels of vitamins and minerals in it, as well as many plant components with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
Honey is a healthy alternative to sugar, and can be used to sweeten tea, coffee, dressings or marinades, and in baking. Compounds in honey, like honey polyphenols, may reduce inflammation in the body. Honey has a slightly lower glycemic index than table sugar (GI). The flavour and colour of honey are determined by the flowers from which the nectar is gathered, and the types of plant compounds depend on many factors, including the kind of flower the bee was eating and the kind of bee that made the honey.
If you choose to use honey as your alternative to sugar, do it sparingly as honey is still high in calories and sugar.
Replacing sugar with purées of fruits like apples, bananas, and pineapple is an excellent way to reduce your refined sugar intake. You can substitute sugar for purées in recipes for cakes, cookies, muffins, and bread.
Due to their nutritional value, all fruits provide health advantages. For instance, mashed bananas are a good source of vitamins B6 and C, manganese, folate, and magnesium. In contrast to refined sugar, fruit is generally associated with various health benefits, including a reduced risk of chronic disease and a lower risk of death in general.
Fruit purées can be made at home, but if you purchase them from the store, pick unsweetened products with no added sugar.
Monk fruit sweetener
Monk fruit extract is native to China and obtained from the Siraitia grosvenorii plant.
Like stevia, monk fruit has no calories while being nearly 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Its mogrosides, especially mogroside V, are what gives it its sweetness. Monk fruit can be used in place of regular sugar to help with weight loss and to enhance blood sugar levels because it has no calories and no effect on blood sugar levels.
Is cutting out refined sugar good for you?
Yes, cutting out refined sugar is good for you because it does more harm than good to the body system. You should, however, not avoid sugar altogether but get it from healthier sources.
Why should you stop eating refined sugar?
Excess belly fat, a risk factor for diseases like diabetes and heart disease, has continuously been associated with consuming excessive amounts of refined sugar, especially in the form of sugary beverages.
Leptin, a hormone that instructs your body when to start and stop eating, may become less responsive if you consume foods supplemented with it. This may help to explain the connection between refined sugar and obesity.
Additionally, a number of studies link a diet high in added sugars to an increased risk of heart disease. Furthermore, diets high in refined sugar are frequently associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, liver disease, and some cancer types.
What is the healthiest type of sugar?
Sugars that have undergone minimal processing or are naturally occurring are healthier. They are found in nutrient-rich foods that have added benefits. The best way to ensure that you are ingesting sugar in a way that is beneficial for your body is to primarily consume whole foods. Lean proteins have a variety of nutrients that digest more slowly and help to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Consume them along with fresh produce, whole grains, nuts, beans, and seeds.
What happens to your body when you quit refined sugar?
Quitting sugar is not easy, especially if you have a sweet tooth. You will first experience an initial phase of fatigue, mood changes, headaches, and cravings. However, this phase will pass in no time, and you will begin to feel and see great changes.
Sugar contains many calories, and the ones not used by the body are slowly converted to fat. Cutting down on added sugar can help you shed that unwanted fat easily, losing little or not-so-little pounds and a couple of inches.
Increased energy levels
We often link sugar with energy, and truly, for a while, you will experience an energy surge. But what follows is a crash that is worse than you felt before filling up on sugar. However, if you can maintain a no-sugar period, your body will overcome the shock eventually and learn to conserve energy without added sugar.
Reduced signs of ageing
A diet with lots of sugar can distort collagen and elastin in your skin and make wrinkles form faster. This is because collagen and elastin keep your skin looking young and clear. When you cut down your sugar intake, you can automatically reduce the appearance of fine lines and pigmentation related to ageing.
Reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes
By giving up sugar, you give your body's natural detoxification process a chance to function. This is because eating excess sugar is harmful to your heart. It also raises your insulin levels chronically, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure. Insulin resistance in the body affects the functioning of the pancreas and liver and, in turn, leads to type 2 diabetes.
Many people consume more sugar than they realise. Thus, replacing refined sugar with some of the alternatives above may help you reduce your intake.
It is best to consume sugary foods in moderation in order to maintain optimal health. These include whole, nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and fish. You should also develop the habit of reading labels on packaged foods, as it can be instrumental in reducing the amount of refined sugar in your diet.
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