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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sugar, oh Honey, Honey

In the 80's eggs became the #1 public enemy. As the years passed, it was all fat's fault, including whole milk. Later on, carbs (which by then had taken fat's place in many products in our grocery store) became evil. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease kept rising. The new culprits? high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and trans-fats (aka hydrogenated fatty acids or oils). Adding on, glycemic index. And now, sugar has taken center stage. Specifically, according to Robert Lustig, M.D., it's fructose (one of the two molecules that make up table sugar, the other being glucose), what's doing all the damage. His 90-minute conference gone viral, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth" explains the rational behind his theory.

He claims that the excessive amount of sugar (and therefore fructose) that we consume is overwhelming our metabolism and resulting in what's known as metabolic syndrome-- a combination of high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, high cholesterol, and abdominal fat; which could lead to diabetes and/or heart disease.

Our bodies use glucose as their preferred source of energy, and our organism knows pretty well how to use it, or store it (in case of excess). The fructose part of sugar is, according to Lustig, a more delicate issue, as in order to be utilized, it needs to be metabolized by the liver, generating by-products that in excess, can make us sick (leading to metabolic syndrome).

Pasta sauce, sliced bread, breakfast cereals, fruit-flavored yogurt, health bars, canned soups, snacks, salad dressings, and of course, soft and sports drinks, are all loaded with added sugars, and we're used to everything tasting extra sweet. So much so, that we don't even feel it's that sweet anymore (and I'm not even mentioning candy, cookies or the other usual suspects). Our nature is to like sweet flavors, and by adding sugar, HFCS in particular--which is extremely cheap--to all those processed products, the manufacturers are offering us something we love (and keep loving even more) while they get to make hefty profits. It sounds like a win-win situation, however, in the long term (and often, not even that long), our body pays for it in the most expensive way: it's well being.

Doctor Lustig advices us to drink only water or milk (NOT chocolate milk, as the problem isn't the chocolate, but the added sugar), exercise, eat our carbs with fiber (as fruit's fiber slows the absorption of fructose, so it doesn't become overwhelming to the liver, and for the same reason, he's against fruit juice, because he states the fiber has been removed from the fruit), and to wait 20 minutes before getting a second portion.

Here's another SHORT interview with Dr. Lustig with advice I find helpful.

My take:
Doctor Lustig as been accused of being too drastic by some of his peers. However, there are studies supporting his theory (and others that don't). I think he has some very valid points, but to me, sugar isn't the problem (c'mon, I'm a pastry chef!!!), nor are eggs, whole milk, nor white flour. Excess is. And really knowing if what we're eating has excess of unhealthy ingredients is hard to find out if we weren't at the kitchen they were prepared. Experts advice us to read nutrition labels, but in my experience, even label values can be manipulated or misinterpreted. For example, total sugar in a label doesn't differentiate between naturally occurring sugars (like in fruits or milk) and added ones. It's also advised to avoid products that list sugar, or any of its incarnations (barely malt, dextrose, invert sugar, fructose, corn sweetener, xylose, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, evaporated cane juice, sucrose, agave nectar, cane crystals, beet sugar, etc, etc.) among the first ingredients, as by law, the ingredients used in the largest amounts should be listed first. However, I have to say, that I've developed recipes that list the sweetener as the first ingredient, but the sugar content is a small percentage of the total recipe, as I used many, many other ingredients in smaller amounts, for example a combination of nuts, grains, fruits, etc.

-Purchasing unprocessed foods (often not even labeled) may help deal with excess. Plus they are richer in fiber, which again, slows down the fructose absorption.

Other suggestions:                     

-Cut sugar when baking between 1/3 and 1/2 of what the recipe calls for. Believe it or not, it'll still be sweet and tasty.

-Gradually decrease how much sugar you add to your drinks (such as coffee, tea, etc) and eventually, you'll be able to let go completely.

-Buy "plain" not flavored or sweetened products and add a bit of sweetener yourself, so you know how much you're adding. I love raw honey in my morning yogurt!

-Bake with date paste (yes....broken record) as a sweetener. It has a nice amount of fiber. Whole grain flours, whole grains, veggies, fruits and legumes also have plenty of fiber, so include them in your recipes!

-I've personally ditched refined sugar from my kitchen, as besides Lustig's theories, it's only made of empty calories. Don't stick to only one kind of unrefined sweetener. Alternate them, keeping their characteristics in mind (see below). They are more flavorful, many have lower glycemic indexes and preserve some nutrients from their sources.

-Be willing to pay more for higher quality foods made with ingredients rich in flavor and texture, and not filled with abundant cheap sugar and little more than that.

-Cook and bake yourself when you want a treat. That's the only way of knowing what you're putting in your food.

-Adding sweet spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom and ginger enhance the sweetness of the recipe without adding sugar. Some spices, like cinnamon, are extremely high in fiber and all are rich in antioxidants.

-The most valuable piece of knowledge I acquired in university was that: "it all depends in the concentration of the substance, as even too much water can kill." I'm sure that soon, a food company will launch a fructose free sugar or sweetener, and many foods will proudly sport the no fructose label... I say don't bother. Ten years later (depending on the lobbying) it will be proven to be terrible and the source of all our maladies. Did you know that when Crisco (trans-fats) first came into the market, it was promoted as a health food?

-Hurray for Mayor Bloomberg and his ban on the sale of large soda!

- Always keep Food Rules: An Eater's Manual at hand.

