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What creating a menu for a sugar-free diet means for chefs

Sugary snacks and fizzy drinks no longer carry the same appeal as they once did. Government sugar-reducing policies have been introduced, consumers are more aware of the risks of illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, and food producers have followed suit by turning towards healthier options.

Celebrities are getting in on the act, too. Jennifer Lopez has helped glamourise the 10-day sugar detox challenge. A little closer to home, sugar-free guru Davina McCall is showing how eliminating sugar can aid weight loss. And then there’s Jamie Oliver’s crusade to stamp out obesity in children. It seems the sugar-free craze is here to stay.

The catering and restaurant industries, however, have yet to pick up on this sugar-free trend. Aside from a handful of organic cafes and vegan eateries in the trendier urban dining hotspots, it’s rare to come across a restaurant that has a good choice of sugar-free desserts on their menu.

For forward-thinking chefs or restaurateurs, there’s an opportunity to be had. By providing sugar-free options on your menu you’ll help drive new traffic through your door (and contribute towards positive public health in the process).

In the latest edition of our food trends of 2019 series, we look at why harnessing the consumer appetite for a sugar-free diet can make your restaurant a real talking point. After all, it’s possible to serve up a treat for a sweet tooth without being unhealthy.

Forbidden fruit: the health risks of too much sugar

People give up alcohol in their thousands for Dry January. Others aim to abandon their smoking habit for Stoptober. But when it comes to sugar addiction, where is the rush to stop people from caving to their sugar cravings?

The reasons are largely cultural. Back in the day, sugar was advertised as a quick source of energy, and even -- get this -- as a means of losing weight. Us Brits love a sweet treat, and the popularity of shows like The Great British Bake Off are a testament to our sugary palates. You can’t beat a scoop of gelato after a plate of penne al’arrabiata, can you?

But it’s about time our industry took a bit more notice and acknowledged the risks. And the more you learn about sugar, the more you’ll want to reduce it from your recipes.

Sugar is an addictive substance, acting on the reward centre of your brain to give you a sense of pleasure when you eat it. As you become more tolerant, you require more of it to get the same sensation. Such is the level of addiction, withdrawal symptoms of sugar can include irritability, headaches, tremors and mood swings.

Sugar also keeps you hungry. Eating sugar causes an excess release of insulin, and too much insulin blocks the brain signal that tells you you’ve had enough food. That’s why it’s all too easy to plough your way through a family-sized pack of bourbon creams without even realising it.

The potential long-term effects of the sugar rush are pretty serious: tooth decay, reduced energy levels, weight gain and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as an increased risk of chronic fatigue, diabetes, autoimmune disease and heart disease.

If the thought of this leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, fear not. By making small changes to your menu, you can help make a real difference

Which foods and drinks contain sugar?

  • Sugar is found in so many foods and drinks that it can often be hard to know where to start. For the sake of clarity, let’s break it down into the different types of sugars.“Free sugars” are the worst offenders, and they encompass two kinds of sugars:Sugars added to food or drinks, including those found in biscuits, chocolate, sweets, cakes, breakfast cereals, flavoured yoghurts and fizzy drinks. You’ve probably heard the following statistic before, but it’s certainly worth reiterating: a can of coke contains roughly 9 ⅓ teaspoons sugar (39g). That’s a lot of sugar.
  • Sugars found in honey, syrups (such as agave or maple syrup) and nectars, as well as unsweetened fruit juices and smoothies. Though these types of food may not seem as unhealthy as those in the first bullet point, get this: some Naked smoothies that are marketed as healthy drinks actually contain more sugar than Pepsi!

Sugar is not just found in desserts and sweet treats. A range of savoury staples from a host of culinary styles are made with refined sugars, including:

  • Ketchup, BBQ sauce and brown sauce
  • Chinese and Thai sweet-and-sour style sauces
  • Bolognese sauce
  • Salad cream
  • Some bread
  • Chutney

This may come as bad news to some. Many of these ingredients may be integral to your current menu, especially if you serve Asian cuisine.

Sugar is not just a sweetener -- it can also be integral to the texture of foods (classic desserts like ice cream or meringue spring to mind). For chefs who depend on sugar, cutting down on sugar can require adopting a whole new way of cooking. 

The good news? A healthy diet doesn’t mean eliminating sugar altogether. Natural sugars found in dried fruits, vegetables and milk are good for you, as we’ll explore further down the page. However, it’s worth noting that carbohydrate-heavy grains such as bread, rice and pasta also contain glucose, which is a type of sugar that can cause blood sugar levels to rise. 

What to look out for in your ingredients

In the restaurant and catering industry, we’re seeing an increasing demand for more sugar-free options on our menus. Instead of tweaking the ingredients of specific meals to suit individual customers, it makes sense to rethink your menu.

When buying items for your pantry, it’s important to keep an eye on the “of which sugars” figure on food labels. Though it doesn’t tell you the total amount of free sugars, this figure is part of carbohydrate information and can help you choose foods that are lower in sugar overall. 

Other words may be used to describe the sugars added to food and drink. Look out for additives such as sucrose, glucose, cane sugar, brown sugar, dextrose, maltose (found in beer), molasses and especially high-fructose corn syrup. If you see these things on the labels, you’ll know the item is high in the wrong sort of sugar.

