During the Christmas festivities, when British households are awash with cakes, desserts, biscuits, chocolates and dried fruits, any prospect of making a dent in our sugar consumption seems daunting.
However, anyone who cares about their health knows they have to face up to this challenge at some point, given the mounting scientific consensus that it is the prime culprit for obesity and associated illnesses. I began to consciously reduce sugar in my household about two years ago. We were off to a flying start, I thought, because we rarely have soft drinks, which are by far the easiest way to glug down lots of sugar without even noticing it.
Nevertheless, we were still managing to get through bags of the stuff one way or another. So I researched sugar alternatives on the market. Artificial ‘diet’ sweeteners, which range from 200 times to a staggering 37,000 times sweeter than sugar, were possible candidates.
However my tastebuds rebel against their intense sweetness, which – unlike real sugar – often leaves a tinny, bitter aftertaste. Also, the growing body of research that links artificial sweetener consumption to increased risk of type-2 diabetes and obesity only confirmed for me that they are no solution, and possibly counterproductive.
New-wave ‘natural’, plant-derived sugar alternatives, like stevia and agave, sounded attractive until I took a hard look at how they are made. In many cases, high-tech methods are used to manufacture a finished product that’s quite divorced from the plant in its natural, unprocessed form. So I scoured the shelves for sweet ingredients to use instead of white sugar: dates and date syrup, coconut and palm sugar (nectar), malted barley and rice syrups, maple syrup, grape molasses and honey. However, these are hugely more expensive than sugar, and swapping to syrups and honey does not reduce the ‘free’ sugars in your diet (the added sugars we’re recommended to cut down on).
My lightbulb moment came when I stopped searching for healthier sugar substitutes, and started retraining my palate to expect a less sugary taste. I began by reducing the quantity of sweet ingredients in any dish I made. If a recipe called for 250g sugar, I’d cut it down to 225g, then 200g and so on.
Quite quickly, many favourite recipes seemed unpalatably cloying – and surreptitiously sugary habits, like flavoured yogurt and tomato ketchup, appealed much less. My daughter’s boyfriend broke his three heaped teaspoons of sugar in coffee habit by replacing these initially with one teaspoon of coconut sugar. Progressively he used less until one day he neither needed nor wanted any sugar at all.
Believe me, if you’re prepared to give it a try, it’s amazing how quickly you can reprogram your palate to perceive a vastly reduced amount of sugar as quite sweet enough – and kids are no exception. December is probably the toughest month to start, but the New Year, with its healthy eating and resolutions, will soon be here…
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning food journalist who has written on the subject for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.
Kick your habit
Kerry Torrens, our nutritional therapist, advises:
- Avoid sweet soft drinks and dilute bought fruit juice with an increasing percentage of water. Encourage your family to drink water at meals.
- Eat fruit whole or blended, not juiced, to retain the fibre that slows down its impact on your blood sugar level.
- Replace sugar with ingredients like cinnamon, vanilla and ground almonds for a ‘sweet’ taste without the sugar content.
- For a sweet treat, dried fruit has the benefit of fibre (many of us don’t get enough), but stick to a handful a day, and combine with protein such as nuts to balance the sugar hit. If you want to cut down on sugar, take a look at our lower sugar recipes.
Have you every tried giving up sugar? Let us know your views in the comments below...