What’s the deal with… “refined sugar”?

A few years ago the word “refined” was only really heard when people on BBC 4 were discussing rich Victorian ladies, but now it seems to be synonymous with all that is wrong with the food industry… so is it?

The term “refined sugar” is used to describe bog-standard table sugar, the stuff that you are used to spooning into your coffee, pouring into cakes or sprinkling on your cereal. It is also now seen as an enemy of the people. Now this isn’t without warrant; too much sugar can cause weight gain both in places we can see, like around our thighs and tummies, as well as places we can’t, like around our horrible things. This is increasing our risk of getting heart disease, cancers, type 2 diabetes and other nasties. Sugar also ruins your teeth if you aren’t careful. We are only meant to be having 30g a day (assuming we are all over 11) but nearly all of us are eating too much of it.  

Now, it’s a good thing that people have started to shout about sugar, but the issue with the #refinedsugarfree movement is the perceived difference between the cheap, familiar white stuff and the astronomically more expensive, harder to find “substitutes” – honey, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, fruit syrup, date syrup, maple syrup (so many syrups), coconut sugar, palm sugar, brown sugar, I could go on… This holier-than-thou hashtag is plastered across recipes for everything from brownies to cakes to energy balls and porridge, all of which are JAM-PACKED with sugar. Yes, sugar.

The bottom line is, whichever one of these snazzy ‘substitutes’ you choose, you are still choosing sugar. And it’s fine if you know that. The problem comes when you think that any of these are less harmful due to being “less sugary” because that’s when you reach for the second brownie, put a third spoonful in your tea and eat that fourth slice of cake (trust me, I’ve been there). I should also stress that you are absolutely not to blame for believing this myth; everybody from chefs to bloggers to TV doctors have been telling us that in order to eat less sugar we should just eat different sugar. The truth is, however, that our bodies don’t care what packet the sugar came in.  

“Stop!” people will be shouting (very attractive people who store their oats in glass jars and are wearing Lululemon leggings probably), “not all sugars are created equal! Some are low GI! Some have vitamins and minerals! You are in cahoots with the food industry!” So let’s deal with those points.

1.     I am bitter about the oats and the expensive activewear, sorry

2.     It is true that not all sugars are created equal, but I promise you they aren’t really that different, and more importantly, they all count towards your daily allowance of ‘free sugar’ (that pesky 30g I talked about earlier)

3.     When we talk about GI we are talking about ‘glycaemic index’ which essentially describes the impact of a food on your blood sugar. It is a scale from 1 to 100, with 100 being the effect of pure glucose. For reference, table sugar sits at around 65 on this scale. Now, it is true that some ‘sugars’ do have a lower GI than others, but GI alone is not a good indicator of how ‘good for you’ something is. And, unless you are eating any of these sugars off a spoon (and please, don’t do that) then there are other factors effecting the GI of your food too; things like the protein content, how much fat it contains, whether it is high in fibre, and so on. Within this context, the GI of the sugar you use probably isn’t that important.

4.     Some of these ‘alternatives’ do have vitamins and minerals that run-of-the-mill sugar doesn’t have, but you know what? If you are eating so much honey that it is providing any discernable percentage of your daily vitamin and mineral intake, then you need to chill out on the honey. There is no nutrient in any of these sugars that you can’t get from everything else you are already eating.  

5.     If I really was in the pocket of the food industry, then I would not be waiting for payday to buy this super-cool David Bowie pin badge I have seen for £2.50 on Etsy. True story.

So what the hell do I do when I want a sweet treat? Well, I hate to rain on your parade but all those #refinedsugarfree recipes are still loaded up with sugar. The sad fact is that there aren’t really too many recipes for genuinely low-sugar goodies that actually taste super sugary. The real trick is to retrain our brains into accepting food that just isn’t that sweet, and at the same time viewing sweetness as a little something extra every now and again, as oppose to an integral part of our day. Get in the habit of feeding your sweet tooth with a piece of fruit or natural, unsweetened yoghurt and before long these will mostly do the job.

Of course there will no doubt be those days where anything but a sugar hit just won’t do, and in a healthy, balanced diet there is absolutely room for a cheeky biscuit here and there, or that chocolate bar you have been dreaming about since last Tuesday. The trouble comes when you are reaching for the sugar every day, without thinking. And that means all sugar. So if you like agave syrup and it’s the only thing motivating you to cook porridge at 6:30am, then by all means whack on a couple of teaspoons. But please note - it is still sugar.