Sugar = sugar?!

by ir. Yvana van den Hork

While baking recipes used to simply recommend using flour and sugar, the hip cookbooks now recommend you to use agave syrup, or coconut sugar , because it is healthier and more natural. It sure sounds like more natural, but is it really?

To start with agave syrup, the sap is harvested from entire agave plants upon which it is filtered and thickened on low heat. Agave syrup has a thickness that is similar to honey and has a very high content of fructose and as a result, a low glycemic index. Fructose cannot be used as energy right away but needs to be converted to glucose in the liver. As a result, blood sugar levels will only rise slowly.
This was the reason it used to be recommended to diabetics. Unfortunately, excessive intake of fructose has worse consequences than excessive intake of glucose: fructose will be converted to glycerol more easily and as such stored as fat, oftentimes in the liver itself. On the upside, agave syrup tastes sweeter than sugar, so you will need less of it.

Another type of sugar that almost became famous overnight is coconut or palm sugar. To be honest I had never heard of it before, but in the end I did eat it previously when it was labeled as palm sugar. Palm sugar is sugar that can be derived from several types of palm trees: date palm, sago palm or coconut palm. Coconut sugar is palm sugar that (obviously) is derived from coconut palm trees. To be more precise, from coconut flowers.
Just like with agave syrup, it is filtered and then heated to make it condense, eventually turning into actual sugar crystals. Coconut sugar is mostly appreciated due to its fragrant flavour.  
Contrary to agave syrup, there is far less fructose in this sugar: 4 out of 5 parts are sucrose, just like in table sugar. The remaining fifth part is half glucose and half fructose, of which the fructose probably causes the unusual low glycemic index.

If you hesitate what sweetener to take, when you feel inclined to prepare cakes or other sweet recipes, go with what tastes best for you rather than by claims something is more 'natural'. If you want to replace sugar by syrup, take care to weigh liquids rather than use imprecise 'spoonfuls'. You may also want to experiment by replacing calorie-dense sweeteners with low-calorie sweeteners such as stevia or xylitol or simply leave out up to one third of the recommended amounts of sugar in traditional recipes.

Rather than focus on what type of sweeteners to use, you are better served by timing your carbs.
For starters, breakfast! When you wake up, liver glycogen will be mostly depleted and your body is ready to accept glucose and most sensitive to insulin. For some people, glycogen will be so low, their liver cranks out glucose itself by converting protein and glycerol into glucose, sometimes overshooting targets by so much their fasting glucose levels are higher than those after ingesting a small amount of sugars. This is called the 'dawn phenomenon'. It is no miracle the traditional Ramadan-fast is broken by eating a date.

Apart from the fact your body is more insulin sensitive in the morning, a (small amount of) insulin will succeed in lowering cortisol levels in your body. When you participate in endurance sports, you will need carbs during this activity too.
For activities longer than 3-4 hours, you are best served with almost tasteless carbohydrates like maltodextrin (powder).
When your activity is shorter, anything goes, you can stick to water but also add some fruit syrup to your water bottle as is our own preference.
After having exercised, you will need to replenish your glycogen stores quickly if you want to recover faster and if possible, achieve muscle growth if that is your goal. Muscle growth is always achieved faster in presence of insulin.
Beware of fructose-heavy foods, since these won't replenish muscle glycogen, so avoid sugar-loaded pastries or fructose-sweeteners like agave syrup but concentrate on starchy foods, which for once are allowed to be higher glycemic, like pasta or better yet, potatoes.

Another good moment to ingest carbs is late at night. You may want to postpone eating your dessert until much later right before going to bed (before brushing your teeth) as it will allow you to fall asleep more easily.

In between breakfast and late at night , your body really doesn't need extra carbohydrates at all, unless you do hard physical labour. Indeed, many among us will get an unpleasant blood sugar dip when they ingest a sugary or starchy snack in day-time. If you are looking for specific supplements, take a look at blood sugar influencing supplements such as lipoic acid, bitter melon as well as vitamin B1-derivates like sulbutiamin and benfotiamin.

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