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Dark Sugar… are things as wholesome as they seem?

It’s now easier than ever to get your hands on a recipe for a healthy meringue, low carb brownie, or superfood Victoria sponge. However when you start digging a little deeper into the world of healthy eating and baking… are things as wholesome as they seem?

The definition of what constitutes a ‘healthy diet’ seems to be constantly in a state of flux. One minute, eggs are deemed to be deadly little balls of cholesterol, the next they are lauded as a miracle food, filled with good fats and wonderful vitamins. The same has happened with fat, which has gone from being the pariah of the food world, to a mainstay in popular paleo and low carbohydrate diets. The move to categorise foods into good and bad has also led to the idea that some foods are ‘clean’ and therefore worthy, while others are ‘dirty’ and less worthy. The psychological effects of this kind are discourse is probably the subject of another article entirely, but needless to say that such categorisation has caused a schism when it comes to baking.

On one hand, we have recipes which are indulgently full of butter, sugar and cream. Such recipes often include the kind of ingredients which are found in traditional baked goods and result in mouth-wateringly delicious creations. Often such bakes are created for special events, such as celebrations or birthdays, and represent a real treat, something out of the ordinary.

On the other side of the coin there are the ‘healthy’ recipes, so called because they supposedly use less sugar, less fat or replace certain ingredients with vegetables, fruit or perhaps some other form of superfood (a term which is also problematic). Often these recipes are promoted as a method to replacing treats in your diet, such as the aforementioned celebration cake, with a ‘healthier’ alternative. But what does healthier actually mean?

The government is schizophrenic whenit comes to nutritional guidelines, issuing contradictory information every few years. However there is one area upon which there is almost unanimous agreement; that too much sugar is bad for you. Research undertaken by the universities of Reading and Cambridge in 2015 found a direct link between elevated sugar consumption and obesity. Links have also been made between sugar consumption and type two diabetes, kidney disease and even cardiovascular disease.

Reducing your sugar intake therefore seems a very healthy thing to do. NHS guidelines on sugar state that “The government recommends that free or added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day.

That’s a maximum of 30g of added sugar a day for adults, which is roughly seven sugar cubes.” During our research, we came across a number of sources which recommend even lower levels, with many arguing for a 21g daily limit. You would therefore reasonably expect that any food or recipe marketed as ‘healthy’ would take into account the increasing concerns surrounding sugar.

Now upon reviewing ‘healthy’ baking recipes from well-known health bloggers, while there is no mention of ordinary refined sugar, many seemed to be using ingredients such as maple syrup, coconut sugar, agave nectar, honey and dates. All of which contain sucrose, glucose and fructose. All of which are forms of sugar. In fact, when you tot up the amounts in certain recipes, the grams of sugar per portion are comparable to the amounts found in ‘normal’ cake recipes. There is also the added fact that many of these ingredients are quite expensive and beyond the budget of those on lower incomes.

Now debate is ongoing over whether natural sugars are metabolised differently to refined sugars, however there is little doubt that eating too much natural sugar along with added sugar is bad for you.

Some of the concern with recipes which use unprocessed sugar forms comes from the possibility that people will not factor
in these natural sugars into their daily allowance and will simply assume that what they are making is free from some of the problems associated with the use of cane sugar in more traditional forms of baking.

There are other benefits from using whole foods and unrefined sugars, such as added nutrients, vitamins and fibre. Dates are a great example of this, as they are an excellent way to add fibre to a recipe; however they still contain roughly 63g of sugar per 100g.

Now we have brought to light that there may well be hidden sugars in seemingly ‘healthy’ recipes, we certainly don’t want to stop you making them. There are some great twists on the classics out there and it’s actually well worth trying out different forms of sugar to see how they affect your baking. Dates are particularly interesting as they affect both the taste and texture of food. Coconut sugar is another variant which adds its own unique taste and is now increasingly found on supermarket shelves.

The fact is that too much of anything is bad for you, especially when you are consuming large proportions of your recommended daily sugar intake without even realising it!

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