Monday, 19 November 2012

So where to from here? Making a plan.

The time has come. No more thinking, it's time for action. We need to start eating less sugar and we need to figure out how we're going to do it. Below I have outlined all kinds of things to think through and made some suggestions as to how you might decrease your sugar intake. I'd like you to have read, make a plan, and tell us about it in the comments section below. It might be really simple, it might be just one thing, it might be complex, it might be easy to achieve or hard to achieve. But make it concrete and put it in to words. And it'll start this week. Buy what you need to, banish what you need to, and let's all be doing something different by the weekend.

Total eradication (of processed sugars)

If you intend to no longer eat sugar and don't wish to use sugar alternatives, it is fairly simple in theory (though may or may not be harder when it comes to willpower). I would suggest cutting out the obvious foods first; cakes, biscuits, puddings and sugary drinks. Meanwhile you would need to look at how to avoid the hidden sugar in other foods (see below) which will be a lot more challenging. You would need to take care with this, ensuring that you are still consuming a healthy balanced diet. If you feel a need to cut sugar entirely from your diet I would strongly urge you to seek professional advice first, particularly as you don't want to be depriving yourself of other necessary foods as you seek to avoid sugar.

Sugar alternatives (particularly for baking)

I have researched and experimented with a number of options, and found a variety that I am pretty happy with. Using a variety of options strikes me as a sensible, balanced approach. If you intend to make significant changes to your sugar usage, I'd encourage you to continue the research yourself. Here are my top favourites and my understanding of them:

Glucose - sugar is made up of 50% glucose, which is a vital part of life; all living organisms require it to survive. It's the good part of sugar, our bodies process it well and only a very small portion of it gets turned in to fat. Glucose can be purchased as a powder (and as a liquid) so is an easy substitute for sugar, and it is very reasonably priced. It generally behaves like sugar in baking, but is less sweet. Glucose has a very high GI and is marketed towards sports people for its energy giving qualities. This perhaps highlights the inappropriateness of hoeing in to a bowl of chocolate pudding at 8 o'clock at night just before bedtime, but this is the case with a glucose-made pudding or a sugar-made pudding. It seems many of us tend to do just do it anyway. Glucose is also known as dextrose and is generally found in the supermarket.

Xylitol - a naturally occurring sugar extracted from plant materials (it is not an artificial sweetener despite its name sounding like one). It has 2/3 the calories of sugar and is low GI. Much sweeter than sugar, so less can be used. Actively good for your teeth. Expensive and only found in specialty stores. Apart from the cost, xylitol seems too good to be true, and I keep waiting to hear some bad news. But so far everywhere I turn it has a good report. This seems like a great option to combine with glucose in some recipes where you want that extra bit of sweetness (particularly if you are keen to make the much cheaper glucose your main player). Too much xylitol will cause gas and have a laxative effect. If you are interested in xylitol and want to know more, may I suggest a gaze around google (though I'm happy to receive questions, I can't guarantee I'll know the answers). This is a really exciting option. Don't be put off by the fact that you have to pop in to a different store to pick it up.

Sweet Freedom - A syrup made 100% from natural fruit extracts (apples, grapes and carob). Has 25% fewer calories than sugar, plus you can use less as it is very sweet. Contains 24% fructose, as opposed to the 50% in sugar. So a great improvement and relevant alternative. I haven't tried it in many things yet, but suggest using in place of honey, golden syrup, maple syrup and possibly condensed milk. Use on pancakes and french toast, on porridge, when baking homemade muesli, instead of honey on toast... in fact it seems you can't do breakfast without it. Use in baking when you need to stick things together. I have struggled to get my head around using a liquid as a replacement for dry sugar, and our lovely reader Alex has had a go with not ideal results, despite an ability to understand complex mathematical equations and a strong willpower to make it work. So far I have only found it in the UK and ordered it online. Which is not hard. Easier than going to the supermarket actually.

See my Sugar Alternatives page for more details on costs and purchasing (and possibly mention of other alternatives you may be wondering about).

