Paleo Introduction to sugar
It sneaks in everywhere, hiding behind a lot of different names and clever disguises. It creeps into tomato sauce, lurks in every salad dressing, and infiltrates otherwise-innocent canned soups. Even bacon isn’t safe! If you spend any time at all on the Paleo diet, you practically start to see sugar peering out from behind every corner, shrouded in a black trench coat and hatching nefarious schemes to trap you in its clutches.
Assigning personality to a food can itself be unhealthy, but in this case, the food doesn’t even deserve all its bad press. Of course, like any other food, sugar is unhealthy when eaten to excess, or when eaten in a processed, refined, and artificial form. Some people would do better to avoid it – just as some people would do better to avoid nightshades, dairy, or eggs. But in the context of a diet rich in nutrients, sugar – especially sugar from whole foods like fruit or dairy – is not the kiss of death.
What On Earth Is Sugar?
Any time you think “sugar,” probably you think “yum!” Because it’s so sweet, lots of kids like sugar and sugary foods. But what exactly is sugar, and where does it come from??
Sugars are organic compounds that occur naturally in most plants. The white granules of sugar that you’re probably used to seeing are a type of sugar compound known as “sucrose.”Most of the sugar we eat comes from sugarcane plants or sometimes sugar beets. Sugar is typically used to add sweetness to the foods it is in and it is the main ingredients in most types of candy.
When it comes to nutrition, it’s important to know that sugars are simple carbohydrates which do not contain the nutrients of more complex carbohydrates such as those found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Additionally, excess sugar is converted into fat by the body.
Sugar can also be a problem when it comes to your teeth: Sugars in the mouth which aren’t properly brushed or flossed away cause the natural bacteria in your mouth to produce acid, leading to a greater chance of getting cavities. – For these reasons, most nutrition experts recommend eating sugar in moderation.
White Sugar Substitutes: Other Natural Sweeteners
Since processed sugar is so much more harmful than natural sugar from whole foods, one common question about refined table sugar is whether other, more natural sweeteners are preferable. The idea of these foods as “sugar substitutes” is somewhat misleading, since common “sugar substitutes” like honey and maple syrup do also contain sugars.
We’ve chosen to refer to one type of sugar as “sugar” and another type as “honey,” but in the end they’re both biologically made up of sugars. All natural sweeteners contain some form of sugar, even if we call them by another name.
Nevertheless, some replacements for table sugar do have other advantages that are worth noting. Honey, for example, has several beneficial compounds (although the specific content will depend on the flowers available). Chemically, honey is approximately 40% glucose, 36% fructose, and 24% other sugars, although the exact proportions vary depending on what the bees ate.
While the high fructose content can cause trouble for some people with fructose malabsorption problems, the fructose in honey is accompanied by an equal amount of glucose, which makes it much easier to digest.
Furthermore, honey has the advantage of a long evolutionary history: humans have been going to incredible lengths to get it since we figured out how delicious it was. Several preindustrial peoplesconsumed a significant percentage of their daily calories from honey on a regular basis: one 10,000-year-old painting from Spain shows two men gathering honey from a beehive.
Raw honey (as opposed to pasteurized honey) is also a completely unprocessed food, while even other natural sweeteners like maple syrup and molasses require some processing.
If there’s any such thing as a “Paleo sweetener,” honey is probably it. But honey is far from the only naturally-occurring sweet substance. Maple syrup is relatively low in fructose (making it a good option for the fructose-intolerant), and contains manganese, potassium, iron, and calcium.
Molasses is essentially table sugar, but with nutrients: it contains minerals like iron, calcium, and magnesium that are stripped from table sugar when it’s refined and processed to get its white, powdery consistency.Coconut palm sugar is a relative newcomer, and not very common, but it contains higher amounts of magnesium, nitrogen, and Vitamin C than any other natural sweetener.
Agave Nectar is a health-food darling, best known for its very low glycemic index. In other words, it doesn’t cause as large of an insulin rush as other sweeteners. On the other hand, agave is also 90% fructose, which can cause serious problems for people who don’t digest fructose well.
It also contains saponins, one of the same toxins that make grains and legumes so harmful. Although the lack of an insulin spike is tempting, agave is definitely the worst of the “all-natural” group: avoid it when you can.
Thus, although all of these natural sweeteners contain approximately as much sugar as the table sugar, some of them do at least give you a significant amount of nutrients along with the calories. This makes them preferable to the refined, chemically processed table sugar that most of us think of as “sugar.”
Even though they aren’t healthy to consume to excess, honey, molasses, and maple syrup are superior to table sugar, and can make relatively harmless replacements in the occasional Paleo treat.