My daughter Maya tells me that unlike her, I'm lucky not to have much of a sweet tooth – I am far more likely to crave some delicious salty olives than a bar of chocolate. Yet I couldn’t resist when Darina Allen of the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland gave me one of her wonderful almond biscuits with my mint tea last weekend. I was there to speak at the Ballymaloe Litfest, a celebration of food and cookery, and that biscuit’s bite-sized, melt-in-the-mouth sweetness gave me just enough of an energy lift to get me through the afternoon. There was the emotional bonus, too, of sharing a simple pleasure – a cup of tea, a biscuit, and a chat – with a friend.Raspberry ripple ice cream

We all need a bit of a boost sometimes, especially when living with a condition such as cancer and the side effects of its treatment. But there are so many scare stories around sugar and cancer that I know many people are scared to let a morsel of sweetness pass their lips. Let me reassure you that sugar doesn’t make cancer grow faster. All cells, including cancer cells, depend on blood sugar (glucose) for energy, but giving more sugar to cancer cells doesn’t speed their growth. Likewise, depriving cancer cells of sugar doesn’t ‘starve’ them. This misconception may be based on a misunderstanding of PET scans. Before a PET scan you will be injected with a small amount of radioactive trace, typically a form of glucose. All tissues in your body absorb some of this tracer, but tissues that are using more energy - including cancer cells - absorb greater amounts, which allows them to be identified by the scan. For this reason, some people have concluded that cancer cells grow faster when we eat more sugar. This simply isn’t true.

Instead, let’s focus on the pros and cons of sugar generally. Sugar is a carbohydrate, which provides our body with essential energy. But too much sugar – particularly refined, processed sugar which simply provides ‘empty’ calories with no nutritional value – isn’t good for us for all sorts of reasons. It promotes insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes; it may be a factor in the development of heart disease; and it leads to tooth decay.

When we eat a sweet food the amount of sugar in our blood surges, giving us an initial surge of energy, followed by a horrible crash as our body naturally responds to get our levels back in balance. If we add protein or fibre to our sweet treat, it slows down the absorption of sugar by our body and helps to prevent this rollercoaster.

Get sugar savvy

  • Combine protein and fibre with sugar for more balanced energy. Try plump Medjool dates with walnuts, carrot cake with cream cheese icing, or a dollop of Greek yoghurt with stewed apples.
  • Rather than avoid sugar completely, try naturally sweet foods such as fresh or stewed fruits.
  • Use other flavours in place of added sugar – coconut shavings, almond milk, dried fruits, star anise and cinnamon all have a natural sweetness.

Berries, citrus and stone fruits are naturally lower in sugar. In spring and summer, a delicious sorbet or ice cream will give you that sweet fix without lots of extra empty calories.

Need some recipe inspiration? Ask Jane a question today.

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