Why I still use refined white sugar

Why I still use refined white sugar.

When browsing a vegan only store I found the perfect food. It has zero calories per 100g. And it’s only 10 to 22 € per kilo. That is crazy, you think? No, it’s just one of the fancy new sugar substitutes that are marketed to us. Sugar is a bad food, it has empty calories, it raises my blog sugar, it will give me diabetes, it will make me obese. Baking with sugar is not only bad for me, it’s also irresponsible. At least this is the impression I get on social media.

Sugar-free and sorrow-free: Erythritol and Xylitol

The sugar substitute I am talking about is called erythritol and it’s a sugar alcohol just like xylitol (12 € per kilo), which is another low calorie, low GI sugar substitute. It has tons of benefits, for example it can improve your dental health. But it still has calories. Erythritol on the other side has no calories at all. Which is probably the reason why people who try to avoid processed foods don’t have a problem with this highly refined product.

In vegan online stores lots of fancy things are marketed to me. If I am not a fan of sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol, I can also find “more natural” sweeteners like coconut or palm sugar. Compared to the price of coconut sugar erythritol is a cheap treat. A kilo of coconut sugar would cost me 30 Euros per kilo. And I always thought I was splurging when I bought the fair trade cane sugar for 5 € per kilo. I know, my health should be worth it though. Even if I am not overweight, don’t have high blood pressure, diabetes, or coeliac disease I should still invest more money in food that is good for my body. Coconut sugar has so many health benefits and it has a low glycaemic index. And it has vitamins and minerals.

Food is pleasure, not morals

That is great but honestly, I don’t eat sugar for its health benefits. I hate to admit it, but I eat sugar for pleasure. Which is something you apparently don’t do anymore. As I said, sugar is a bad food. It doesn’t have any nutrition, just calories. And these I should avoid because they will make me fat. And of course I don’t want to be fat. That would be the worst!

But wait, I still can have it all. I just have to empty my walled and buy chia seeds instead of flax (much more affordable and often locally produced). And coconut sugar instead of this bag of empty white calories. I should splurge on good foods so I still can have my cake but don’t have to feel guilty about it.

I live in an abundant world. Even as a vegan there’s food all around me and I never have to starve. Which is exactly the problem. I feel guilty because I have it all, I feel guilty because I don’t nourish my body the way I should. Am I fit? Am I glowing? Am I the right size? Am I a good vegan? Things like xylitol or coconut sugar are the perfect solution for all my gnawing thoughts, I am told. I can watch my calories and still have that cake. It will be low-calorie and it’s going to be full of minerals and trace minerals. My blood sugar won’t spike and my teeth will be spared.

But I don’t think these people marketing me some fancy new product are after my health. It’s purity they want to sell me. And a morally superior food.The only problem is that I don’t believe in bad foods. I only believe that year after year, some new poor ingredient has to become the scapegoat for our way of eating, for our abundance and the bad conscience that comes with having it all. Old but still best example: gluten. A very dangerous food for people suffering from coeliac disease. For the rest of us? Not so much. But still, as Ruby Tandoh writes:

On popular wellness blogs, the gluten I’ve heard about is “evil,” “poison,” “contaminating,” and “toxic.” There’s even a leading Australian gluten-free site called glutenisthedevil.com. This isn’t just about nutrition, it’s about morality, and when food becomes imbued with this kind of scandalizing language, the dinner table becomes a minefield.

Someone recently reposted my a picture of my marshmallows on Instagram, praising the recipe as “healthy”. Well, I don’t even really know what healthy means, but since my marshmallows contain a ton of white sugar, they can’t be it, right? And they are not supposed to be. They are supposed to be sweet and full of calories and all that. Because I eat these marshmallows for pleasure. And honestly I really dread all these questions of healthier versions of my food. Guys, either you eat them or you don’t. And I’ll tell you why I don’t like your questions: I don’t believe every food I eat has to be healthy. Even these marshmallows can be a part of my diet. You don’t have to eat them three times a day, you know what I mean?

