by Sandra Brandt
Virtually all nutritionists, both conventional and alternative, seem to agree that the quantity, and perhaps also quality, of the sugar we consume represents a dietary health issue. Sugar molecules are present in all plants. Some plant materials, such as sugar cane, sugar beets, maple tree sap, fruit, and some grains, have such significant amounts of naturally occurring sugar that sophisticated methods have been developed to separate and process the sugar from the rest of the plant for use in sweetening other foods. The one exception to mechanical processing is honey, in which the plant nectar has already been processed by an insect, the honeybee.
As there are all kinds of concerns about the amount and quality of the heavily processed sugars we consume in our modern diet, there is also quite a range of alternative sweeteners available on the market. The most common reasons for using more wholesome sweeteners are to reduce chemically based refining, and to retain more trace vitamins and minerals in the product. It is sometimes pointed out that these trace nutrients are not substantial enough to make a noticeable positive difference to health, so it is best to either minimize added sweeteners in the diet, or eliminate them altogether. But the alternatives can still be a valuable stage on the journey to an optimally healthy diet.
However one may attempt to moderate or control one’s sugar intake or choose more wholesome versions, sweet foods are well known to have an addictive quality that can complicate the process. It has been theorized that biologically our “sweet tooth” lets us know that certain foods are naturally digestible and high in nutrients, such as a ripe fruit versus an unripe one, so we are hopelessly drawn to sweet tasting foods, in spite of the fact that today’s manufacturing processes make most of these foods undesirable for health reasons. Psychologically, we also have a need and recognition for sweetness in our lives; in fact the word “sweet” is used as an adjective for many positive aspects of life. When circumstances and relationships in life do not seem to be sweet enough, we are tempted to compensate with more sweetness in food.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), used as a more economical sweetener than regular sugar in a vast array of manufactured food products, has evoked concern in recent years as being even more dangerous to health than conventional refined sugar. Natural fructose comprises about half of the sucrose molecule, which is the basic sugar molecule found in plants; therefore fructose is present in all forms of sugar we consume. HFCS contains from 42–90% fructose, which has been artificially converted from glucose. The problem is that while glucose, the other half of the sucrose molecule equation, is a readily usable direct source of fuel for all our body cells, this free refined form of fructose must be laboriously metabolized in the liver, where it results in production of harmful by-products such as fatty deposits, uric acid, and free radicals. Its increased use has been strongly implicated in the rise of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease.
Experimentation in the kitchen is needed to explore the different ways of using various sweeteners, especially when substituting them for conventional sugar in familiar recipes. For example, when substituting a liquid sweetener such as honey for granulated sugar, one would need to reduce the liquid in the recipe, or use more flour.
Chemical non-caloric sweeteners, long recommended for weight loss regimes as well as diabetics, have become highly suspect due to a number of dangerous side effects. Newer sugar alcohol products, such as xylitol and sucralose (Splenda), are often seen as a more natural alternative to non-caloric sweeteners, but they have also been found to have potentially undesirable effects, especially on the digestive system.
Following is a highly condensed overview of the more popular sweeteners that are readily available. Each one, of course, could be the subject of an entire article; indeed, whole books have been published on each one.
Less processed forms of cane sugar—Sugar cane processing basically consists of extracting the juice from the cane, separating the molasses and inorganic impurities from the actual sugar content, crystallizing the sugar through a centrifugal process, and bleaching. The conventional process involves the use of high heat and chemicals. There are many varieties of “healthier” sugar on the market, many of which are subjected to less heat and chemicals, less or no bleaching, and less refining out of the more nutritious molasses component. “Raw” sugar is not really raw, as it has to be heated in order to extract the sugar crystals. Note that names such as “cane sugar” or “dehydrated cane juice” are often used on product ingredient lists to replace the simple term “sugar” which may mislead the consumer into thinking that it is a healthier, less refined form of sugar. If you want the least processed form of cane sugar, look for a brand with a natural or darker colour and a grainy texture, such as Rapadura or Sucanat, rather than a crystallized variety as most “healthier” sugars are.