My Favorite Sweeteners

It's taken me years to learn how to work with alternative sweeteners. Lots of trial and error, and that's one of the reasons why I hope you can use this blog as a source for tried and tested recipes that use them. In general, if you want to convert a recipe substituting sugar for a liquid sweetener, add 1/4 less of the liquid sweetener (3/4 cup versus 1 cup of sugar) and decrease total liquids in the recipe by 2 tablespoons per cup of sugar replaced. Please note, that these are rules of thumb, you might have to experiment a bit as each recipe is different.

- Coconut (palm) sugar and coconut nectar. I love the sugar form for baking. I use it instead of regular sugar and it adds a deep caramel flavor. The nectar is also delicious with fruit desserts. They contain B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron. Low glycemic index and here's more...

- Mesquite flour- The powder made of grinding the mesquite tree pods besides being delicious, it helps regulate blood sugar levels. It's expensive and hard to find, but completely worth it!! It's full of fiber, so there you go...Its cinnamon-caramel-chocolate flavor is incredible, and adds amazing depth and sweetness to baked goods!

- Raw honey- My go-to sweetener for dressings, yogurt, or anything that I won't cook further after sweetening (to preserve the healthy benefits of the raw honey). 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, so add 1/4 less of it if you're substituting for sugar. Contains healthy enzymes, vitamins and nutrients. See more...

- Pure maple syrup. Its complex and satisfying flavor is perfect for fall desserts, a great match to whole grains, spices, and sauces. It contains immunity-friendly manganese and zinc. Pricey, though, but get the real thing!

- Molasses, although they can't really be substituted for sugar, as they tend to have a slightly bitter taste, they are really rich in iron and add a complex flavor.

- Brown rice syrup. It's less sweet than sugar, so you need to add more of it to reach the equivalent sweetness. It's low glycemic and very sticky so use it when you need ingredients to keep a mix together (like in rice cereal bars or caramel popcorn). It's good for adding texture to salad dressings and sauces. Small concentrations of arsenic were found in it, so again, don't use it as your only sweetener. Concentration, remember?

- Barley malt. Watch out celiacs! It contains gluten. I don't particularly like its flavor, but it's another unrefined option, with a robust flavor and texture.

- Date syrup (Silan)-Only second to honey, dates are the oldest sweeteners in history. For silan,  dates and water and often lemon are combined and strained. The mixture is cooked and concentrated into a syrup. Common in Middle Eastern cuisines, it adds a nice sweet caramelized taste straight from the dates (no sugar added), although since there's no pulp in it, it contains no fiber. It can be found commercially (try to get the one with only natural ingredients), or you can make it at home, here's a recipe.

- Date paste or puree. Full of fiber and here's what I've said before

- Stevia: the only sweetener that doesn't have an real impact in blood sugar, this plant extract is many, many times sweeter than sugar, so a tiny bit goes a long way. However, baking with it is tricky, as you need to find a substitute for the bulk of sugar you are removing in the recipe when using stevia. I recommend to go for the liquid all natural stevia extract, as it's less processed than the commercial, mass produced brands. I personally, don't like its taste, so I don't use it, but that doesn't mean you won't enjoy it in your coffee.

-Sucanat (evaporated cane juice): This is the least processed form of cane sugar (the juice is extracted, concentrated and dried until the grains are formed), so some trace elements of the plant are still present in this sugar, such as iron, calcium, vitamin B6, potassium and chromium. It has a strong molasses flavor that goes well with chocolate and spices.


Icings and frostings tend to be some of the least healthy concoctions on the planet. Loads of sugar and saturated (if not hydrogenated) fats and artificial coloring. That's pretty much it. But who can say no to icing?
This is one of my most favorite recipes, and I'm really proud of it. Yes, it does use agave nectar, but it's based on high-fiber chickpeas, it's creamy and spreadable thanks to the coconut oil and delicately flavored with vanilla. I love it in between cookies.
  • Vegan
  • Nut, dairy, egg, seed, soy free. Contains coconut and chickpeas
1 (15 oz) can organic chickpeas, drained (equals 9.5 oz or 2 cups cooked chickpeas)
3 oz. virgin (or expeller-pressed, if you don't like coconut flavor) coconut oil
3 oz. (¼ cup minus 1 teaspoon) raw agave nectar
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, sliced and scraped
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
Mix all the ingredients in food processor or with an immersion blender until completely smooth and creamy. It takes a long time, don’t despair!!

Let set in refrigerator overnight. Use as a cookie sandwich filling or with cake. Freeze it and it can be eaten as ice cream.
If icing is a bit dry or too stiff, add a bit of water (1/2 teaspoon at a time), until desired consistency.

-If using canned chickpeas, I like EDEN brand, with is BPA free and unsalted
-Spectrum virgin coconut oil is the best tasting one I’ve found so far


Edith Berlin said...

Thanks Ale: great post as always. I love using date paste (Thanks to you). By the way, I just started using xylitol as a sugar substitute. It tastes really good, it's natural and there is no aftertaste.I thought you might find it interesting.As you mentioned before, sugar is not bad in small quantities. The problem is that it is highly addictive.I say that as a recovered sugar addict. Three months and counting, and feeling awesome. OK, enough, thanks again for your post.

Edith Berlin said...

Thanks Ale: great post as always. BTW I started using Xylitol as a sugar substitute for baking. Really good.

Alexandra said...

Gracias Etele! I know some people are raving about xylitol, however, I'm still a bit skeptical. There's little information about it and although it comes from natural sources, it's highly processed. Also in large (and large might not be that large) quantities it might be harmful. Here's an interesting read: