Dates: Good sugar substitute or sugar bomb?!

What’s the deal with dates?

Have you ever come across a ‘sugar-free’ recipe or a nice little health bar that is completely free of refined sugar? You try it and it’s delicious, really delicious. Wow, you can’t believe it doesn’t contain any sugar!….why it tastes so sweet! You could easily eat another one, oh and even another one. You turn the wrapper over to check the recipe or ingredients…yep, the betting is it contains dates in some form or other..

You might find yourself wondering if dates are good idea on low sugar diet when you’re trying to get control over cravings? (I know I did). Some argue yes, some argue no. It’s confusing to say the least. In this post you’ll get the full lowdown on dates as a natural sugar alternative vs. dried fruit sugar bomb.

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Photo by Itinerant Tightwad: http://www.flickr.com/photos/itineranttightwad/3694711629/

Sugar-free mania

As low fat goes out of fashion and ‘sugar-free’ becomes mainstream, the market will supply sugar-free recipes and products to help everyone reduce the amount of refined sugar in their diet. Of course this a good thing, I couldn’t be more supportive and am excited to see how this sea change pans out. Any natural sugar is certainly going to trump mass refined sugar and help the average Joe make healthy shifts towards an improved sugar consumption.

However, here’s the thing…

Anything that tastes sweet has something in it to taste like that. Whether it’s agave, dates, stevia or even a hefty portion of rice syrup.

Dates are the most natural of the above, they’ve been around for centuries, keep well and are these days widely used in ‘health’ type bars. When I was scoffing Nakd bars myself a few years ago, they were quite hard to come by. Now they’re stocked everywhere in every flavour imaginable (a Christmas one has just come out!). Considering this, it’s important to remember that dates are actually seasonal – they weren’t around all year around in every corner shop for our ancient ancestors and even more recently were more to just a Christmas treat.

So what are the pros’ and cons?

The positive

  • Completely natural – you know exactly where your sugar is coming from and in terms of processing, they’ve probably just been squashed a bit into bar like form!
  • High in fibre (helps to slow down the fructose absorption & we need lots of fibre in our diets)
  • Additional nutritional benefit – for example they’re a source of potassium

The negative

  • High source of fructose by ratio to their weight (approximately 7.7g fructose per medium medjool date)
  • Small and concentrated form of sugar
  • Easy to eat more than one (thus consuming excessive fructose)
  • May still drive sugar cravings

My personal experience with dates

In my sugar filled days, I used to be something of a date fiend. I really loved them because they gave me the sweet hit I craved but with that guilt-free ‘natural’ label. My uncontrolled sweet tooth was satisfied by these ‘healthy’ fructose sources but in excess, fructose is not healthy. I was not in control and dates played their part in this. Once I popped a date I more often than not couldn’t stop on my sugar need. I know I’m not alone as I’ve now worked with clients who pretty much don’t eat any refined sugar or even hidden sugar day to day, but are as hooked on the dried fruits and natural sugars as much as I was.

The last 2 years of going more seriously low sugar I was a lot more cautious with dates than any other food. I have indulged occasionally – once buying a small bag of dried date pieces for a recipe. I kept going back to the packet, just having a few more, then sitting down, then going back – it was hauntingly familiar. I’ve purposely avoided making any tempting looking recipes with dates since, as I’ve personally feared losing control, re-developing my former sweet tooth and eating all 10 bliss balls in one go rather than just 1 or 2.

That restraint definitely paid off as now I feel I can appreciate dates for just how naturally sweet they are. When I went to Abu Dhabi in January, the hotel gave out dates with traditional arab coffee. Not wanting to miss out on the cultural experience, I ate the date and found that just the one was enough. At the weekend, at the OM Yoga Show, I sampled some of the latest ‘health’ bars – all containing dates. By the time I reached the Nakd stand, I just couldn’t face anymore sickly sweet dried fruit, feeling a bit queasy at it all. A few years ago I would have been diving in (as many were!). Just shows how much you can adjust your tolerance for fructose over time, even in it’s natural form. At least now I do trust myself more because I’ve significantly reduced my tolerance.

