I stand in front of a supermarket freezer and wonder which ice cream to choose: plain or low-sugar. I know too much sugar is not good for me, so low-sugar ice cream seems like a great way to limit my sugar intake without losing my sweetness. But what does it taste like? After sampling lower-calorie salt-caramel ice cream by Jude’s (455 cal per bath), Opo (356 cal) and Hello Top (320 cal), I can report the creaminess being more volatile and less satisfying, respectively, with Halo Top actually being the sweetest and most sticky. In contrast, Jude’s regular version (whole milk, double cream, 621 cal.) Is richer, fuller and rolls luxuriously around my mouth, rather than dissolving in an instant. I get the full sugar, but I generally eat less of it.
Low-sugar and sugar-free products are what we might call “shuffle” foods. They allow us to consume more of certain products (ice cream, cookies, fizzy drinks) without feeling like we are breaking too many rules. Natural sugars are naturally found in many foods (including fruits, 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 processed foods,” says London nutritionist Sarah Ann Macklin. “We overuse free sugars and are adjusting for more sugar.”
Low or no sugar products replace sugar with artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame), new sweeteners (such as stevia) or sugar alcohols (such as xylitol). It is low or no calorie and reduces blood sugar spikes. The challenge is not excessive. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to intestinal and mental health issues, while sweeteners can cause hunger pangs and can be addictive. “Do not drink diet cola if you are on a diet,” Macklin urges. “You will feel more hungry.”
Scientists continue to innovate: Incredo is an extra sweet sucrose-silica substitute, which allows 30 to 50 percent less sugar to be used without losing sweetness. And Michelin star Thomas Keller of The French Laundry recently showed off Supplement – a sweetener derived from plant fibers – in chocolate that he says is as delicious as any other made in his restaurant.
For home cooks, Tom Kerridge’s The dopamine diet is a guide to the use of substitutes such as erythritol and inulin in recipes such as almond soda bread, flaxseed biscuits and crème brûlée. “Inulin is the only sugar substitute that caramelizes and solidifies like sugar,” he notes.
However, to reduce weight gain, we need to think about the quality of our food beyond sugar substitutes and calories. Artificial ingredients (a mainstay of low-sugar foods) may contain fewer calories, but they slow down our metabolism and can make us hungrier. It is better to choose foods with ingredients we recognize instead of countless E-numbers. “For people who want ice cream or cake, I always say there is room in your diet,” says Macklin. “It only becomes a problem if they have too much.”