I don’t want to ban sugar from my diet. And I definitely don’t want to replace it with a super expensive alternative just because that alternative has three milligrams of calcium. I want good old refined sugar to be a part of my diet just like vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, but also bread, tofu products, soy milk, ice cream, mayonnaise, and pasta. I do not want to divide my food in good and bad (because to me that is what “healthy” and “unhealthy” really means) and I definitely don’t want to feel bad for eating certain things. Because after all it seems that

thinking of the foods [people] want to avoid as morally bad does not help them to eat a more nourishing diet in the long run. It doesn’t even help them to avoid those foods, most of the time. For a lot of us, it only succeeds in producing guilt for eating a perfectly human mix of foods” (Michelle, The Fat Nutritionist).

Eating a slice of cake made with refined sugar and refined flour is not bad for you. It’s just one single piece of cake. It’s just food. And I’m pretty sure that if I eat cake once or twice a week this will not ruin my health. It’s not all good or bad, black or white. I eat a lot of whole foods, too. And that’s where I get my vitamins and minerals from. Not from fancy and expensive “sugar alternatives”. Because just like Ruby Tandoh I am wondering,

why, just because maple syrup contains some valuable nutrients, we must omit cane sugar from our diets altogether (least of all considering that the former costs over five times as much per gram). If the end goal really is just good health, why does the focus seem to be less on reducing sugar intake and more about promoting expensive, less accessible forms of it? […] If health food advocates take us down only the most expensive and exclusionary paths to health, we ought to question their integrity.

We shouldn’t forget that many people don’t have the means to buy sugar that expensive. Or they don’t have access to it. Not every person has the time to search three shops or three online stores for three different sugars. Also, eating expensive sugar substitutes or refined sugar alternatives won’t change the problem many of us have with food. Look at all those self-proclaimed wellness and health food blogs. (The article I just quoted makes some very good points about these blogs and their concept of ‘wellness’.) Most of the recipes you’ll find there are for sweet treats. People spend so much energy on creating healthy alternatives to caramel sauce (dates), brownies (black beans), and macaroons (xylitol) and all of them will give you the impression that you don’t have to miss out. You can have your cake and be healthy and slim at the same time. And you will feel good about yourself. No guilt, no shame. But the problem is that these recipes aren’t helpful for some people. Alternative sugars and sugar substitutes don’t have health advantages. You can still gain weight from brownies made with coconut sugar. It’s not the food that is the problem. It’s our relationship with it.

Coconut sugar doesn’t solve problems

For me that means that I won’t stop baking with white sugar and white flour. It’s more important to look at my diet in general. I try to focus on eating a lot of vegetables, beans, whole grains, and nuts on a daily basis. I also eat processed foods, I eat soy products, I eat gluten. Variety of taste and texture is more important to me than trying to avoid sugar. I know myself and I know that it’s important for me to have that cake and enjoy it. Sure, sometimes I eat too much sugary stuff. But I know that if I replace the white sugar with coconut sugar or xylitol that won’t stop me from overeating. In fact, that will only give me an excuse to eat more of these things because they are “healthy”.

Instead I follow an approach suggested by The Fat Nutritionist. It’s called subversive food combining. I eat pizza with kale or cookies and almonds. I might even eat a brownie made with black beans. But I don’t call it healthy and I don’t praise myself for being a good girl. (I am way too old to be called a girl.) Instead I will just try to enjoy my food and spend that money I saved by not buying the 30 € sugar on a good book.

A good week to all of you!



33 thoughts on “Why I still use refined white sugar

  1. I started looking at sugar alternatives, but then I realised the only food I use a large amount of sugar in is cake. And cake isn’t something I eat every day, so that’s ok. I bought some coconut sugar out of curiosity and it’s delicious. But I can’t really taste that delicious flavour in cake, so I’m going to keep it for sprinkling on top of things. I did end up getting xylitol to use for healthier weekday treats though.

  2. I appreciate your viewpoint. Food has become something that takes a great deal of time and energy to investigate and then prepare. The sands seem to shift constantly – especially when it comes to sweeteners. I do have to say that a piece of cake in my body reacts differently than in the body of a diabetic or someone who does not have blood sugar issues. For some people sugar is toxic – for others – it appears to have no beneficial or negative effects on health. I have Reactive Hypoglycemia, inborn type. This is different from diabetic hypoglycemia – as I am not diabetic. When I eat, whatever I eat, my blood sugar rises normally but the insulin spikes very high – and then brings blood sugar down quickly. When I eat low carb and no sugar, the effects are reduced. Because of a health condition – people are seeking any known cause and it makes sense to look at food and exercise. Wheat is known to have several toxins not due to the wheat itself but how it is harvested. If you can eat something – do so – but it may create problems – and then – what will you do?