At the OM Yoga Show with my friend Helen - I'd hadn't gone date overboard at this point!

At the OM Yoga Show with my friend Helen – I’d hadn’t quite gone date overboard at this point!

Suggested low sugar date use

If you’re looking to reduce your cravings to get more control, replacing sugar with dates isn’t necessarily going to help – you can very easily just get addicted to a different form of fructose. With the sweet cravings still there, you’re going to find all sugar continually appealing and temptation may forever lurk. As I mentioned, I’ve worked with clients almost addicted to dates, figs and raisins as their only form of sugar so it can happen.

However, I do believe dates have their place and are certainly not to be demonised. They are a healthy (in moderation) source of natural sugar that can contribute to delicious recipes. The fibre slows down fructose absorption and blood sugar impact. If you’re about to grab the full on muffin in Tesco, ask yourself if you could be satisfied with something naturally sweetened with dates, thus making a much healthier substitution.

Also, if making a dessert or treat for sweet toothed guests, dates can be a very viable option. I’m looking at experimenting with medjool dates for upcoming dinner party purposes. I’m still a tad scared control wise, but I’m going to make sure there aren’t any leftovers in my cupboard that I will want to eat in one hit!

My recommendation is steer clear of dates until you feel really in a safe zone with sugar, then treat them like a wonderful naturally sweet indulgence occasionally when the opportunity strikes.

Hope that helps you get some perspective and a balanced view on dates from a sugar standpoint….

What are your thoughts on this highly topical sugar substitute?
Do you use them in recipes or do you try to avoid them?

Leave a comment and let me know!

Laura xx

What's the deal with agave nectar

Why I don’t yet stand by one single sugar substitute

Now if you’ve been reading the blog for a while or you’ve explored my posts on sugar substitutes, you’ll know I’ve covered off quite a lot of ground. In this post I’m going to explain why I haven’t completely gone crazy for one of them.

When I talk about sugar substitutes, I’m talking about the following:

As you can see I’ve written about most of these throughout a number of posts. Seriously,I’m a walking sugar substitute fountain of knowledge! If there’s anything sweet out there and it hasn’t got standard sugar in it, I’d put serious money on the fact it’s got one of the above in it in some form.

Everyone seems to have a favourite…

Various low sugar lovelies that I follow tend to find the one they like best and run with it. Sarah Wilson goes for brown rice syrup and is heavily aligned with a stevia brand Natvia (Australian based).

sugar substitues honeyDavid Gillespie, the ex-lawyer turned sugar whizz, goes for dextrose.

Sugar-free Mom, who does have some great recipes, is again stevia. Other ‘sugar-free’ recipes that I tend to come across use natural sugars like raw honey, bananas or dates to sweeten – which are all a bit dangerous for me personally because they’re the things I abused the most as a ‘covert’ sugar addict. Nakd bars as a classic example.

I’ve dabbled with the sugar substitutes as part of my own personal experimentation and for the needs of the blog. I have many of them in my cupboards and as my recipe library develops, you may see a few more of these recipes added.

However, I’m reluctant to go hard on one single sugar substitute. Even brown rice syrup and barley malt extract which are the lower fructose options (probably the ones I lean towards most). Why? Because I feel the jury is still out and it’s early days to start consuming any of these in more than very very moderate proportions.

Let me quantify my version of ‘moderate proportions’. I might bake or cook something mildly sweet once every month, maybe 2-3 weeks. When it’s that infrequent, whatever sugar substitute I use, I figure it can’t really have a significant negative long term impact whatever research findings decide to surface (I will say that I will probably never touch agave nectar again).

Whilst you might still be confused about which sugar substitute is best for you, consider your frequency of use more important and what degree of control you have with it. Try a few things out and really notice how you feel.

