The Honey Trap

Many 'natural' alternatives to sugar bill themselves as low GI and healthy. Catherine Quinn discovers which products genuinely deliver.

If you’re aiming to tame an intolerance by cutting the amount of sugar in your diet you may also be keen to avoid sweeteners. But whilst sucrose, glucose and substitutes like aspartamine are best in moderation (many would say, not at all), a sudden influx of exotic sounding ‘natural’ sweet alternatives are now on offer as ideal replacements. Products like Peruvian lacuma fruit, mountain-grown yacon root, and Mexican agave syrup are low GI, high in vitamins and promise a guilt-free sweet hit. Or do they?

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is currently big news on the sugar circuit, having successfully made it past the health-food shelves and into the big chain supermarkets. In the UK several different brands of syrup are now available, and large stores, such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose stock a version.

Agave is made from the same desert lily that produces tequila and in the production of the spirit, the natural sweetness of the plant is used to ferment into alcohol. The extraction of the nectar follows a similar process with the enormous plants relieved of their thorny outer leaves to reveal a baseball sized white ‘heart’ at the centre. This is then cut from the ground, pulped, and the ‘nectar’ boiled down to a concentrated sweet syrup.

The advantage, as the exporters see it, is that the sugars in agave (as in many other exotic ‘natural’ sweeteners) are eaten very close to their naturally occurring context. So rather than consuming a single type of sugar, such as sucrose, we are consuming a mixed package – in the case of agave, around 70% fructose to 30% dextrose.

‘When you eat refined carbohydrates, or sugar, it causes your blood sugar levels to shoot up’ explains Hayley Troupe, director of technical development at health ingredients innovator Wild Flavours. ‘Because the products are then digested quickly blood sugar slumps again causing the peak trough effect that is associated with weight gain. If you’re eating sugars in their natural context – such as in a piece of fruit – you’re not just getting one type of sugar. There’s a variety of different types along with some more complex carbohydrates. This means that the insulin rises, but it’s still got food to work on in a steady release.’

Like fruit, agave can claim to be low GI, and has also proved itself to be extraordinarily versatile. The toffee-tasting syrup can be used in cooking, poured directly on foods or even used to sweeten coffee and tea.
What’s more, the fructose found in agave is inulin – a substance you may have come across if you’ve been trying to boost your fibre intake. This substance is essentially an indigestible sugar, which means that those with intolerances or problems with candida are not providing a feast for unfriendly bacteria when sweet agave passes through their intestinal tract.

Agave Syrup
Per 100g
Calories 380
Protein 0g
Fat 0g
Fibre 0g

Other nutrients:
Manganese, selenium


Noted for its nutrient-packed properties this powdered South American root (similar in appearance to turnip) is sweet and malty in taste. Not everyone is keen on the flavour, but advocates point to the full complement of essential amino acids along with assorted vitamins and minerals. Perhaps more convincing, however, is that Maca is very highly regarded for its medical properties amongst native farmers, who use it for a number of wellbeing enhancements, including increased sex drive.

This belief is not just anecdotal, as the plant has now been shown to increase sperm count in several scientific studies, and so its use as a sugar substitute is somewhat overshadowed by its prowess other areas. Currently Maca pills are marketed for this, and other wellbeing ends, so those looking to sprinkle it on their cereal as a sugar replacement might get more than they bargained for.

Maca Powder
Per 100g
Calories 368
Protein 14.6g
Fat 1.9g
Fibre 8g

Other nutrients:
Sodium, potassium,
calcium, selenium, magnesium, iron, fatty acids including linolenic acid, palmitic acid, and oleic acids

Mesquite meal

This Mexican ingredient is high in protein and fibre and can be substituted in part for flour in sweet recipes. Made by gathering the ripened pods of the mesquite tree and grinding them to a fine powder, this distinctive smoky tasting ingredient has been used for centuries by native American Indians (but so has tobacco). The pods are an unusual type of legume, growing from a thorny tree, which until recently was considered as something of a pest in its Texan homeland for its ability to flourish in arid conditions and steal land from cash crops. Because of its unusual packaging, processing is reasonably involved, as the sticky pulp and seeds must be extracted from the woody pod.

Currently mesquite is a specialised substance, weighing in at around £7 for 500g in the UK, and costing only slightly less in its native country. Whilst original use was as a flour substitute, the high price usually means manufacturers recommend adding a spoonful to smoothies or baking recipes to utilise its nutritious properties without breaking the bank.