(I am hoping Stevia will make it to my list of top favourites. Despite some apparent controversy I am hearing many good things. I'll let you know. I've also started seeing some interesting info on molasses and palm sugar. I'll update ASAP. If you have any knowledge on these, do pass it on)

Hidden sugar (reading the packets)

We've talked a whole lot about baking so far, but sugar lurks in all kinds of surprising foods, particularly packets and tins that we pick up at the supermarket. I am yet to learn how significant this it. Though it is listed as an ingredient in many, many items, it's hard to know how much there is, and how much it matters. Perhaps converting the figures on the backs of packets in to amounts that we understand will help us to learn. Sugar can be found in your baked beans, tomato sauce, and in fact many sauces, crackers, chips (crisps), pesto, soups, flavour packets of all kinds, tinned fruit (look for natural juice), tinned veges. It could be in your pre-marinaded meat. It's in cereal, of course. And most obviously, fruit flavoured yoghurts that people love to give their kids is packed with sugar (that's not hidden at all actually!).

I'm interested in doing further posts looking at just how much sugar we get though these means, and whether it is worth making changes to what we buy (homemade crackers, anyone?). For now, you may or may not choose to make changes here, depending on how much of this hidden sugar food you use. But do be aware of it at least, without becoming paranoid. And without cutting everything out of your diet to avoid all mention of sugar. I'd love your help on researching what products sugar is in and at what levels.

It may be that you would prefer to not eat soup and crackers with sugar in them so that you can happily enjoy a big slab of sugary cake instead, but I'm not sure the amounts are very equivalent, and anyway I've just given you some great options above for making cake without sugar.

Savoury snacks

We have spent alot of time looking at how we can get what we really want without feeling bad (or unhealthy) about it. How 21st century is that? Perhaps it's time we also looked at the option of actually eating less sweet stuff and getting some other seriously healthy things in to our bodies instead. Or if not seriously healthy, at least not sweet! We shouldn't expect to have what we want all the time. I am planning to do a post soon asking you for ideas for savoury snacks (not yet please!) and I encourage you to really start thinking about what you (and you children) can have between meals or after meals when you are likely to have reached for something sugary sweet.

I have had a couple of phases over the years where I have cut out all sugary snacks for a period of time. I have found the key to success has been finding enjoyable, satisfying, tasty alternatives. Let's think of some. Lots.

Cafes, parties and eating out

My only suggestion here is to make a plan. If you like to eat out and don't want to miss out on the treats, decide what your limit is. Have a look at what non-sugary options there are (not many in cafes, I find, unless you're actually having lunch). You might decide that one cafe visit per week with a chai and a friand (my current cafe weaknesses) is ok, but any more than that will see you with a cheese scone and a cup of tea.When I go out for dinner I couldn't possibly pass up an opportunity to order off the dessert menu, but I don't go out anymore so it's not a problem. If eating out and dessert menus are a regular part of your life just factor them in.

When I mention parties I confess I was thinking of children's birthday parties! Just take care not to waste too much of your sugar allowance accidently eating too much fairy bread and sticky popcorn, unless that's your top priority at the expense of other things of course. On the other hand, you may know some parents who do amazing party food that you wouldn't want to miss, so you can skip the chai and friand that week.

Don't waste your allowance (aka. cut the crap)

If you want to reduce your sugar intake I suggest you avoid eating sugary rubbish that's actually not that enjoyable, and save your sugar allowance for treats that are really good. For me, packet biscuits, supermarket baking, and pretty much all the food at a couple of cafes I occasionally accidently frequent are a complete waste of time. Decide what's a waste of time for you and leave it alone.

Contingency plan (for when you blow it)

If you have serious plans to eat less sugar but find yourself scoffing half a packet of chocolate one night, you can still put the other half away and begin again tomorrow (on the serious plans I mean, not the chocolate). If you head to a cafe planning for a cup of earl grey but find yourself desperately ordering a gigantic hot chocolate, you can still say "hold the marshmallows" and walk past the slices. Keeping some semblance of control will help you next time, and will still keep your sugar intake less than it might have been.

So, how are you going to tackle this?


  1. I am going to prioritise xylitol, Sweet Freedom and glucose in my budget so that they are always in my pantry, and will use them in all of my regular baking. I'm going to limit myself to 3 sugar-based drinks OR slices/muffins (eg chais and friands, or offerings at friends' houses) per week. I'm going to see if I can come up with a no-sugar lemon based drink to have with my breakfast. And I'm going to work on finding healthy snacks so that I don't eat all my sugar-alternative baking within 2 days. I'll start on Saturday.