Honey—May be pasteurized or raw. Honey is normally filtered, although some consumers seek out direct sources of unfiltered honey with all the nutritious residues of honeycomb and pollen still present. Honey is not usually labelled organic, but beehives may be situated so as to encourage the bees to feed on organically grown plants.
Maple Syrup, Maple Sugar—Boiled down sap of sugar maple trees that grow in the climate of Eastern Canada and Northeastern US. Organic labelling indicates that bushes have been cared for in an ecologically friendly way without the use of disallowed chemicals, and that formaldehyde, which is commonly used in conventional processing, has not been used in processing the syrup.
Molasses—Residue of sugar refining. It is rich in nutrients from the sugar cane, but also contains concentrated residues of agricultural chemicals if the sugar was not organically grown. Darker varieties, such as blackstrap have a stronger, less sweet flavour than lighter varieties, such as “cooking molasses” or “Barbados molasses.” Most varieties of regular brown sugar or natural sugar are made by adding measured amounts of molasses to refined or semi-refined sugar.
Grain Sweeteners—Rice syrup and barley malt syrup are commonly available in health food stores. Brown rice is cultured with enzymes to break down the starches and turn them into simple sugars. Barley is malted (sprouted), which causes the sugars to multiply. Both are less than half as sweet as honey.
Fruit Based—Unsweetened dried fruits, such as raisins, dates, apricots, prunes, and others, are a whole food with a concentrated sweetness. Date sugar is made from dried powdered dates.
Coconut Sugar—A traditional sugar made from the cut flower buds of coconuts, this product is beginning to gain popularity as a healthy natural sweetener. Palm sugar is a similar product that comes from a different tree species. It can be used a straight replacement for regular sugar.
Stevia—A native South American plant, stevia rebaudiana is the source of this herbal non-caloric sweetener. Usually sold in a highly refined form of white powder or clear liquid which is made from the extracted stevioside compounds in the plant, stevia’s extremely strong sweetness and slightly bitter aftertaste dictate that its use be limited to very minute quantities. Less refined versions, which are said to have significant positive nutritional benefits, exist on the market in the form of green or grayish powder or dark liquid but are not as commonly carried in stores. Stevia can be grown as a garden plant, with the leaves picked and used as is, or dried to produce a homemade sweetening extract.
Questionable Alternative Sweeteners:
Agave Syrup—Concerns have been raised regarding processing methods of this relative newcomer, labelled as “agave nectar,” to the healthy sweeteners aisle. Contrary to traditional Mexican methods of boiling the sap of the plant to produce a sweet nectar, modern processing uses the starch in the root bulb to create a much cheaper product containing high levels of refined fructose. This is then marketed to unsuspecting health conscious consumers as a natural healthy sweetener.
Fruit Juice Concentrates—Sometimes recommended as a healthy sweetening alternative; keep in mind that they are also highly processed and concentrated, so are virtually no healthier than sugar.
Recipes and Ideas
(Mix & Match & Minimize Healthier Sweeteners)
Stir a pinch of stevia and a few drops of vanilla extract into plain whole yogurt for a lightly sweetened taste, either by itself or with added fruit.
Combine rice syrup and a pinch of stevia as a replacement for honey. (Rice syrup is a much less sweet than honey.)
Combine honey and maple syrup (try a 3:1 proportion) for a product that’s easier to pour and spread than plain honey which tends to thicken in storage. This can be stored at room temperature for a period of time, with honey acting as a preservative for the maple syrup.
Add a few drops of blackstrap molasses to honey or rice syrup to obtain a “brown sugar” flavour.
In terms of taste quality and sweetening effect, stevia often works better when combined with a small amount of sugar, honey, or other natural sweetener.
Puree soaked or cooked dried fruits for use as a sweet spread or topping. Add a few drops of almond extract to emphasize the fruit flavour.
Add or increase amounts of flavouring ingredients such as vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves in a recipe to enhance the sweetness already present in fruits, grains, etc. This may reduce the need for added sweeteners.
Sandra Brandt has had a lifelong interest in whole natural foods. She lives in Regina, where she gives cooking classes, presentations, and dietary consultations. She can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also see the colour display ad on page 13 of the 17.5 January/February issue of the WHOLifE Journal.