Saccharides, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, and the Meaning of Sugar-Free

I got a comment nearly two weeks ago on my sugar-free meringue recipe, saying that it is not sugar-free because honey is also sugar:

this is not sugar-free!! Honey is also sugar…Sugar is more than sucrorse (glu-fru)
Honey contains 40% fructose and 30% glucose -> so certainly not a sugar free recipe

This isn’t the first time I’ve received comments/queries about this. I responded:

This recipe is refined sugar-free, i.e. granulated sugar. That’s what sugar-free usually means in recipes. Please refer to Elaine Gottschall’s book Breaking the Vicious Cycle, in which she explains the different forms of sugar. Honey is a monosaccharide or single cell sugar. To be technically sugar-free means using no form of sweetener at all, including fruit since all fruit has naturally occurring sugars and no starches as well because they convert to complex sugar, which is why they’re forbidden on the SCD. I hope that this addresses your concern.

In this post, I wish to expand a little on my comment. If you’re a longtime and regular reader of Z’s Cup of Tea, you’ll know that I use honey a lot in my recipes, whether they are ones I’ve created or adapted from other sources. I label these recipes as sugar-free, as by definition of majority “sugar-free” usually means being made without refined sugar, just as the labeling on a food item’s packaging at a grocery store would indicate, and then one would read the label to see if there were any other sweetener as a substitute, and if so, what was used. Other sweeteners such as honey, agave nectar, tapioca syrup, etc., are known as “alternative sweeteners”, as the food industry identifies them that way, which is why most people are used to reading the packaging to discern what specifically is being used in order to identify whether or not they will decide to purchase it. All of these alternatives to refined sugar are still sugar, yes: but what makes them different from refined sugar are their cell structures.

If we were to be technically correct, if one was to be truly sugar-free, that would extend to avoiding fruit since all fruit has naturally occurring sugars. Starches would also have to be included in this abstinence from sugar as they convert to complex sugar, which, as I mentioned in my comment, is why it’s forbidden on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. All of this is explained and laid out in Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gottschall.

Honey is unique from most alternative sweeteners in that it is single-celled, or a monosaccharide: it is a simple sugar. Other sweeteners are either disaccharides or polysaccharides. Refined sugar is a disaccharide, or two-celled sugar. (Polysaccharides, multiple-celled sugar, are also what comprises starches, including wheat.) Because of this unique status, honey is the only allowed sweetener on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD): a diet that only allows simple, specific carbohydrates and it is similar to the paleo or caveman diet. The introduction of Breaking the Vicious Cycle, the book that explains the SCD, explains how the body digests these various forms of sugar. Since honey is a monosaccharide, it is the easiest for the body to break down and digest.

While I have not yet read research about it in comparison to other alternative sweeteners, honey is more gentle than refined sugar in any form (including in the raw).Refined sugar, by contrast, is acidic and hard on the body.

Stu Mittleman, in his book Slow Burn, explains the toll that the intake of sugar can have on our bodies, including athletes. Sugar drains our energy – think of all those times you’ve eaten something with sugar in it or a really starchy food and later feel sluggish or sleepy – and while you can run on energy created by sugar, one easily becomes dependent on the immediacy of the energy kick and in the long-run, it is harmful. Sugar causes the body to lose vital nutrients and vitamins and it also increases insulin production; too much insulin affects the stability of blood sugar levels. Sugar also causes inflammation in the body, mood swings, and contributes to pain in the body, due to its acidic nature.

Honey is still sugar, though it is healthier than refined sugar and, like all things, to be eaten in moderation. Not only is it healthier, but because honey is twice as sweet as sugar you’re using half the amount you’d normally use with sugar, i.e. 1 cup of sugar is 1/2 cup of honey (and even then, I often eyeball the amount of honey so I could be using more or less). Baked goods and desserts made with honey might have a stronger honey flavour, depending on the other ingredients used, and they are also usually more moist than those made with sugar. The baking you see here I’m not making or eating every day, nor is my family, just as when one is making a selection from any recipe book and meal planning for the week. I have used sugar in some recipes on this site and also agave nectar but by and large, honey is my go-to.

Moderation is also about balance, being sure to eat more alkaline foods than acidic foods. Stu Mittleman recommends keeping a diet that is eighty per cent alkaline and twenty per cent acidic; he himself eats a ninety per cent alkaline diet, and he has diet plan examples in his book, Slow Burn, as well as a listing of which foods are alkaline/more alkaline, as well as which ones are acidic and more/less acidic, to help with meal planning. Also, I was interested in the approach Stu Mittleman takes in that he didn’t “cold turkey” anyone he worked with, but had a gradual diet transition plan to ease the passage to a more alkaline diet for his clients. Also, he worked with his clients to help accommodate their lifestyle and work as best as possible for them, i.e., if a client had to have a business lunch with a high-end client to broker a contract for their business, and it was expected that they would be eating very similarly to their client during the course of the meal, then Stu would work with them to incorporate that into their dietary schedule skillfully. I mention this because I think that if a person were interested in applying his alkalinity approach to their diet/lifestyle, it’s good to know its not an “all or nothing” approach.

Lastly, I would like to mention that people who are used to eating foods with refined sugars in them often are so used to the acute sweetness to the degree that when eating an SCD baked good for the first time, often find them “not sweet enough – kind of bland” in comparison to what they are used to eating, and thus expecting. Once a person has weaned themselves from sugars, it becomes far more noticeable and the subtler flavours and sweetness often emerge for them as their taste buds are now adjusting to not being overloaded with refined sugars, additives, etc., and have reverted to their natural state of sensitivity toward what is being experienced through the gustatory sense.

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