Honey, oh sugar, sugar: the green guide to sugar do’s and dont’s

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I picked up a copy of EcoParent today and found the most practical guide to sugar-eating there is. So, as we dive into the cookie-ladden holidays, I want to share some bits of it with you.

(Full disclosure: I contribute to EcoParent. But, rest assured, I would have endorsed this information regardless of my relationship with the magazine.)

 

Dr. Heidi Lescanec, the Naturopathic Doctor who writes the article, explains the difference between processed sugar and naturally occurring sugar, like the one found in fruit, this way:

  • In nature, sugars and carbohydrates (our energy sources) come with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, proteins, fat and fiber. (…) In their whole form, sugar fuels our body function, while refined sugars, on the other hand, are devoid of nutrients.

That’s the Doctor’s first warning. And then she goes on to say why consumption of refined sugars has been linked to diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer:

  • Regular high consumption of refined sugars actually depletes the body’s essential reserves of what it needs to function. In addition, when we consume refined sugars alone without proteins, good fats, or fiber, they enter the bloodstream in a rush.

Dr. Lescanec offers a general recommendation:

  • Choose more wholesome sweeteners, eat them in moderation, and make sure to include protein, fiber or healthy fat in your meals or snacks so that the entry of glucose into the bloodstream is slower.

Now, this is the practical knowledge you need before making that first batch of gingerbread cookies. (This is a summary. Do pick up a copy of EcoParent to read the whole thing. It’s truly enlightening —plus, the rest of the magazine is a great read!).

Refined, commercial sweeteners that you should avoid:

Agave: Sold as a health food, agave is now in the hall of shame of sugar. It is marketed as having a low glycemic index, usually a good thing, but the only reason for that is that agave is high in fructose. In short, this means that your body doesn’t metabolize it well at all. I used agave quite a bit in the past but it has no place in my pantry anymore.

White granulated sugar: You probably know this already, but white sugar is highly refined, has no nutrients, and is simply terrible for your health. If you’ve substituted white sugar for brown sugar, see the next entry.

Brown sugar: It might look more artisanal, but the knowledgeable Doctor Lescanec reminds us that brown sugar is pretty much exactly the same as white sugar, only that it has kept some of its molasses. Meaning: brown sugar is also terrible for your health.

Demerara, Turbinado, and Muscavado: I have fallen victim to their fancy names before. Have you? These three types of sugar are pretty much the same, with varying amounts of molasses. All of them are refined sugars with 99% sucrose —same as white and brown sugar. Their appeal is that they are less processed sugars, if only slightly.

High Fructose corn syrup: This is the real bad guy on the list. Known as glucose-fructose in Canada, HFCS is pretty much on every processed food there is, savoury or sweet. It’s the main ingredient in pop. You should avoid this like the plague. Your body simply doesn’t digest this type of sugar, so it goes directly into your bloodstream. HFCS has been directly linked to the obesity epidemic in North America. (A huge bonus of avoiding HFCS is that you will inevitably stop buying processed foods for the most part, if not altogether. Try it as an experiment. You’ll never look back and your future self will thank you.)

This list doesn’t include artificial sweeteners, so here’s my own advice: That stuff is crap. Research has shown that it will hurt your brain cells. Don’t have it.

 

Now, for the good news: sugars you can have!

Unrefined natural sugars that are better options:

Honey: Honey contains vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, amino acids and good bacteria. You should, however, look for raw, pure honey, since the processed kind generally lacks all this good stuff. Plus, it tastes so much better.

Stevia: This is extracted from a natural herb and it’s a lot sweeter than regular sugar. The down side is that it’s not easy to cook or bake with. It’s mostly used for hot beverages.

Maple syrup: This one is my absolute favourite. I buy the 1L jugs at Costco whenever I can and use it for almost all my baking. Maple Syrup has tonnes of anti-oxidants and more vitamins and minerals that any other type of sugar. We’re so lucky that we can get the good stuff here in Canada. ❤

Sucanat and Rapadura: These two are pretty much the same, except for the size of their granules. They’re made of dehydrated sugar cane juice. They preserve the good vitamins and minerals of sugar cane, which means that this helps you digest it.

Coconut sugar: I was pleased to find this one on the list because I felt adventurous at Bulk Barn the other day and bought a bunch of it. It’s delicious and perfect for baking. It’s not very nutrient rich, but has a very low glycemic index.

Molasses: We’re vegetarian, as you may have noticed, so we need to keep an eye for our iron levels. I buy the blackstrap molasses kind, which is very high in iron (and many other nutrients), and use it to cook beans in it. For regular molasses, which is high in iron, zinc, copper and chromium, look for unsulphured molasses (it’s safer because it has no sulphites. These are bad for you, and especially bad for kids.)

 

I really hope this list helps you navigate the supermarket isles better. I’m definitely going to keep it handy in the future. Again, I highly recommend that you pick up the magazine and read the whole article. There’s a lot more useful information, plus a couple of recipes, in it.

Lastly, if you’re still curious about the topic of sugar, the CBC’s Fifth Estate recently aired a pretty good, short documentary about sugar. It’s not the most in-depth investigation but it definitely has useful information, like how to visualize your sugar intake in a whole week —totally scary. You can watch the documentary here.

As always, let me know your thoughts! Have a great week and happy good-sugar baking : )

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6 thoughts on “Honey, oh sugar, sugar: the green guide to sugar do’s and dont’s

  1. Thanks for this list! I breathed a big sigh of relief when I read that sucanat, coconut sugar and maple syrup are amongst the good guys, those 3 are the ones we use at home. I also use white granulated sugar to make kombucha. There is no way around that one as using a non refined sugar will impact the pH levels of the brew and thus ruin the fermentation. I think all the sugar gets “eaten” by the “mother” during the fermentation process anyway…
    I used to use agave here and there until recently, I’ve read so much pros and cons, I was not sure what to do. But I stopped buying it altogether now.
    I don’t know if Eco Parent is available in Montreal, I haven’t seen but I’ll keep an eye, you got me interested!

    • Hi Ale! I had only heard about coconut sugar and sucanat from you 🙂 I was also very pleased to see them on the list. I have a bit of agave left in my pantry and I’ll probably use it only sparingly until it runs out.
      You can find EcoParent across Canada at Shopper’s Drugmart (I think it’s called Pharmaprix in Quebec). Otherwise, look for a specialty magazine store. They’re slowly growing so hopefully you’ll be able to get your copy.

  2. UF!!!! Yo comí mucho agave en colombia pues era imposible conseguir buen “maple Syrup”. Afortunadamente acá en Suiza si se consigue bueno y orgánico! Y se pueden cocinar cosas muy ricas! Gracias por poner la lista!

    • Qué bueno Susana! Sí, desafortunadamente la miel de maple es carísima y difícil de conseguir en Colombia. Mi familia no me perdona si no llevo tarritos cuando voy de visita 🙂

  3. Me ha encantado estar en Canadá porque cocino mucho con miel de maple que me encaaaaanta !!!!! A mí me hace mucha falta el dulce y este ingrediente me ha parecido ideal para reemplazar el azúcar. Gracias por la información !!!

    • Mari! Lo bueno es que además es nutritiva entonces no es tan grave darles un poquito a los niños. Igual es cara entonces yo generalmente uso poquito. Pero es tan dulce que no es necesario usar mucha.

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