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The Final Proof: March 2013

February 25, 2013 Written by Jane Dummer, RD
Sugars, sweeteners and baking: the sugar debate is heating up again.

Have you noticed the topic of sugar is heating up again? We saw the low-carb craze in the 1970s, then again in the early 2000s. Trends recycle based on a few things. There may be new scientific evidence about certain foods and ingredients, along with their metabolism. There may be celebrity diets using certain foods and ingredients being glorified by the media and the Dr. Oz phenomenon. Or it may be an introduction or approval of a new ingredient in the marketplace.

In October 2010, I wrote a Final Proof column entitled, “Is a sugar a sugar?” It was in response to the media hype that fructose in people’s diet was responsible for a variety of health problems, ranging from obesity to cancer. Fast forward to 2013 and the media information and misinformation about sugar continues. I attended Food Nutrition Conference Expo (FNCE) in Philadelphia in October 2012 and there were an overwhelming number of educational sessions about carbohydrate metabolism.

At the conference, I heard Dr. John Sievenpiper, MD, PhD, speak about fructose metabolism. Sievenpiper is Canadian and the knowledge synthesis lead for Toronto 3-D Knowledge Synthesis and Clinical Trials Units at St. Michael’s Hospital. 

“Carbohydrate metabolism remains a complex story. Knowledge transfer from the scientific studies with animal models still remains a very important issue,” he explained. When health professionals and journalists are reporting studies, Sievenpiper recommends: “Review the design of the study, while understanding the dose of carbohydrate used — for example, the amount of fructose fed to the animals — in the study. Then, identify if and how the dose response of carbohydrate actually can be compared to the quantity humans consume daily in the average mixed diet.”

Carolyn O’Brien, director of regulatory affairs at Canada Bread Company, Ltd., explains: “Yes, there is a role for sugar in the diet. In manufacturing bread products, sugar has a variety of functions, including yeast development and enhancing the flavour. The consumer continues to request simplified, easy to understand ingredient lists.” O’Brien says she is observing the trend of using natural sweeteners such as honey, agave and molasses for some food products in the industry.

As a dietitian, I don’t believe there is one food or ingredient that can be isolated as the cause of obesity. Lifestyle diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes are multifactorial and involve many habits, such as overconsumption of total food and lack of physical activity. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Pooja Mottl, a natural foods chef, healthy eating changemaker and author of the upcoming book, 3 Day Resets: Teaching Your Taste Buds to Love Healthy Food.

“I have seen an increase in the availability of refined white sugar alternatives such as sucanat or jiggery, barley malt syrup, date sugar and maple syrup. I use coconut palm sugar in much of my baking as it balances salty and spicy flavors exquisitely. Artisan bakers, chefs and consumers are experimenting with these less processed ingredients that give richer, more complex flavour profiles,“ Mottl says.

In November of 2012, the use of stevia was approved by Health Canada. Heidi R. Adams, technical service manager of sweetener customer solutions with Ingredion Incorporated, identifies the significance: “Food manufacturers in Canada were definitely ready to see the approval come through. We are seeing new launches containing stevia sweeteners this year in bread, buns and pizza. Expectation is that this trend will continue.”

Sugar has many roles, including adding taste and bulking in baking, so how does stevia compare? Allison Mikita, communications and nutrition specialist at PureCircle Limited, explains: “Stevia has an excellent synergy with sugar and other natural sweeteners, so we can expect to see stevia blended with other ingredients created as baking blends. Products with less sugar to begin with, like breads, baked snacks or breakfast cereals, may be the most promising categories for stevia, as you can achieve lower sugar levels without altering the product’s structural qualities. In sweet cookies or cake, for example, a high quantity of sugar accounts for most of the taste, volume, and texture so recipes would need to be altered to account for these structural changes.”

From refined white sugar, to exotics such as coconut palm sugar, to stevia, the new sweetener in town; commercial and artisan bakers have a wide variety of sweet ingredients to choose from for their products. As a nutrition professional, I believe when we engage in mindful eating (savouring every mouthful and enjoying the delicious flavours), we automatically do not over consume. Instead of trying to find a scapegoat of one food or one ingredient to blame for the lifestyle diseases, what would happen if we practised daily mindful, flavourful eating and physical exercise?


Jane Dummer, RD, is a leading dietitian for the Canadian food and nutrition industry. Jane offers services specializing in agri-food, functional foods and food safety. For more information, visit  www.janedummer.com.

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