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Sugar alternatives: What to use instead

Honey

How do you add flavour and sweetness to your cooking using less sugar?

According to NHS guidelines, added sugars should not make up more than 10% of the energy or calorie intake you obtain from food and drink everyday.

This is on average 70g for men and 50g for women.

So what are the alternatives to cooking with processed table sugar available?

Honey

Honey is a naturally sweet liquid made from the nectar of flowers and collected by honey bees.

It comprises 80% natural sugars, 18% water and 2% minerals, vitamins, pollen and protein.

In pictures: Make a honey mousse

Honey mousse with port jelly

Chef Peter Gorton shows you how

Follow the full recipe on BBC Food

Fructose and glucose make up 70% of honey's natural sugar content and the balance of the two determines whether the honey is cloudy or clear.

Honey is slightly higher in nutrients than processed table sugar but it still contains calories.

Whereas 100g of caster sugar provides 400kcals of energy and 100g of carbohydrates, the equivalent amount of pure clear honey provides on average, 330kcals of energy and 81g of carbohydrates.

Unlike table sugar, honey also has antibacterial properties and has been used as a natural remedy for over 5000 years.

When cooking, try replacing half the amount of sugar with honey, which can add sweetness and flavour to food and drink.

Honey is also ideal for baking cakes as it attracts water and keeps them moist for longer.

Agave nectar

Agave is a sweetener that comes from several species of the agave plant in Mexico and consists mostly of glucose and fructose.

The syrup is about 1.5 times sweeter than table sugar and has a similar consistency to honey.

It is often used as an alternative to sugar given it has a much lower glycemic index than that of sucrose.

Agave syrup: BBC Food Agave is commonly used as a vegan alternative to honey as it is made from a plant

For instance the ratio of fructose to glucose is roughly 70% fructose to 30% glucose, whereas sucrose is 50% fructose to 50% glucose.

But there is no evidence to suggest that refined agave syrups are inherently healthier than refined sugar as they can still contain the same number of calories per serving.

Xylitol

"Xyl" is the Greek for wood and Xylitol was first made from Finnish birch trees in the early 1900s.

It's naturally produced by most living things including trees, fruits, plants, animals and even people, xylitol being the alcohol form of xylose.

Six types of sugar:

Sugar

• Glucose: Simple sugar that can be carried in the blood. One half of sucrose or table sugar

• Fructose: Simple sugar that occurs naturally in fruit. The other half of sucrose

• Sucrose: Commonly known as table sugar it is refined and occurs naturally in sugar cane or beets

• Lactose: Milk sugar, which makes up just less than 5% of cow's milk

• Maltose: Two joined-up glucose molecules

High fructose corn syrup: Where half of the syrup's glucose has been converted into fructose. Chemically very similar to sucrose.

But it has recently taken off as a sweetener as xylitol has 40% fewer calories than sugar, 75% less carbohydrates and a low GI (of 7), and it also is thought to inhibit the bacteria in the mouth that causes tooth decay.

Dan Shrimpton, from gum and sweet manufacturers Peppersmith says xylitol awareness in the UK is poor compared to Scandinavia, where "everyone knows it and anyone can tell you how good it is".

His company uses it in mints, gum and children's sweets, which are have been certified by the British Dental Health Foundation.

"No-one else is doing it yet in the UK, one of our big missions is to educate people," he explains.

"It has a taste profile very similar to sugar, some sugar alternatives are quite hard to make, and the taste profile of some confectionery sugar alternatives can be a let down.

"In some parts of the world it's made from corn cobs but we prefer to get ours from trees, so it is naturally derived - beech trees are high in it so we spend more harvesting it from forests in Europe rather than reproducing it in a lab."

"There are books out on how to cook with it as people look to reduce sugar in their diet, for us it's a really good time to be producing products with it as an alternative to sugar."

Fruit

Fruit contains a simple sugar called fructose along with fibre, vitamins and minerals. To increase your intake of fibre, you could try replacing table sugar with pureed fruit to sweeten yoghurt and cakes like in a banana bread recipe.