Most importantly, opt for savoury options first and really get your tastebuds more sensitive to sweet where you’re not craving fructose as much. You’ll then need less of whatever you decide to use and if you keep going, you just won’t need sweet food in the same way.

Wow, that’s ended up longer than I intended. What do you think? Any views on the long list of sugar substitutes? I’m very interested in your thoughts and happy to answer any questions if you comment below or on the Happy Sugar Habits Facebook page.

Laura x

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Sugar substitutes: Sugar alcohols like xylitol & maltitol

Working my way through the sugar sweeteners, I thought I would talk about sugar alcohols a little more in depth. It’s good to just get your head around these so if you spot them on a ‘sugar-free’ product, you’ll know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for.

Known as ‘Polyols’ they have a chemical structure that resembles sugar and alcohol, but at the same time they aren’t really either. They occur naturally in plants, berries and oats, but as with all of these types of ‘natural’ sweeteners, they are manufactured for commercial use in a lab, so essentially they are still processed.

Pros & Cons

The benefits of these sweeteners are that they are lower in calories than sugar and don’t spike your blood sugar (lower glycemic index). This is essentially because they are not completely absorbed by the body (the gut). Unfortunately, this means they can ferment in the intestines and cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, and even nausea.

These side effects can be triggered from consumption depending on the amount you’ve ingested and the strength of your digestive system. Thus, if you suffer from any types of digestive issues like IBS, Crohn’s or colitis, it’s probably best to steer clear of these.

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Different sugar alcohols

Xylitol

Xylitol is quite widely available in various forms for baking and you can buy xylitol-sweetened chocolate. This sugar alcohol does have some associated health benefits where it can help mineralise tooth enamel (i.e. protect your teeth) and may increase the absorption of b-vitamins & calcium. It’s the best one out of all of them. Still, remember the cons and don’t go mad on it. The scientific world is still trying to understand the long term effects, so I would use it only on occasion very moderately.

As always though, it’s not addressing the root problem, so continue to concentrate on changing your palate preference to sweet.

I used xylitol chocolate at one point to help the phase where I still needed a little chocolate everyday, but I don’t bother eating xylitol really at all now. I didn’t have a problem with it digestive-wise but I was only eating just a square or two at a time.

Maltitol

is anything from 75-90% as sweet as sugar. It spikes the blood sugar more than xylitol and has much more of a debate regarding how safe it actually is regarding your health, so this one is even more of a grey area. I’ve had few people get excited to show me a ‘sugar-free’ chocolate bar they’ve found and I usually find this is the culprit sweetener. It’s extremely common in the US and Canada and I know big brands like Nestle use it. I would generally avoid this one and categorise it as an artificial sweetener.

Other sugar alcohols to look out for on labels:

  • Sorbitol

  • Isomalt

  • Mannitol

  • Eyrthritol

Have  you tried any products with sugar alcohols? What do you think of them? Please share your comments and thoughts if you do so feel inclined!

 

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Sugar substitutes: What is the deal with coconut sugar?

As the media continues to surface the negative impacts of sugar, the sugar substitute market is heating up, with everyone vying to get in there and market to us as sugar-free pioneers (yes by reading this blog you are a sugar-free pioneer!).

One sugar that’s increasing in popularity is coconut sugar, or alternatively known as coconut nectar. I thought I’d dig deep to find out what the deal really is with this seemingly virtuous sugar substitute (before we end up with another agave nectar scenario).

What is coconut sugar?

Coconut sugar is drawn naturally from the bud of a coconut tree. So basically it’s the sap, like palm sugar comes from the palm tree sap. It’s boiled and thickens to make the nectar, or crystalised to make sugar granules.

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The positives

It’s natural

It’s not processed like maple syrup and is a more natural sweetener. It’s also a sustainable sugar, because of the abundance of coconut palms. However, you still need to be a detective when buying coconut sugar, to make sure it’s not been overly manufactured, diluted or mixed up with other ingredients.

