The real meaning of 'sugar free'

So many 'healthy' recipes claim to be sugar free. However,  when you look at many of them more closely, they turn out to be free from sucrose- that is, everyday table/cane sugar- but contain other simple sugars.  Below is the low-down on some sugar 'alternatives' that you might have thought were healthier than table sugar, but are just as damaging to your body. 

The first 'villain in disguise' on my list is agave nectar. It is high in fructose, which is also known as 'fruit sugar'. It does not cause the blood sugar spikes that sucrose does, but whereas sucrose can be easily metabolised by the body, only the liver can metabolise fructose.  In concentrated forms such as agave nectar, this causes the 'bad' cholesterol to increase. This contributes to cardiovascular disease, and may also contribute to a 'fatty liver'. 

At this point you may be worried that if fructose is a fruit sugar, it's not healthy to enjoy fruit - but don't panic! (Thank goodness with all the luscious summer fruits to enjoy at the moment!) The reason why it is fine to eat fruit is that the fibre and water content of the whole fruit slows down the release of fructose to a level that your body can easily deal with- it's only when fructose appears in the high concentrations delivered by products such as agave nectar that the liver can't cope. 

Date syrup is antibacterial, but it is still mainly refined fructose and so has similar detrimental effects to agave nectar.  Date sugar made from pulverised dried dates is better, as it still retains the fibre of the whole fruit. Mind you, it still causes fructose to reach the liver more quickly than the whole fruit because of the low water content. Just bear in mind however that dates have almost 300 calories per 100g.

Brown rice syrup is mainly glucose, and so has the same detrimental effects on the health of your body as sucrose.  Added to this, rice products are a major source of inorganic arsenic, so they are better avoided.

Coconut sugar has some minerals and fibre, making it lower GI than cane sugar. Yet there are better sources of these minerals than coconut sugar, and it is also high in fructose- so all in all, it is best avoided.

Xylitol is processed from naturally occuring xylose in the fibres of fruit and vegetables.  On the plus side, it does not cause sugar spikes in the blood. The way xylose is processed to make xylitol, however, can result in a product that is detrimental to our health- with links to Alzheimer's Disease, liver dysfunction and many more.

All this is not looking good if, like me, you have a sweet tooth.  My advice would be to use green stevia.  It is made from the leaf of the stevia leaf and 200 times sweeter than sugar, so you should only need a little.  When stevia is processed to remove its more bitter element this may lead to a product with detrimental health effects- which is why green stevia is a better choice. 

Alternatively, you could use fresh fruits and vegetables to sweeten (more on this to come).

Janet x

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