  2. My plan and what I have been doing for a while now is to prioritise fruit when shopping, so that there is enough to go with plain cereals/porridge/yoghurt for breakfasts and snacks. I have found that cinnamon with fruit on top of porridge is just as good as brown sugar - it took a week or so for me to prefer this combination over sugar. I try to choose recipes with low proportions of sugar which use nuts/veges/fruits/coconut to make them amazing rather than chocolate/sugar. I'll have a look for the glucose and xylitol in the supermarket here (in Japan) - there is a chewing gum here which I love called xylish, it is sugarless and the active ingredient is xylitol. It will be interesting to see if they sell the raw products - I have definitely seen both in ingredient lists.

    1. It sounds like you are way ahead of us Haidee! You'll have to keep sharing your ideas. Yes I expect there is xylitol on Japan, do let us know if you get hold of any.

    2. Not at all, and I keep forgetting to check the supermarket for these special ingredients...yesterday made banana, walnut and prune muffins (very yummy) - only put in 3/4 cup of sugar and 2 bananas + added walnuts and quartered prunes...
      You could try making this with sugar alternatives = )

  3. I was all set to follow your fine example and turn to glucose for my baking requirements. Having just finished a bag of caster sugar (my default choice) I went to the supermarket today to stock up... Unfortunately, although I could have purchased a whole bag of "fruit sugar" (sold with the tagline '100% fructose', or similar) I couldn't find any glucose. At all. There were some Stevia based products, but from the quantities and packet sizes they were clearly just intended for use in hot drinks, not baking. I have since checked three other supermarkets online, and none of them stock it either...
    Any UK-based readers got any ideas/advice on where to get hold of glucose? Or do I have to make a new plan?!

    1. Oh no, how disappointing to have such good plans scuppered! I'm surprised it's so hard to find. I did a bit of a google search which suggested Sainsbury's had it - or at least they did at some point! Can you ring your local supermarkets to ask them in person? Otherwise you could buy online. And then there is the xylitol option, again you could try online. I remember "Fresh n Wild" stores in London, are there any near you? They would be worth a visit.

    2. Thanks for that! All I found online at Sainsbury's were tiny tubes of liquid glycerol (one of which I already had in my cupboard, because I read somewhere it would help me make a suitably snowy top to my Christmas cake... not even thinking about the amount of sugar involved in Christmas baking yet!) But I'll keep looking. Otherwise, I'm going to try to return to the days when baking/pudding (and alcohol) were weekend treats, rather than letting them slip into our every day life. I keep saying this to myself, but hopefully now I've written it somewhere public I might stick to it! We've already successfully reduced our toddlers' appple juice consumption by making it a breakfast drink only (and sometimes at evening meal if they've had a cup of water first). Met with resistance at first, but they've been surprisingly cooperative so far.

  4. I've stopped putting sugar on my cereal and will no longer buy orange juice. That's all I can manage at the moment.
    The idea that sugar is basically a toxin has also meant that I haven't gone nuts around cake/chocolate at staff morning teas this week (I sually have *quite* a few helpings). I didn't intend to use restraint around cake/chocolate - I just can't make myself do it. I'm not sure how long this will last.
    I did try to find some sugar alternatives at Moore Wilson's last week but didn't end up buying anything as I was a bit confused and the few options there were quite expensive. I think I might order some Sweet Freedom online though.
    Thanks, Angela, for caring about us all to share your research.

    1. Sounds like a great start Kristen. And not going nuts, either intentionally or unintentionally, is a good step. Although you are right, the question is how to make it last. Perhaps you will be OK if The Cook's Sponge reminds you every now and then? Yes there are so many options, and what frustrates me is that many are marketed as better for you when actually they are not. Do ask here if there is anything you are wondering about. But a good place to start if you want something in your pantry for baking is to pick up some glucose/dextrose at your supermarket. I'll ask you in a while how the Sweet Frredom is going too.

  5. Hi Angela,

    Thank you for all this info. Can't wait to read what you have to say on Stevia as that's the only alternative I'm using for myself at the moment.

    For the family, I'm going to bin caster sugar and golden syrup tomorrow after I've bought some glucose. I got some xylitol to use in hot drinks.

    I will aslo, at some point, order some Sweet Freedom to use in home made muesli bars etc.

    My husband's reaction to me saying I was going to bin sugar: "what? no you can't. It's less expensive, bla bla bla." I'm going to ignore him - I'm sure he's just addicted to the stuff ha ha ha.


    1. Ha ha, yes, if only expense wasn't part of the equation! This sounds great, I'm keen to hear how you get on with it all. I'd love to know what you think of your glucose based baking. And xylitol in hot drinks? I think it would alter the taste somewhat, do let me know as I'm not a hot-drinker. I think Sweet Freedom would be perfect for muesli bars, I've made these quite regularly for my son and have usually used honey and a little sugar. I do find they require a lot of honey though, and am anxious about the cost of pouring half a bottle of SW in to muesli bars! I've yet to work this one out (other than to become rich).

  6. Angela, have you tried water kefir? Also known as kefir soda. It is a probiotic grain that you use to brew a simple drink, it kind of ends up like a less sweet ginger beer I guess, although you can do any flavours. I make some every day, and love it, if you let it ferment for 48 hours, which is recommended, less than 20% of the sugar is left (around 1.7% concentration, eg every 100ml would have 1.7 g of sugar) but I usually leave it longer so it would have less. I'm sure you could make it with dextrose too.
    Each time you make it the grains double, so if you (or anyone else) wants some, I've got heaps to share.

    1. Sorry, that was a rushed comment - I was well past my self imposed 8pm technology cut off!
      I mentioned the water kefir since it might be a good drink for you in the mornings, if you want something lemon flavoured, you just put slices of lemon in when you ferment it. I'd definitely recommend it!
      Also, I just saw a formula for converting from sugar to dextrose in baking if you want it to remain as sweet: divide the amount of sugar by 0.7 and add that much dextrose. Eg if you require 1 cup of sugar (220g) you would use 314g of dextrose.
      I don't eat a lot of sugar, particularly when I'm out. I guess one of the good things about being wheat and dairy free is that there are rarely sweet treats I can eat in cafes! If we're visiting, I sometimes bring something sweet I can eat. If I have a sweet craving at home, I might make some custard or a baked apple with dates and brown sugar. Could easily do those with dextrose, and they are low sugar anyway.
      One of the things I'm consciously doing though, is trying to train Lachie (18months) not to have a sweet tooth. Dried fruit would be the sweetest thing he gets, and I try to only give him that a couple of times a week. I give him sour things like pickles and sauerkraut, and I make my own coconut yoghurt that I mix with frozen berries for him. He loves it, I also like it, his dad thinks it tastes like vinegar! For a sweet treat he gets slices of frozen over-ripe banana, or some dried fruit, or date/nut balls.
      So far, although it's early days, this seems to be working. He loves sour/salty snacks, and when he is given baking (usually at playcentre) he will take a bite and then discard it - sometimes spitting it out. I also try not to give him a lot of starchy carbs either, although we may need to work on this; the other day he devoured an entire bowl of fries at a cafe!
      I'd love to hear what others are doing with small children.

    2. Hi Frank, this is great, so much to talk about! Yes I learnt about kefirs a while ago, and was very interested but found it too much to take on at once, as we learnt all kinds of things in one day. I didn't prioritise the kefir as I only drink water ... well.. apart from that sneaky little breakfast drink I realise! So yes it would be a good option and I'd love to try it as long as I can get my foggy brain around it properly.

      My 3 year old son isn't in to baking and very rarely has sugary stuff. I don't let them have a drop of sugar until they have turned one, and then relax a little, but Reuben has never become interested. Sometimes he will surprise me though, and have something sweet, and he does like lollies and would eat plenty if he could. So I don't have many plans of attack for children, but would also be interested in hearing from others. I also have a 13 month old who could well be a sugar fiend, I mustn't expect her to be as easy as Reuben!

    3. Frank, you are such a domestic goddess! Coconut yoghurt, water kefir...

      Just joining in to talk about sugar and babies - so helpful to hear what you two have to say.

