Is it OK to fake it?

Over the past 30 or so years, there has been a number of debates as to the safety of consuming artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (Equal and Nutrasweet), sucralose (Splenda) and saccharine (Sugarine).

Many people have concerns about the potential (albeit largely unproven) adverse effects of artificial sweeteners, and I have to admit… I am one of them!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that before artificial sweeteners can be sold in our supermarkets, the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) test them to make sure they are safe to eat. My concerns, however, are not so much grounded whether the sweeteners are ‘safe’ but rather, from a perspective of health and wellness. Are they the best thing for your body?

I am often asked for my opinion on artificial sweeteners, and so I thought I would share with everyone. Here are my thoughts:

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, used by our body as energy for working muscles, providing fuel for the central nervous system, enabling fat metabolism, and preventing protein from being used as energy. Sugar is a nessasary part of a healthy diet. However, there is NO NEED to get our sugar from processed foods and adding table sugar to our cereal, tea, coffee or milk. There is plenty of naturally occurring sugar in whole foods like fruit (fructose) and dairy (lactose). Foods containing natural sugars are usually rich in nutrients including vitamins and minerals and in many cases, dietary fibre.

So, what if you want to sweeten your porridge? Or add something sweet to your baking?

First, let me say that for a special occasion, like birthday cakes, Christmas cakes etc, I will absolutely follow a recipe and use sugar in my baking (you don’t want to mess with a Donna Hay flourless chocolate cake, believe me!). There is something wonderful and special about picking out a cake recipe for someone you love and making their birthday cake (I did this yesterday for my husband, and yes, I used a cup of brown sugar, as per the recipe). But, remember, this is only a few times a year… for everyday baking – muffins, loaves, bread etc, I like to use one of the natural alternatives.

My Favorite natural sweeteners:

1. Honey

Raw honey is a natural sweetener that is easily available. It is my ‘go to’ when I need to sweeten something as it has some really lovely quality’s and fabulous taste. Honey has a low glycemic index, making it ideal for those who want to control their weight and blood sugar.

High-quality honey contains natural antioxidants, enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.

Unfortunately, most of the honey eaten today has been heavily processed, and many of the healthful benefits have been reduced or eliminated, so it is important to try and find a good quality natural honey. There are some great options at farmers markets usually and you can often buy in bulk.

2. Dates

I have always loved dates! Not only are they chewy and tastey, they are very rich in fibre. Dates also provide potassium, calcium, manganese, copper and magnesium.

Calcium is an important mineral that is an essential constituent of bone and teeth, and required by the body for muscle contraction, blood clotting, and nerve impulse conduction. Manganese is used by the body as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Copper is required for the production of red blood cells. Magnesium is essential for bone growth.

3. Maple Syrup

Most people think about using maple syrup only when they are baking bread or on pancakes; however, it can be used as a substitute for sugar in other. It can be used for making biscuits, cakes and I have used it when poaching fruit for dessert. Maple syrup has a distinct flavor that really lends itself to dessert type foods.

The important thing to make sure is that you are buying ‘pure maple syrup’ and not ‘maple flavoured syrup’, and, like honey, good quality is the way to go!

But, what about Stevia?

Many people choose stevia over natural sweeteners like fruit and honey, but this is not my choice. Nature is very clever, and fruit and raw honey, in particular, are excellently balanced sources of glucose and fructose, which provides the liver with building blocks to create glycogen (glucose stores). Stevia, however, does not support glycogen formation.

Why is glycogen important? The body cannot convert inactive thyroid hormone T4 into active thyroid hormone T3 without adequate glycogen. This can result in a slowed metabolism and lead to hypothyroidism, and lack of energy. Without adequate dietary sugars, the body cannot create and store glycogen.

Additionally, when blood sugar is low, glycogen is broken down and released as glucose in the bloodstream. When the diet lacks sufficient glucose, there will be inadequate glycogen stored. If sugar is not immediately ingested to raise blood sugar levels, the body releases extra adrenaline and cortisol to convert muscle protein and fat into glucose. If this pattern is repeated, the frequent release of these stress hormones takes its toll on the body… and one of the symptoms of excess cortisol is abdominal weight gain.

So what is my opinion? Try to use natural, low GI foods like good quality honey or dates to sweeten baking, add fruit like banana, grated apple or grated pear to cereal or porridge to sweeten your breakfast meal and enjoy the extra benefit of added fibre. Oh and for special occasion baking, follow the recipe and just use sugar!

Believe me – the less sugar (or artificial sugar) you have in your diet, the less you will want, and your food will taste fresh and wholesome when you use real ingredients!