With diabetes and obesity statistics at epidemic proportions, it’s no wonder that most Americans are reassessing their relationship to sugar. Countless studies indicate that our increased consumption of refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup have contributed to a host of health problems, many never experienced by humans until our modern times. “Natural” sugars and sugar alternatives are popping up everywhere these days, but, as with anything else, not all sweeteners are created equal. Some sweeteners are better suited for certain foods and methods of preparation than others. Some “natural” sweeteners are not necessarily as healthy as they claim. Here is a guide to navigating the aisles of refined sugar alternatives:
Raw Honey: Honey that has not been heated to temperatures greater than 117 degrees is considered raw. Raw honey contains high levels of amylases, enzymes that digest carbohydrates. For this reason it is the perfect sweetener for whole grain cereals, porridges and toast. Glucose tolerance tests indicate that, for most people, honey does not upset blood sugar levels as severely as refined sugar. Raw honey has traditionally been used as a medicine since ancient times. It has therapeutic applications for relieving morning sickness, bladder infections, arthritis, digestive issues, bad breath, infertility, sore throats and migraines (just to name a few). Due to its low water content, it establishes a poor environment for bad bacteria to grow, making it a great natural preservative. Raw honey loses most of its medicinal qualities when heated, so it is best used in raw recipes, and low heat foods.
Maple Syrup: The concentrated sap of huge, deciduous trees, maple syrup is rich in trace minerals, brought up from the ground by the tree’s roots. It adds a wonderful flavor to most baked goods. There is a huge difference between organic and inorganic maple syrup! Many commercial maple syrups are really just maple flavored high fructose corn syrup. Even worse, maple syrups that are not certified organic may have been processed with formaldehyde. YUCK! Make sure to choose certified organic maple syrup.
Rapadura: Rapadura is the commercial name for dehydrated cane sugar juice, which has been used in India for thousands of years. It is rich in minerals, such as silica. Its taste is very similar to table sugar, and it can be used in baking in the same way. Large amounts of Rapadura can upset blood sugar levels, so it is best used in moderation; it may not be suitable for diabetics.
Stevia: Stevia is a traditional South American medicinal herb. It can be found in the form of a powdered leaf from the plant, or a water-extracted liquid. Stevia is another sweetener that doubles as a medicine. Recent research indicates that it does not raise the blood sugar level, it may even lower it! Studies also reveal that it may be therapeutic for candida, when most sweeteners are known to aggravate the condition. A little stevia goes a long way! Just a pinch is equal in sweetness to a tablespoon of sugar. It is not well suited for most baking recipes. Stevia is an excellent medicinal sweetener when added to herbal teas, salad dressings, smoothies and raw desserts. Alcohol extracted stevia, and refined “white” stevia are not as beneficial. Unrefined stevia is dark green in color.
Agave nectar: Despite what the fancy bottle might say, Agave Nectar’s claims of being a “raw” health food are greatly exaggerated. For one thing, agave syrup is highly processed. The liquid of the plant is boiled and reduced for several days at high temperatures in order to manufacture the syrup. This inhibits the enzymatic activity present in living foods, thus agave syrup cannot be considered raw. Recent nutrition studies show that Agave syrup has a 90 percent concentration of fructose, the remaining 10 percent glucose. High fructose corn syrup only contains 55 percent fructose, to put things in perspective. Research suggests that fructose actually promotes disease more readily than glucose, and is especially taxing on the liver.
“Raw” or “Natural” Sugar, Turbinado, Sucanat Sugar or Florida Crystals: These are all refined sugars, devoid of any nutritional value. Don’t be fooled!
Coconut or palm sugar: Coconut sugar, also known as “palm sugar,” looks a lot like brown sugar and has a subtle caramel flavor. Derived from the nectar of the palm blossoms, this palm sugar has a long heritage in East Asian medicine and cuisine. It is mineral rich, containing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and sulfur. It can be used in place of sugar in any baking recipe and has a low glycemic index of 35. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that coconut sugar is the single most sustainable type of sweetener in the world. Tropical palms are ecologically beneficial, and produce 50-75 percent more sugar per acre than cane sugar. They have been shown to build soil, regenerate ecosystems and require little water. Coconut palm sugar can be tapped without harming the tree itself for over 70 years! Ninety eight percent of the palm sugar industry is made up of small holder owned companies, as opposed to less than five percent small holder ownership for sugar cane.
The old adage “let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food” can even be applied to sweet foods. Choose your sweeteners wisely and you will be able to have that cake, eat it, and feel good too!
1. Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions, Revised second edition. New Trends Publishing, Washington DC, 1999.
2. Cousens, Gabriel. There is a Cure for Diabetes. North Atlantic Books, Berkely, 2008.