Free Press Journal

Stay sweet, without sugar


Other than salt, sugar is the only one major ingredient to have received a bad a rap. No wonder everyone is looking for a suitable alternative. Anupama Chandra attempts to help you in this trial 

If you could wish for any dish at all to appear in front of you right now, what would you wish for? At least 50 per cent of the time, the choices will include chocolates, cakes, brownies, candies, and mithais or similar sweet treats. Usually, it will be followed by a guilty smile and an “I have a sweet tooth” explanation as well.

The taste of India

Sweet is not only one of our primary taste profiles but, going by cultural trends of our country, the most popular one as well. If you pay a visit to any home in the country, they will offer you a steaming cup of milky and sugary tea, in the summers, you may also be given an option of a glass of either soft drink or nimbu paani or variations of the aam panna; if you go to a house in Bengal, they may even shove a plateful of sweets from the corner sweet shop under your nose. And every festival is compulsorily accompanied by its own set of laddoos and mithais. What culture condones, science vilifies.

To have one’s sugar vilified

Since the birth of the health industry, sugar has been under a scanner and studies have proven table (white) sugar to be almost 100 per cent carbohydrates, containing absolutely no protein, vitamin, dietary fiber or essential fat leading to the ’empty calories’ row. Brown sugar, along with the richer flavour, is said to contain about 15 per cent of iron. Excessive intake of sugar has been associated with the incidences of tooth and gum diseases, obesity and diabetes, hyperactivity, cardiovascular disease, and many more diseases. But since sugar is indispensable as a core ingredient for so many dishes, including packaged and bakery products, substitutes for sugar have become an imperative part of the food industry and our shopping lists as well.

“Chances are most of us are already eating too much sugar and we know it. We also know that it isn’t good for us but we cannot seem to stop it,” says Malavika, a self-confessed sweets-holic. She has about five cups of tea or coffee with sugar every day, not counting the countless sweets and chocolate slabs that disappear in her presence as well.

“India is the one of largest producers of sugar and one of its largest consumers as well,” Dr Prashant V. Satardekar, a practicing homeopath, points out. “While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has reduced the recommended daily sugar intake to less than 10 percent of total energy intake, as a nation, we do not know where to draw a line. We are aware and educated about the facts that excess consumption of sugar leads to increased incidence of cavities, insulin resistance, fatty liver and accumulation of overall body fat and abdominal fat, but we carry on. Worse, we think satiating our craving for sugar with artificial sweeteners is viable. Well, it is not.”

Most of us have seen saccharin, aspartame and sucralose being advertised as valid artificial sweeteners minus the calories. But they too are facing the flak because of their side effects such as mood disorders, migraines and impaired functioning of liver and kidney function. The direction of the search has changed again, this time to more natural alternatives.

Sweeter alternatives to the original

When munching on gurh and chana is my favourite winter snack, jaggery seems to have its fate interlinked with that of our country. It seems like it has been around forever as a companion to bajre ki roti and softly coating the insides of warm puran polis.

Sugar cane is pressed through machines and the juice is collected and let to stand in vats so that impurities separate from the juice by way of sedimentation. Then the clear juice is separated and boiled for hours until a thick paste is left behind, which is then left to solidify in moulds to form the familiar shapes of jaggery that you and I are used to. Raw sugar has a similar process till the process of evaporation. Following that, the solid mass is passed through strainers to get sugar crystals that produce light brown granules when dry. This is the most natural form of sugar you can lay your hands on. Brown sugar, on the other hand, is refined white sugar with molasses syrup mixed in before it is dried, and white sugar is the most processed form of sugar.

Dietician Kanchan Patwardhan agrees, “Raw and brown sugars are both very similar in their constitution, and ultimately are not more than unprocessed forms of the table/white sugar we consume. In that regard, jaggery is better. In fact, if you want to make a sattu ka sherbet, I would choose jaggery over the other three options.”

So, jaggery is better, right? “Well, I wish, it were that simple to decide the winner among these option,” she smiles. “Even in jaggery there is a better version, namely palm jaggery (think the black jaggery that your friends from Kerala swear by) that contains more minerals than our brown jaggery. So, that provides you more mineral for each spoonful. But all this is nothing but sucrose and glucose, so use of either has to be in moderation.”

Raw honey has been hailed a superfood and said to be packed with iron, antioxidants, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, and vitamin B6. Kanchan continues, “In natural choices, honey is the best but too much of it in your system can have its famous purgative effect.” Dr. Prashant continues, “ And then there is the rush of glucose. So, moderation is the key.”

So, artificial sweetners then, we ask both? “It’s a big no-no too for all artificial sugar substitutes. Not only are they not unnatural but they are loaded so many harmful ingredients that are just not advisable to consume,” both seem to agree.

There is also the leaves of the South American stevia rebaudiana plant that has been used for years to support healthy blood sugar levels and prompt weight loss. Stevia then, we consider? Kanchan takes the question, “Yes, Stevia is natural, but I am concerned about the unpleasantness in taste. And what all ingredients have gone into it after so much processing is anybody’s guess.  It is the same with Maple syrup; while I am quite fond of it, it is not natively mass produced in India and, hence, expensive, not easily available and loaded with preservatives or any such non-organic polishing ingredient has gone into it, making it not so natural after all.”

A myth?

So are there any REAL natural alternatives to sugar? Or are we propagating a myth? Dr Prashant smiles, “No, no myths here. Our answer is Fructose or sugar from the fruits. Fructose and fibre is one of our answers.” Kanchan continues,” When making fruit juices do not discard the pulp, use this slightly lumpy but flavoursome juice as it is; in summers, I make ice lollies by freezing this juice in ice trays and enjoying my own homemade ice lollies.”

She elaborates, “When making milkshakes, I skip sugar and jaggery and reach instead for black raisins. These add their own flavours and make a delicious shake.  Laddoos can be made using date or date syrup or even dry fruits. You lend not only an additional element of taste in this manner, but also get a booster dose of iron content in this manner. “

Wow, that’s quite a few answers to our question. But, remember Moderation is the key.