If something on the label contains sugar but you’re unsure how much that is, a good benchmark is that 2g of sugar per 100g is usually considered a low source of sugar, while 22.5g per 100g is considering a high source. Even if you are creating menu options that contain sugar, aim to limit the sugar content to no more than 10g to 15g per 100g.

To put all this into context, the NHS recommends that anyone over the age of 11 should be having no more than 30g of sugar a day. That’s why it’s so important to keep tabs on how much we put in our food.

Tips for making your menu more sugar-free

The first step to eliminating refined sugar is to target the packaged foods on your order lists. Things like cake mix, specialty coffees and sugar-sweetened drinks can all easily be replaced by low-sugar or sugar-free alternatives. 

But what about the actual cooking or baking process? Surely sugar is integral to many dishes? If the thought of throwing your jar of honey in the bin is painful, here are some helpful pointers for your kitchen:

Food

  • Focus on fruits. Though proponents of a strictly sugar-free diet will advise against eating fructose-based sugars, fruits are healthy, high in vitamin content and fantastic sources of essential fibres. They’re also perfect for sweetening dishes in a natural way. Sugar-free date brownies, anyone?
  • Use raw fruit, as it’s much sweeter than fruit that has already been cooked. It’s also free from added sugars. Here’s a delicious, naturally sugar-free raw fruit tartlet recipe to whet your appetite.
  • Make all your own sauces. By doing so, you’ll have full control over what goes into it. The same goes for other sauces such as pasta sauce. This sugar-free ketchup recipe will help you stand out from the crowd and add a side of originality to your meals.
  • Cut down on carbs. Processed carbohydrates are high in sugar content. Providing carb alternatives is a great way to reduce the sugar content in meals where sugar is not an ingredient in its basic form. Looking for an alternative? How about substituting pasta noodles for spiralised vegetables -- quick, easy, and delicious. Wholegrain pasta -- free from unhealthy processed carbs -- also cuts the mustard
  • .Instead of using high-sugar jams and compotes, marmalades, syrups, chocolate spread or honey, try lower-fat spreads, peanut butter, fruit slices or reduced-sugar jam and compotes.
  • Add extra flavour to your desserts with spices. When cutting down on sugar, the temptation may be to simply replace it with an artificial sweetener. However, it’s possible to manipulate a sweet taste by using spices in a creative, experimental way. Chilli in raw chocolate? Yes please. Cinnamon and turmeric in golden milk? Go on then.

Drink

This one’s a little easier. Instead of the usual suspects like coca cola, lemonade and sugary fruit juices, add a little bit of life to your drinks menu with freshly-pressed juices and detox smoothies. For fans of traditional fizzy drinks, there are sugar-free alternatives such as Coke Zero. Teas and coffees also come in sugar-free form. And how could we forget the most fundamental resource of them all: water.

As you can see, there are plenty of options when it comes to cooking without sugar. Just because sugar is missing doesn’t mean that creativity and flair are too. 

Looking for some inspiration? This sugar-free guide to restaurants in London will help you get a flavour of what the capital’s most inventive chefs and bakers have up their sleeves.

Giving your customer sugar-free options: a sweet deal

Consumers simply don’t eat sugar in the quantities they used to. Though it’s nice to get a sweet fix, it’s certainly not worrying turning into an unhealthy habit that can wreak havoc with your blood sugar levels.

This doesn’t mean that all sugar-conscious people are cutting out sugar from their diet completely -- instead, most are looking to reduce their sugar intake. 

The demand for sweet foods, therefore, is not on the wane. Even those who follow a strict sugar-free diet are able to indulge in a guilt-free dessert sweetened with a non-sugar alternative. That’s why restaurants can do well to get on board with this trend. If not providing some sugar-free options, they should strive to cut the amount of sugar used in their dishes.

It’s not just about performing a public health service. Cutting out refined sugars will actually affect your bottom line. By making it known that your restaurant offers a range of low-sugar and sugar-free options, you’ll be able to tap into a growing audience who actively monitor their sugar intake. If you’re still sceptical of tailoring to the sugar-free crowd, this may sweeten the deal.

The success of restaurants that have already committed to reducing sugar demonstrates how doing so can have a tangible financial benefit for your catering business. Belgravia’s Amaya, a highly-rated modern Indian restaurant, offers sugar-free strawberry granola and poached pear. Soho’s Vantra has an entire menu that’s vegan, gluten-free and sugar-free.

And it’s not just trendy London eateries that are jumping on the free-from craze. Further afield, cafes like St Martin’s Coffee House in Chichester are serving up a great selection of homemade sugar-free meals to the good people of West Sussex.

So there it is. Rather than breaking from the centuries-old British culinary tradition of a fondness for sweet food, forward-thinking businesses are expanding on it and giving their food a new, healthier lease of life.

 By adopting a low-sugar approach to food, your restaurant can empower consumers by giving them healthy choices -- making a name for your business in the process. Cutting down on sugar just makes sense.

For more palate-cleansing content from Blue Arrow, be sure to check out our weekly catering blog.

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