Malaysians’ all-time favourites such as Bubble Tea, Teh Tarik and desserts which are loaded with refined sugar and calories have become part of our daily diet. Overconsumption of sugar can lead to serious diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Therefore, it is best to limit sugar intake including hidden sugar to not more than 10 teaspoons per day. Good news is, you still can add a touch of sweetness to your favourite food and drink with healthy alternatives to refined sugar.
In comparison with refined sugar, natural sweeteners are less harmful and also have health benefits. For instance, coconut sugar, honey and molasses sugar are packed with essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidant. However, they’re all still forms of sugar and can affect your blood glucose the same way as table sugar, so use no more than 3 teaspoons per day.
Other than that, popular alternatives to sugar such as Stevia and Luo Han Guo (monk fruit) provide zero calories and are significantly taste sweeter than table sugar. These sugars alternatives are generally safe for those with diabetes as they do not raise blood sugars. Some products contain additives such as erythritol to increase sweetness and natural flavouring to mask the aftertaste. The best products contain only pure extract as the main ingredient.
2. Sugar alcohols
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables or can be manufactured. Erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol and maltitol are the most commonly used ones in food production. They are normally used in chewing gums, candies, throat lozenges and toothpaste. Sugar alcohols are easy to spot on the label because most of them end in “tol.” and they are mostly used to sweeten commercial foods labelled sugar free or no added sugar. They provide fewer to no calories; therefore, it is also suitable for individuals who want to control their calorie intake. For instance, erythritol only provides 0.2 calories per gram whereas normal table sugar contains 4 kcal per gram.
It is also beneficial for those with diabetes as they have minimal effect on blood sugar because they contain small amounts of carbohydrates. Not only that, it is also claimed to prevent tooth decay as the bacteria in our mouth do not ferment sugar alcohols.
However, excessive consumption may cause digestive upset such as diarrhea and bloating due to incomplete digestion and even cause weight gain.
3. Artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners will not raise our blood glucose. They are widely used in processed foods and drinks such as soft drinks, baked goods and jams and also use commonly for baking and cooking. Most popular artificial sweetener, Aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sugar. It is not heat sensitive and therefore loses sweetness when exposed to heat during cooking. It should not be taken by people with phenylketonuria as it contains phenylalanine. Acesulfame potassium is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is heat stable which can be used in cooking or baking. It is also does not provide energy or affects serum potassium levels. Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar and also heat stable which can be used in baking because it doesn’t lose its sweet taste at high temperatures.
Artificial sweeteners may be a good replacement for sugar for diabetics and those who want to cut down on their calorie intake. But one should not rely on artificial sweeteners for the long run as these are just chemicals and these sweeteners have been associated with weight gain and disruption of gut microbiome. Therefore, moderation is the key and if possible always go for the natural forms of sugar.