Sugar and sweetened food can uplift mood in just no time. It can also refuel energy to keep going. But as you know, too much of everything is bad for health. Sugar is naturally present in all the foods that we eat, and consuming sugar through whole foods is healthy; the problem is refined or added sugars. As our consumption of processed foods is increasing, we are adding more sugar to our daily diets. The last few decades have shown an increase in sugar consumption of up to three times. Excessive intake of sugar is well documented in increased obesity, detrimental to heart health, and increased inflammation in the body. In recent times there has been an upsurge of interest in alternative sugars in the hope that they will not impact health as refined sugar.
The demand for healthier alternatives has driven the discovery of natural sources. Sugars from natural sources or unrefined sugars are said to be healthier because they contain bioactive compounds, minerals, fibre, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, all of which are positively related to improving health. Research suggests that refined sugars lose their flavonoid and phenol compounds thereby not being as healthy as natural sugars. Of late there has been a buzz around coconut sugar and palm sugar.
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It is made from the sap of coconut trees. It is produced in the Asian countries. It looks like brown sugar and has a caramel taste. Coconut sugar is 100% carbs, it contains 75% sugar, potassium, sodium, iron, zinc, and calcium, according to research from the Philippines government's Food and Nutrition Research Institute. It contains trace amounts of phytonutrients andantioxidants, such as polyphenols, flavonoids, and anthocyanidin. Its Glycemic index is lower than table sugar, and it contains a fibre Inulin
It is made from sap present in the flower buds of the coconut palm tree. It is 91% sugar; Niacin was the most abundant among the water-soluble vitamins. Potassium and iron have the highest concentration among macro and micro elements respectively. It contains small amounts of phytonutrients such as polyphenols, flavonoids, and anthocyanidin; andantioxidants. It also contains inulin.
Role Of Inulin:
Going by the nutritional profiles of both these sources of natural sugars, they are definitely bringing more to the table as compared to refined table sugar. The point of interest is Inulin, a fermentable fibre that adds greatly to the health of gut microbiota. It is a pre-biotic, a type of carbohydrate that's not digested in your body but is food for the good bugs in the gut. Inulin improves gut mobility, it is a soluble fibre that absorbs water hence leading to early satiety, it also improves immunity, enhances gut health, helps in better sugar control, may help reduce cholesterol, and also protects against certain cancers. A healthy gut is also directly linked to better mental health, studies have connected a healthy gut to reduced stress, anxiety and depression.
Practical Implications And Considerations:
Increased refined sugar consumption through drinks, bakery products, juices, etc. has increased over the last few decades. Research has highlighted the detrimental effect of high sugar intake on human health. With growing awareness, we are looking for healthier options. Coconut and palm sugars are definitely healthier but both are 85-90% sugar, which means they are sugar still. Their health quotient is related to the mineral, vitamin, and antioxidant compounds present, but these are in very small quantities. Inulin is present and has health benefits, but it is also present in fruits, whole grains, garlic, onion, and others, these are whole foods that that add a lot of nutrition and health and very little sugars.
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While natural sugars are better than refined sugar, we need to limit them. They are not free food, the nutrients, lower GI, and inulin all are good but when you consume the WHO-advised 5-10 teaspoons of added sugar/ 2000Kcal/ day diet, the nutritional advantage does not really outweigh the intake of sugar. Be as wary of total intake as you would be for normal refined sugar
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About Rupali DattaRupali Datta is a Clinical Nutritionist and has worked in leading corporate hospitals. She has created and lead teams of professionals to deliver clinical solutions for patients across all medical specialties including critical care. She is a member of the Indian Dietetic Association and Indian Association of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition.