Can low-sugar treats ever compete with the real thing?
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I’m standing in front of a supermarket freezer wondering which ice cream to pick: regular or low-sugar. I know too much sugar isn’t good for me, so low-sugar ice cream seems like a good way to limit my sugar intake without losing my treat. But how does it taste? After sampling lower-calorie salted-caramel ice creams by Jude’s (455 cals per tub), Oppo (356 cals) and Halo Top (320 cals), I can report the creaminess becomes respectively more fleeting and less satisfying, with Halo Top actually the sweetest and most cloying. By contrast, Jude’s regular version (whole milk, double cream, 621 cals) is richer, fuller and rolls about my mouth luxuriously, rather than dissolving in an instant. I get the full hit of sugar, but I eat less of it overall.
Low-sugar and sugar-free products are what we might call “loophole” foods. They allow us to consume more of certain products (ice cream, biscuits, fizzy drinks) without feeling like we’re breaking too many rules. Naturally occurring sugars, of course, exist in lots of food (including fruit, vegetables and milk-based products). The problem tends to be the refined (or “free”) sugars in processed foods. “Two-thirds of our shopping baskets in the UK are made up with processed foods,” says London-based nutritionist Sarah Ann Macklin. “We’re overconsuming free sugars and becoming customised to more sugar.”
Low- or no-sugar products replace sugar with artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame), novel sweeteners (like stevia) or sugar alcohols (such as xylitol). These are low or no calorie and reduce blood sugar spikes. The challenge is not overconsuming. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to gut and mental-health issues, while sweeteners may trigger hunger cravings and can be addictive. “Don’t drink diet colas if you’re on a diet,” urges Macklin. “You’ll feel hungrier.”
Scientists continue to innovate: Incredo is an extra-sweet sucrose-silica substitute, which allows 30 to 50 per cent less sugar to be used without losing sweetness. And Michelin-starred Thomas Keller of The French Laundry recently showcased Supplant – a sweetener derived from plant fibres – in chocolate that he stated was as delicious as any made in his restaurant.
For home cooks, Tom Kerridge’s The Dopamine Diet is a guide to using substitutes like erythritol and inulin in recipes such as almond soda bread, flaxseed biscuits and crème brûlée. “Inulin is the only sugar substitute that caramelises and sets like sugar,” he notes.
To minimise weight gain, though, we need to think beyond sugar substitutes and calories to the quality of our food. Artificial ingredients (a mainstay of low-sugar foods) may be lower in calories but they slow our metabolism and can make us hungrier. Better to opt for foods with ingredients we recognise instead of countless E-numbers. “For people who want ice cream or cake, I always say there’s room in your diet,” says Macklin. “It only becomes an issue when they have too much.”