      We're very keen, like you, Frank, to give SBJ the gift of not having a sweet tooth. A friend's sister appeared to succeed with one of her children when she avoided all added sugar till 2 years old, but I haven't seen any kind of research or guidelines on how one approaches things.

      I basically give SBJ no food that isn't fantastic for him. It's easier to do that than it sounds given our fairly full-on food-allergy-avoidance regime, which means hardly any processed food (and therefore no hidden sugars). The only sweet taste he gets is from fresh fruit - so of course that might give him the sweet tooth bug, but you gotta have fruit.

      I don't really intend for him to ever drink juice or eat jam or honey, and there isn't much baking in our house. My drug of choice is dark chocolate (mint or orange from Trade Aid - mmmm), and he ain't getting any of it! We drink a lot of smoothies (preserving the fibre, A!), which he'll be able to have soon (soy goes on the menu when he turns one).

      I haven't really got my head around more than that (like parties, and other people's houses) because he won't be allowed to accept food from anyone but us for quite some time, allergy-wise.

      That's a lot of blahing on and saying very little - sorry! Just wanted to be in the conversation! (Bloody extraverts, eh?)

    4. Interesting stuff... It's funny, but I've always been far more conscientious about avoiding salt in their diet than sugar. I've all but stopped adding salt to my cooking, and tend not to buy processed foods often so can avoid a lot of salt that way. Sweet-wise, they both eat fruit, although fewer raisins these days than they used to. They both eat my baking, big brother with more enthusiasm than little sister. We don't buy them sweets or lollies - they are generally a bit bemused by them when they encounter them at birthday parties. Sometimes they'll get some chocolate as a treat, though. As discussed above we're cutting down on fruit juice now.
      For reference, they're 4 and a bit and 2 and a bit, and both do plenty of running around, have good teeth and seem happy and healthy, so I'm trying not to worry too much about it all.

    5. Frank - I mean to say thanks for the glucose formula, I'll give it a go. That's much better than guessing.
      Is the coconut yoghurt a kefir? I've been hearing a bit about a coconut

      Yes don't worry Alex! Having knowledge, thinking through what we're doing, and being intentional is a great place to be in.

    6. Alex, quite right - you have gorgeous, healthy, happy children and you are a Brilliant and Amazing mother, so all is clearly well.

      SBJ is getting some awesome genes from his ancestors, but among them is the (very helpful in the ice age or a famine) tendency to be, shall we say, very efficient with energy storage. So I'm particularly conscious, in a way I wouldn't be with different genetic heritage, that deeply-ingrained, emotionally-healthy, good-food eating habits are something I can help him with. I think about it a lot, and actually much more about the emotional, social stuff, but the discussion here is more about the menu at the moment, so there's my manifesto.

      Quite right, Frank :) I can't really imagine him being more than, say, three, so that's as far as my 'ever' went!

  7. Kefir is great! And super easy, it takes me about 30 seconds to make then I just get it out in a few days. I think coconut kefir is made with water kefir grains in coconut water. I haven't tried that myself, I use coconut cream instead.
    You can make coconut yoghurt a few ways I've tried milk kefir grains, caspian sea starter and probiotic capsules. They are all pretty similar, although it's a good test to see if your probiotics are active!
    Thalia, coconut yoghurt would be great in smoothies instead of soy... (BTW I love the image of you not intending him ever to have juice... Can just see you as an 80 year old, taking his glass of OJ off him!)

    1. Looks like Frank and Angela will be Head of Kefirs in my life.

      Can I be head of something else and you guys just sort it out for me? :)

    2. Sure! I'll make you kefir every day if you can be my head of housework. Deal?

    3. further negotiation required... i was thinking more like parallel parking or something?

  8. Hi Angela,

    I tried the xylitol in hot drinks and really can't taste any difference in taste compared to sugar! And the family have been using it too and they agree. So yay for that!

    Haven't done any baking yet with glucose. I'll keep you posted. I'm not baking much these days as I'm not allowed to eat it! But I'm planning on making a carrot cake this weekend and I'll put glucose instead of sugar.


    1. Great, do let us know how it goes! That's good news about the hot drinks too.


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