Research has shown mesquite can help balance blood sugar levels in diabetics, as well as providing an impressive complement of trace minerals including the elusive zinc. But that’s not to say it can provide anything a balanced diet wouldn’t, and given the price tag, health enthusiasts might prefer to ingest their vitamins and minerals from a cheaper source.

‘Exotic products do not necessarily have a greater nutrient complement than other fruit and vegetables, and consumers should beware of such claims’ cautions sugar expert Zoe Harris of Diabetes UK. ‘They are often marketed with a higher price too.’

Mesquite Powder
Per 100g
Calories 380
Protein 16g
Fat 3.4g
Fibre 36g

Other nutrients:
Calcium, chromium,
cobalt, copper, iron,
magnesium, manganese,
molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, sulphur, zinc

Lacuma powder

This South American fruit is found in large quantities in Peru and Chile, where the caramel-flavoured flesh is eaten fresh or juiced for delicious drinks. Resembling a pear-shaped mango in appearance, the fruit is also sometimes known as ‘egg-fruit’ in English on account of its parched ‘egg-yolk-like’ interior flesh, and it is partly for this reason that lacuma dries so well.

In fact, when it comes to extraction, the process is no more complex than slicing the flesh and leaving it out in the sun before grinding it to a yellowish powder, although industrial methods now call on machinery to speed to process.

So whilst we in the west have been determinedly stripping away as many nutrients as possible in order to mass produce large quantities of sugar, new imports like lacuma boast minimal processing. This is in stark contrast to the refining processes which yield high GI sugar where the sweet-tasting crystals are stripped entirely of the nutrients of sugar cane.

Lacuma’s more traditional preparation, however, means that the natural sweet flavours also come with a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals as part of the original plant. So for those looking for an extra health fix with their sweeteners, the fruit is also a good source of carotene and B vitamins.
For many, however, the key advantage is the creamy toffee flavour which the dried flesh imparts. This makes it a tasty addition to baked products, as well as to smoothies and even savoury dishes.

Yacon root

Yacon is something of an all round wonder-plant with leaves which treat hypertension and a versatile root with a number of uses. Yet another ingredient hailing from Peru and surrounds, it’s a mountain vegetable related to the Jerusalem artichoke family, and like its artichoke cousin, can be dug up at the root, scrubbed down and cooked fresh.

A common local use is to slice yacon thinly and fry it as sweet chips, but in western manifestations as a healthy import you’re more likely to find dried chips sold for snacking purposes. The sweetness of the root intensifies with dehydration, so as a sweet fix it can come in handy.

You can also find yacon as a syrup, which is made by crushing the juicy roots and evaporating the resulting liquid into a denser form. With a molasses-like taste, the syrup can be used for certain baking recipes, as well as directly in tea and coffee.

Like the other natural sweeteners, yacon is also a low GI food as it won’t raise your blood sugar. For allergy
sufferers, however, it comes with the added advantage of prebiotic benefits, as it has been found to aid digestion and help the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals in the small intestine.

Yacon Root
Per 100g
Calories 54
Protein 12.8g
Fat 2.9g
Fibre 2.6g

Other nutrients:
Iron, sodium, beta carotene, vitamin B1,
vitamin B2, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron

And the rest?

With so many would-be sweeteners on the market it can be hard to know which will harm and which can heal. And for the most part manufacturers are under few obligations to ensure foods labelled as natural and healthy really do deliver. Fructose, for example, has become popular recently, but whilst it may seem to be ‘naturally’ derived, in fact is stripped of accompanying sugars just like sucrose and behaves differently as a chemically rendered powder than when found naturally in food.

Additionally, fructose has recently been associated with fatty liver disorders, as it behaves like sucrose when consumed in isolation, raising insulin levels and causing the excess to be stored as fat around the liver.
Similarly, more ‘natural’ sounding variants of cane sugar are often used as a marketing ruse to make a product look healthier on the label. It’s important to realise that brown sugar, cane sugar, Demerara sugar and molasses are all exactly the same thing – sugar!

More importantly, if you’re a sugar ‘addict’ the best thing you can do for your body is to wean yourself off sweet flavours, particularly if you have allergies or intolerances. Substitutions might help ease the process, but ultimately you need to break the association between a sweet taste and an energy fix which will keep you on the sugar rush and crash cycle and irritate your gut and immune system. Replacing refined sugar with a low-GI replacement is certainly a step in the right direction, but better yet is losing that sweet tooth for good.

More articles on sugars and sweeteners

First Publishd in October 2009

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