To use sugar or not to use sugar.. That is the question!

The sugar debate rages on with some commentators expounding that all sugar is bad for you and others saying in moderation it is good, down to others who prove the case for everyone needing some sugar in their system. Here at The Cake Nest we are following the debate carefully and with great interest. We use some sugar in our cake recipes and are always looking at alternatives to use instead of sugar, so what are those alternatives and what do they really contain.
The latest to be promoted is stevia which is commonly known as sweet leaf or sugar leaf, stevia rebaudiana is a widely grown plant, which belongs to the sunflower family, native to Central and South America.Studies have shown it to be asafe andnatural, calorie-free sugar substitute and it is commonly used to sweeten a number of foods and beverages. The compound responsible for the plant’ sweetness is a glycocide found in the plant’s leaves. Steviol glycocides are said to be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
The leaves are dried to form a powder, which can be used in baking – two tablespoons of stevia powder is the same as one cup of sugar. It is important to note, however, that stevia does not caramelize if you are looking for that function in your baking and it also has a bitter aftertaste, which is no good for our products!! Because of the aftertaste, commercial producers often blend it with other sugars and artificial sweeteners to improve the taste, and if that is dextrose, maltodextrin or sucrose, then it is capable of raising the blood glucose levels unlike raw Stevia!
So how sugar free is the stevia on the supermarket shelf? Well we found during our research that you really do need to look carefully at the labels!! Also some of the products we found had bulking agents in them. The extraction and processing methods can also change the properties of the whole leaf into something quite different so some of the products are not always as healthy as some of their natural’ labels would lead you to believe.
In the sense that purestevia doesn’t add calories, affect blood sugar or insulin levels, or contribute to tooth decay, it is a better choice than sugar, however it is rarely just stevia’ that you are purchasing.
The next substitute we have researched is Agave. Agave is derived from the sap of the agave plant (a type of cactus native to Mexico)agave nectar is a sweet brown liquid. It can be used as an alternative to sugar, honey or maple syrup. After the juice is extracted from the plant it is filtered, heated and concentrated into syrup. Its taste resembles molasses and as a rule,the darker the colour, the richer the taste. Agave nectar is about one and a half times sweeter than sugar.
Is agave considered better than sugar? Well once again the jury is out and there are two sides to the debate. On the one side it will have less impact on blood sugar, but the high fructose content may make it harder for the body to digest. Some opponents claim it is simply a condensed fructose with minimal nutritional value.
Calorie wise sugar wins though! Agave has 21kcal (per tsp) and sugar has 16kcal (per tsp).
(Source: the Sugar Association site).
Another more widely used substitute is Xylitol. This is found in the fibers of many fruits and vegetables and can be made naturally in small amounts by the body. It can be sourcedfrom carbohydrate molecules (calledpolysaccharides) in the cell walls of birch and beech trees, rice, oat, wheat and cotton husks, the main source of xylitol for commercial use iscorn cobs. When it has been extracted and processed it is a white crystalline powder that looks like sugar and has the same sweetness as sugar. It contains only 2.4 calories per gram and is slowly absorbed so good for blood sugar and insulin levels. Although we found that the general consensus is that xylitol is good for health, some opponents claim that it has an effect on the digestive tract and its natural’ label is misleading. During the extraction process, chemicals are added to produce xylitol and there have been reports that it can have a mild laxative effect.
We hope this has raised some awareness for you and give you a bit more information on the sugar debate. We drew our information from various websites and the Good Food pages on Sugar.
So once again there are no clear alternatives or opinions. We will continue to experiment with sugar substitutes until we find a way of baking without sugar but not compromising on the quality of our cakes and are confident that a little bit of what you fancy does you good!!