Nutritional benefit

For a sugar substitute, coconut sugar has the most nutritional benefit. We’re talking various essential minerals like potassium and magnesium, even some vitamin C. Here’s a guide for comparing the nutritional qualities against other sweeteners.

Low GI

It’s low GI with a rating of 35 which means it won’t spike your blood sugar like the evil table sugar. However, GI rating is dependant on which foods you eat it with and it’s unlikely you’re going to guzzle pure sugar on it’s own, so I tend to take GI with a pinch of salt (I also don’t have any desire to memorise values and use it day to day).

Out of interest, this is how it compares to others:

The not so positive: It’s STILL SUGAR!

I’m sorry to break it to you, but coconut sugar still has a relatively high fructose content. It’s primarily the sugar sucrose (70-79%), which is 50% fructose, so it ends up with about the same amount of fructose as honey (around 35-40%).

This is why it tastes sweet. It’s going to hit all those pleausre points and it’s not going to help you reduce your dependence and addiction to sweet tasting stuff, if that is your end goal.

Saying that, it’s definitely a healthy alternative if you’re baking. If this is where you prefer to spend you’re fructose or ‘sweet spend’ allowance, then yes, it’s a far better option.

I was given some coconut sugar to try whilst at a trade show earlier in the year. I substituted one teaspoon in to replace the stevia in my sweet potato vanilla breakfast omelette. It tasted good, I’m not going to lie, and in fact, I wanted to keep eating the three portions I had cooked. Maybe this was the addictive fructose component working it’s magic. I got scared and haven’t really touched it since. I like my lack of cravings too much these days.

In summary

It’s good to know coconut sugar exists, as it seems one of the most nutritional sugar substitutes (there really is no excuse for using refined sugar in baking ever again!). However, it’s not the magic bullet and still is tallying up on your daily fructose total and keeping your taste buds accustomed to sweet, so use with caution.

What do you think of coconut sugar? Have you tried it? Any thoughts?

Sources

http://rawveganliving.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/agave-nectar-vs-coconut-nectar-secret.html

http://coconutpalmsugar.com/Nutritional_Information.html

What's the deal with agave nectar

What’s the deal with agave nectar?

You might have heard of agave nectar. Hailed as the healthy sugar substitute, this little number can pop up in some healthy foods – particularly things like granola and health bars. So what’s the deal with it?

What is agave nectar?

A light coloured syrup, a little more runny than honey and with a milder taste. Agave nectar, as the name suggests, comes from the sap extract of a cactus-like plant. However, by the time it reaches our shelves, it’s usually been heavily refined and processed. A negative before I even start!

Healthy or not?

Agave is marketed as healthy for two main reasons:

  1. It has a lower GI than regular sugar
  2. It is sweeter than sugar so you need less of it

What's the deal with agave nectarWhilst both of these things are true to some extent, the outweighing problem is that agave can be up to 90% fructose. I’ve posted about fructose previously, but just to hammer it home, you need to limit your total consumption of fructose because…

  • An excess of frustose can lead to elevated uric acid levels (which can lead to gout), and is also associated with diabetes and kidney stones.
  • Too much fructose converts to fatty acids which are then stored as fat (belly fat if you really want to know)
  • Fructose is the addictive ‘I want more’ part of sugar that causes the emotional attachment and physical craving

In a nutshell, if you’re trying to cut your sugar consumption (i.e your fructose consumption), agave nectar is a no go. If you spot it on a list of ingredients, beware. I’ve noticed quite a few ‘healthy’ products which have it. Your sugar savvy radar should now be primed with this one.

Fruit or raw honey (approx. 30-40% fructose) would be better. Brown rice syrup or rice malt syrup would be even better (only 2% fructose).

Have you tried agave nectar and heard any of the hype? Spotted it anywhere?