I absolutely love cooking and eating vegan food. New vegan food restaurants and cafes seem to spring up every day, and ‘vegan’ seems to be the buzz word currently. Recently my son and I went 100% vegan for a week. As my son is a tree surgeon, his job is very physical, so he challenged me as to whether a vegan diet could keep him energised throughout his day. I bang on about protein all the time, so he encouraged me to try and ensure his energy levels remained high, but with his protein coming from a plant-based diet. I can take or leave meat. I eat it when it is put in front of me but will always eat fish if I’m in charge of the cooking. I normally have a couple of days a week when I don’t eat meat or fish, and this is really because I prefer vegan food more than a conscious avoidance of meat or fish.
As I perused the vegan cookery books I have and love using, I realised just how much sugar can be in some of these delicious looking recipes, particularly in the puddings, cakes and sweets. You would struggle to find any kind of refined sugar in my cupboards except for honey. If you want sugar in a cup of tea or coffee in my house, there just isn’t any. I have been known to put honey in a cup of tea in desperation for a builder recently. He left most of it!
I consider sugar to be the biggest demon of all. There is increasing research that tells us sugar could be as addictive as some street drugs and can have a similar effect on the brain. From an early age, we reward ourselves with it. We indulge after a stressful day or celebrate a success. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major part in the ‘reward’ circuit and provides the link with addictive behaviour. Because sugar gives you a pleasurable ‘high’ one becomes inclined to repeat the experience, and so the behaviour becomes repetitive. Maybe this explains why in my old life, one glass of wine was never quite enough! As you repeat the behaviour again and again your brain will release less dopamine. The only way to achieve the same “high” is by increasing the amounts of sugar and eating it more often. Whether or not sugar is as addictive as a street drug, researchers and nutritionists agree that sugar does have addictive properties and we need to eat less of it.
For me, it’s about balance and the key is keeping your blood sugar stable during the day. We need to avoid the ‘spikes’ in our blood sugar levels. Recurrent blood sugar spikes which occur when we eat certain foods, particularly sugary foods, can have health consequences. Its obvious to most people what does and does not contain sugar, but it’s the hidden ones that surprise. Yogurt is one of the biggest culprits but we all assume it is the healthy option. I had a client recently who told me that every day for lunch, she had a supermarket salad. The salad label indicated it was suitable for someone wanting a healthy option. When I looked at the salad it contained 15g of sugar! I always look at the nutritional values on the back, and just below where it says carbohydrates it will say ‘of which are sugars’. I try and make sure it is no more than 5 as a rule.
I get asked a lot about the sugar in fruit. Personally, I limit my fruit intake, so I eat raspberries, strawberries and blueberries as berries tend to have a lower sugar content than more ‘tropical’ fruit such as mangos, pineapples and bananas. There are 14g of sugar in a banana. Fructose and glucose and sucrose are the most abundant sugars found in a banana. A single banana contains about 105 calories. Sugar is a carbohydrate supplying 4 calories per gram which means that 58 of the calories come from sugar content. Put another way, one medium banana is approximately 55% sugar. Fortunately, bananas contain natural sugars and supply vitamins and nutrients that make a banana a healthier food choice than hitting the biscuit tin, but I will always remain mindful of the sugar in fruit.
So, what can we use in cooking to replace the sugar in recipes we want to try? I use a natural sweetener: raw honey, stevia, dates, coconut sugar or organic maple syrup. Using one of these as a natural sugar substitute is much healthier option to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Back to the vegan week. My son lasted three days before he succumbed to a large amount of sausages deciding that he was not suited to a permanent vegan lifestyle!