The trending topic in nutrition lately is “added sugars,” and it’s obvious from the popularity of low carb diets and the Paleo Diet that this is a hot-button issue. Consumers are embracing diets that offer less sugar and processed grains, but in turn have loads of added sugars. Some manufacturers are making an effort to reduce added sugars in their product recipes, but many food companies say they have to use sugar because sugar offers a variety of food properties.
Do you know your sugars?
If you’re not a food detective and you have difficulty navigating the nutrition label on the foods you purchase, then it’s important to recognize all the possible names of sugar which can be found in the ingredient list.
Currently, there are as many as 56 names of sugar to recognize. The most popular sugars being used include: cane sugar, agave nectar, barley malt, date sugar, blackstrap molasses, carob syrup, corn syrup solids, dextran, ethyl maltol, fruit juice, maple syrup, glucose solids, sorghum syrup, brown sugar, caramel, dextrose, fructose, honey, fruit juice concentrate, evaporated cane juice, invert sugar, malt syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, rice syrup, molasses and the list goes on.
You may have been told that some of these, like agave and honey, are “healthier” forms of sugar. Sugar is sugar and they all break down during digestion and raise your blood sugar levels. It’s also important to note that the earlier on in the ingredient label that sugar is mentioned, the greater the percentage of sugar in the food. It goes without saying that if more than one type of sugar appears in the label, the product contains significant amounts of added sugar.
So why are manufacturers persisting in the use of sugar despite the health implications of added sugars?
From a food science perspective, sugar plays an important role in food manufacturing because of its many functional properties:
Taste. The first reason is obvious**.** Adding sweetness to certain foods improves the taste of an otherwise less palatable or less popular food. Sugar also interacts with certain flavors to improve those flavors. The problem is that significant amounts of sugar are being added to pretty much every processed food.
Colors and Flavors. Sugar is a key component to color and flavor. When reduced sugars (caramelized) react with amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) in foods, you end up with the formation of a brownish color that may be desired in some foods. This reaction is called the Maillard reaction and it was first written about in 1993. It also adds a particular flavor to foods like baked goods, chocolate, coffee and some meats.
Bulks and texturizes. Sugars provide bulk and texture to foods and that translates to a certain satisfying feeling when the food hits your mouth. You know this feeling quite well, especially when it comes to baked goods, ice cream, candies, and the world of jams, jellies and preserves.
Ferments. Sugar helps with the fermentation process that you need in order to produce certain foods. It’s what makes you love the taste of yogurt, sauerkraut, vinegars, wine, beers, and sour cream. In some of these foods there is no real substitute for the sugar in their formulation.
Preserves. Sugar helps in preservation of some foods. It helps to prevent shelf stable foods from absorbing water from the air, which would otherwise shorten the time frame of use of the product. So if manufacturers want a longer shelf life and product stability, they may turn to sugar. Sugar can also help stabilize food colors and prevent certain baked goods from going stale or dry.
Can sugar be swapped out for another ingredient?
With the new Dietary Guidelines poised to release and likely to mandate that added sugars now be highlighted separately on all food labels, manufacturers are looking at sugar alternatives. If you’re willing to eat fewer processed foods and prepare more foods at home, then you can control ingredients like sugar. Swapping out sugar for other options can help you to lower your overall daily sugar intake.
You can sometimes use fruit puree in lieu of refined sugar. For example, pureed prunes in a brownie recipe can help to limit the use of oil and sugar, and actually make the brownies taste more chocolatey (I know, crazy!!) The benefit of using fruit puree is that you have fiber accompanying the natural sugar in the fruit which helps to modulate blood sugar during digestion. Fig, date and banana purees can also work as a fat and sugar replacement. If you are interested, there are cookbooks and online sources that can help you with sugar swap outs and specific conversion amounts.
It is important to note that many so-called healthy recipe sources suggest replacing white sugar with agave or maple syrup as a healthier option.
But remember, in most cases, sugar is sugar, no matter the source.
There is an effort to identify whether HFCS or high fructose corn syrup is worse for your health and waistline than other types of sugar, and preliminary studies suggest it may well be, though more research is needed. Stay tuned!
You may also enjoy reading:
Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety Journal, Summer October 2015
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