“Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We now know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.” —Autism Speaks
I’m on the autistic spectrum. As a child, I was hopeless in social situations, always saying the wrong thing and unable to read body language. I also grew up on Tang, Frosted Flakes, Milky Way bars, and Kool-Aid. In my late twenties, I cut sugar out of my diet because I found that when I ate sugar, I couldn’t talk. It was like my brain locked up and wouldn’t process input. Recently, I ate a muffin that had a reduced amount of sugar in it. Within minutes, I began stuttering and floundering for words. This was during a discussion in a seminary class, so the timing was poor.
Is there a link between autism symptoms and sugar intake? A 2015 study suggests there is, and anecdotal stories from parents of autistic children abound. Other parents of ASD kids say their kids aren’t affected–and maybe they aren’t, though often the parents say their kids don’t “get hyperactive” from sugar. My own experience indicates that hyperactivity is not the only visible response. From the outside, I look like I’ve been sedated after I eat sugar. Someone who didn’t know better might think this is a good thing. But inside, I’m churning, trying unsuccessfully to process and respond to the stimulus coming in. It’s miserable.
But I do like something sweet now and again. Can you imagine going through life never having another dessert? Sugar-free commercial products are an option, though almost all contain artificial sweeteners, which I try to avoid. And the ones with sugar alcohols (like sorbitol and maltitol)– well, I won’t gross you out by describing the intestinal symptoms they cause me.
For home-baking, stevia is an option. It’s a natural plant extract with no sugars and no calories, but it’s a little too sweet and has a weird aftertaste when used alone. Stevia requires just a tiny amount, so it doesn’t bulk up a recipe like sugar does. That doesn’t matter if you’re sweetening fruit, but a cake requires the bulk and consistency of sugar to come out right. Ask me how I know. There is a 1:1 stevia product, which is stevia mixed with maltodextrin so it performs in recipes like sugar. The only store I’ve found in my area that carries it is Walmart. Amazon carries an equivalent, Stevia in the Raw, which is a bit more expensive but delivered to your door. Like stevia itself, I find the 1:1 mix has that weird aftertaste.
(Also beware of baking mixes that contain stevia and sugar, like Truvia or SugarLeaf for example, because they sort of defeat the purpose.)
So what’s the answer?
Enter the glycemic index.
“The Glycemic Index (GI) is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels.” —University of Sydney
In other words, the higher the glycemic index ranking, the faster the food item causes blood sugar to rise. Glucose is rated 100. The Glycemic Index website recommends a rating of 55 or less for general health. A Harvard website ranks table sugar (sucrose) at 65, honey at 61, and fructose at 15. Clearly fructose is better for those sensitive to sugar. (Studies have shown that excessive use of fructose can raise triglyceride levels, particularly in men, so it’s not something one should eat all the time.)
The other day I was looking at a carrot cake recipe that called for a total of four cups of sugar (including the cream cheese frosting). Even using fructose, that’s a lot of sugar. But it’s easy to cut that in half while still making the recipe work. I use half fructose and half 1:1 stevia. The stevia provides sweetness with no calories or glycemic effect, and the fructose is a slow-absorbing sugar that moderates the flavor of stevia. I see the 50/50 mix as a “best of both worlds” approach.
In the frosting, I substituted neufchatel for cream cheese. That’s just a lower-fat version made with milk instead of cream. I did that not because I’m autistic, but because I’m trying to eat healthier. I also added an extra package of cream cheese to the frosting to increase the protein and further cut back on the sugar concentration. I also thought the cake might need more frosting than the recipe called for, as is sometimes the case, but I had frosting left over.
Herein lies another helpful hint: A lot of recipes can be modified a little, or sometimes a lot, to reduce the sugar content. For pies, the volume of sweetener can be cut in half and a 50/50 stevia-fructose combination can be used instead. So if your pie calls for 1 cup of sugar, skip the sugar completely and try it with 1/4 cup 1:1 stevia and 1/4 cup fructose instead. Imagine: where a recipe calls for a whole cup of brain-scrambling sugar, you may find it works just as well with 1/4 cup of slow-absorbing fructose bolstered with stevia.
If my experience is any indication, your autistic loved will thank you!