Fruit peel is also full of antioxidants and can be grated into smoothies or used to tenderise meat.

Apples Try making muesli with chopped apples

David Gillespie, a corporate lawyer and author of Sweet Poison, explains that our bodies are not adapted to processing the fructose half of sugar.

"When you're eating an apple, you're also eating an awful lot of fibre and water.

"So if you were to take a small, say 200ml glass of apple juice, there's the juice of five large apples in that.

"Now most people can still have a small glass of juice like that and still have a meal, but most people can't eat five large apples and still have a meal."

The NHS recommends eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, each weighing 80g.

Dextrose

Manufactured from corn, dextrose is a form of glucose, a monosaccharide, or "simple" sugar.

The Oxford Dictionary of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology says dextrose is the traditional name used in pharmacy for d‐glucose "the dextrorotatory component of invert sugar".

Dextrose can be bought in liquid or powder form and is gaining in popularity as a sugar substitute as it is considered by some to be the "good" part of sugar, the glucose.

Some athletes use powdered dextrose after exercise to boost energy levels in muscle - as it will quickly raise blood glucose levels. It has a high glycemic index rating of 100.

Sweet seekers:

Lips covered in sugar

Other sweet foods can also quickly raise blood glucose levels, but they can contain sucrose, a combination of glucose and fructose. Fructose does not convert into glycogen in your muscles, hence why sportspeople like to use only dextrose.

David Gillespie advocates cutting back on fructose.

He has come up with a number of recipes which replace sugar with dextrose powder (pure glucose) such as in chocolate cupcakes.

"There are some calories to which we are very well-adapted - and others we aren't, like the fructose in sugar," he says.

David Gillespie says fruit is an insignificant source of fructose - it is the high levels of fructose in processed sugar - which is "half fructose and half glucose" that causes problems.

Stevia

Stevia is a natural sweetener made from the leaves of the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni), which is native to Paraguay, and mostly grown there and in Brazil.

Steviol glycosides are high intensity sweeteners, 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose, and comes in liquid or powder form.

It has no calories, contains no sugar or carbohydrates and boasts a glycemic index of 0, making it attractive to dieters.

Stevia Stevia comes from the stevia plant and has been added to Sprite lemonade by Coca-Cola

Until a few years ago, stevia was mainly known among industry insiders, but as such an attractive sweetener, it is a growth ingredient.

The EU law passed a law in 2011 allowing stevia to be used in food and drink, and between 2008-2012 there was a global 400% increase in stevia product launches, according to Mintel.

Most notably this year Coca-Cola has added stevia extract to its Sprite lemon-lime drink - cutting 30% of the calories previously from sugar.

"Europe is experiencing phenomenal growth and is now a key market driver for stevia. It accounted for a quarter (25%) of global new product launches containing stevia in 2012, up from just 4% in 2011," says David Turner, global food and drink analyst at Mintel.

"The number of new products coming to market in Europe is up, and interest seems high, but in some categories companies have struggled to turn that into real commercial success.

"However, that may be about to change. In the UK for example we are seeing strong sales for products that use stevia in combination with sugar to provide great tasting, low calorie food and drink."

So what is it being added to? Mostly non-alcoholic beverages - which were 31% of the global products launched in 2012.

Mintel says 26% of new stevia products were snacks, 13% natural table-top sweeteners and 7% were dairy products.

Coconut palm sugar

Produced from the sap of the coconut palm's flower buds, coconut palm sugar has a glycaemic index rating of 35, much lower than refined sugar.

It has also been found to contain amino acids, potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron and B vitamins.

"Honestly Healthy" chef Natasha Corrett and "Guilt-Free Gourmet" chef Jordan Bourke like to use coconut palm sugar as a substitute for refined sugars in their baking.

"Anything that comes from nature doesn't quite affect your blood sugars in the same way," says Jordan Bourke.

"Coconut palm sugar's higher in b minerals and it's great in sweet baking whatever it is, and by using it, it's not quite as bad for you."

It can be used in the same ration as refined table sugar in recipes.

Listen to the sugar debate on Radio 4's Food Programme.

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