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.