    1. I am sorry to hear about your condition, Anne. I wrote this post with the average person in mind, who does not have any problems when eating sugar in moderation. It clearly does not apply to people who do have problems and need to restrict their sugar intake.
      Same goes for wheat. That grain has been an important and central part of many European diets. Also, I am not really sure what you’re referring to when you talk about “toxins” in connection with wheat but I found this article interesting:
      Is that what you where referring to?

  3. Mihl, I love this post so much. Like many other commenters, I also enjoy maple syrup and agave (though agave is plenty demonized these days, too) — but I also use cane sugar in my cooking, all the time. And I have no interest in making cookies or brownies out of chickpeas and xylitol. If that’s a person’s taste preference, that’s fine — it’s not my place to tell people what they should enjoy eating! But I don’t feel the need to turn everything I eat into health food, whatever that means, and I prefer the experience of desserts made with flour and sugar, etc.

    This post is really rich, and your thoughts stretch far beyond sugar alone. I appreciate it, and I’ll be sharing!

  4. This should be required reading for absolutely everyone, bakers and eaters alike. Brilliantly said, easy to understand, and so deeply wise. I’m sharing this with anyone willing to click. Thank you for taking the time to lay it all out on the table!

  5. I could not agree more with everything you’ve just said. For a long, long time I struggled to keep up the guise that as a vegan I was always eating healthy food. But I don’t. I love baking cakes and pastries and god do I love white flour. And it sucks that so many people have the idea that vegan = healthy and will promptly shame you for making vegan food that is full of white flour and sugar and fat. I went vegan for the sake of animals in the food industry, not because I wanted to feel morally superior for eating brownies made out of black beans and dates and claim to be the pinnacle of health. If eating coconut sugar and putting kale in your cookies sounds good to you, great! Do it. If you want to make vegan croissants out of white flour and refined sugar– shine on and share them with me, please! :)

    So thank you for putting so eloquently into words what I have struggled with for eight long years ??

    1. I also think it’s sad that there’s either healthy or not. We can enjoy so many different foods! So yes to white flour and kale:)

  6. Great reading (and I really loved that Ruby Tandoh article. I love your attitude that it is nice to have cake and totally agree

    I am always curious about new products and new tastes so I have a range of sugars in my pantry including coconut sugar, white sugar and brown sugar. I don’t use coconut sugar so much because it is expensive but enjoy it sometimes and I love maple syrup for the taste but again I can’t afford to cook with it all the time (and it doesn’t work in everything anyway). But I often come back to regular sugar because it works so well in recipes. And sometimes it is nice to know I am using the same stuff my foremothers used and it still tastes good.

  7. Thank you! I find my head nodding as I read this. Just spot on, and I love that you mentioned subversive food combining! Such a neat concept, especially for those of us with histories of eating disorders.

  8. I can only say thank you. This needs to be said and heard more. Especially around children if we don´t want to see parts of a generation grow up completely paranoid around food. So, thanks again.

  9. Well said! I am so sick of all the ‘this food is evil’… ‘this food will kill you’… blah blah blah blah….
    I was recently invited to a screening of some sort of Sugar Is Evil type movie, which I declined.
    Often when I do bake sales people will ask if everything is sugar free… nope. Just because it is a vegan bake sale doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of sugar. It is a table full of sweets!
    Sugar is one of the first things I will sub for in a recipe that is calling for some sort of fancy, expensive type. I did buy coconut sugar once… but so expensive! I use raw, white or brown sugar that I can buy nice and cheap from the grocery store, and it works just fine for me!

    1. I think I saw a trailer for such a movie once and that was it. I had to eat some candy afterwards.

      Another things that bugs me is how people use the term sugar-free, especially in german. Most of the time they just mean there is no white sugar in the recipe. And then they use brown sugar that is just white sugar plus molasses.

  10. It’s all about marketing and profits and the food is incedental when you can make a tonne of cash out of trending something. Think about all of the “superfoods” that have fallen by the wayside because they might be cram packed with nutrients but they taste like crap and people stopped buying them after they realised this. People stop buying, trend officially “over”. Money making potential for “superfood” gone. Go find yourself a new superfood. You are right about sugar. The new food police have left peanut butter alone for 10 minutes (you can be sure they will be back there soon…) and are onto it like a tick on a dog. The sad thing is that people believe this tripe. We are mentally eating up this mass marketing and it’s worse for us than sugar could ever be. Thank you for sharing this honest post with us all. It’s a lone voice in a world that appears to have become sugar phobic.

  11. I think people should eat the foods (including sweeteners) they enjoy, and do as you do to balance their diets by eating whole foods along with other more processed foods. I don’t think eating all refined foods all the time is a good idea, but I’m not willing to tell people what to eat. I’m one of those weird people to whom everything tastes too sweet. I rarely ate cake when I was young because it was unpleasantly sweet in my mouth, so learning to make it with whole grains and less processed sweeteners allowed me to enjoy ‘sweets’ for the first time. Even now, I have trouble eating commercial vegan cake or ice cream because it tastes so sweet! I also have a low tolerance for fatty, rich foods, making me a perfect ‘example’ of a ‘healthy’ eater. Please don’t disown me for following the tastes I prefer! I have a big bag of natural sugar and a big bag of coconut sugar (both from Costco) and they last for ages in my kitchen, but I’d never use xylitol or erythritol. I also don’t think gluten is bad for you. I experience extreme cramping (and other things) when I eat wheat, so I forego it, but I’d never tell anyone else to avoid it for no reason. There’s room for all of us on the food continuum. Your recipes and photography are an inspiration!

    1. You don’t have to justify your way of eating and I hope you didn’t get the impression that I will give everyone with a different lifestyle the silent treatment. It’s always interesting to hear your thoughts! And this is exactly what my blog post is about, there are different approaches and none of the should be seen as superior. And I defintely won’t force you to ear cake:)

  12. Yay! A voice of reason in the minefield that is food ingredients! The last time I heard someone say “I eat sugar for pleasure” was in the 80’s!

    1. Not always. There are lots of white sugars that are labeled as vegan, I think. Here in Germany (and many other European countries, as far as I know) sugar is made from sugar beets and there’s no bone char involved in the refining process.

  13. Wow. I really appreciate it when someone injects some sanity into what has become an insane world. They used to talk about prisons as being places where you got only “bread and water”. We don’t live in a prison and shouldn’t have to feel like we do. Nice job outlining the all the issues; this is a complex topic.

  14. Super geschrieben, dass ist wirklich auffallend wie immer mehr Leute auf diese Schiene springen. Ich habe selber erst kürzlich einen Post mit ähnlichen Thema geschrieben, eben das alles Essen in gut und böse eingeteilt, besonders besonders Makronährstoffe (Kohlenhydrate allen vorran) und das ich finde das man als Bloggerin eben auch eine gewisse Verantwortung hat, was man für ein Bild über das Essen weiter gibt. Wir wissen nie wer unsere Blogs liest und viele besonders junge Menschen lassen sich so leicht von mal so dahin geschriebenen beeinflussen.
    Ich backe sehr gerne mit Aornsirup und Kokosblütensirup, aber einfach nur weil ich den Geschmack liebe. Das ist für mich dann einfach Genuss, nicht weil es so “gesund” ist. Die tollen Nährstoffe werden ja fast alle sowieso durch das backen wieder zerstört…. Den Zuckeranteil habe ich mittlerweil generell reduziert, das merkt keiner und ich finde Gebäck viel leckerer wenn es nicht so Pappsüss ist;)! Normalen Zucker verwende ich auch noch hin und wieder (besonders wenn es doch mal grössere Mengen werden), aber lieber den Rohrohrzucker weil der karamalliger schmeckt=)
    Liebe Grüsse,

  15. Yes! Thank you for this. I agree all around. I’ve flirted with sugar alternatives in the past, but ultimately I’ve always come back to good old cane sugar. I do love the flavor of maple syrup, but it’s just way too expensive to use in large quantities. I’ll keep it on my pancakes where I can really taste it!

  16. While I do enjoy the flavors of these other sweeteners you mention (especially maple syrup both in liquid or powder form), I definitely cannot afford to fork out the money for them all the time either.
    Right now, my go-to sugar is good ole cane sugar too. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I agree with you that a lot of kale here and a bit (or a lot) of cake there is the way to go, so high fives to you for this post.

    1. I don’t wanna say that nobody should use these sweeteners. I mean, I love maple syrup myself and I think it’s great when people have the chance to try these things. And my maple syrup goes a long way when I put it on a pancake instead of in a cake.

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