Making the Switch to Natural Sweeteners
Accepting the not-so-sweet truth about sugar is hard for many people. Sugar is extracted from cane or beets to produce the white, granulated substance that is so familiar. Tasty as they may be, however, sugar's simple carbohydrates have caused harm to those who have helplessly become addicted to them. They are known to drain other nutrients from a consumer's diet. Many sources believe that consumers should consider switching over to natural sweeteners, such as honey, stevia, or fruit juice concentrates.
Almost all forms of concentrated sugar cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, according to Patrick Holford in The Optimum Nutrition Bible. "If this sugar is not required by the body it is put into storage, eventually emerging as fat. Most concentrated forms of sugar are also devoid of vitamins and minerals, unlike the natural sources such as fruit." Holford goes on to further explain that an individual's metabolism becomes inadequate from lack of vitamins and minerals, which results in reduced energy and poor weight control.
Refined sugars, such as white or brown sugars, corn syrup, mannitol and dextrose, lack nutritional value, deprive the body of precious reserves of energy and give nothing in return, according to Carol A. Nostrand in her book, Junk Food to Real Food: A Blueprint for Healthier Eating. Sugar leads to tooth decay and gum disease and in all its forms may increase the concentration of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol in the body, encouraging heart disease. Finally, although testing is not conclusive, it may also stress the immune system, making the body more susceptible to disease.
Nostrand urges readers to change their eating habits in order to live healthier lives, in this case, changing over to natural sweeteners from sugar. Although she recommends various natural sweeteners, Nostrand explains that even thought the body reacts to honey as sugar, raw honey possesses some nutrients and antibiotic properties that sugar does not contain. As a result, unlike sugar, honey gives the body something in return.
Nevertheless, honey has the highest caloric content, some 1,031 calories per cup, compared to white sugar's 821, say the editors of "The East West Journal" in their Shopper's Guide to Natural Foods. Honey is composed mostly of glucose-fructose and water, but some 3.5% of other nutrients are present. "Although it is relatively unprocessed or fractionated, honey is still not a terribly well-balanced carbohydrate food."
Many regard maple syrup as the premier gourmet sweetener among natural sweeteners, write the editors of Shopper's Guide to Natural Foods. Barley malt syrup, another natural sweetener, is a wholesome, grain-based, complex sweetener that involves a natural, automatic enzymatic hydrolysis of carbohydrates. It contains about 944 calories per cup and is not refined as much as white sugar or fructose. "The growing popularity of barley malt syrup and its gentle taste and slow-release complex carbohydrates have stimulated some innovative product development and marketing in America," write the editors of Shopper's Guide to Natural Foods.
One new product is several varieties of whole grain rice malt. Made of mostly maltose and some glucose, and sometimes called rice syrup, rice malt contains only 752 calories per cup and is not as highly refined as other sweeteners.
There are at least three advantages of rice malt in the diet, says Cheryl Mitchell, Ph.D., co-owner and resident food chemist for California Natural Products, quoted in Shopper's Guide to Natural Foods. First, it is hypoallergenic. Second, rice malt has a light and delicate flavor, so it goes well with most foods. And, last, it is easier on the digestive system. "It has predominately slow-digesting (one to two hours) complex carbohydrates, little free glucose, and no fructose or sucrose." Unlike its counterparts, rice malt is one of few sweeteners that offers energy without the instant blood sugar rushes.
Compared to sugar, stevia is 300 times sweeter but, dissimilar to sugar, it has zero calories per serving and is safe for diabetics. Sold in natural food stores as a dietary supplement, stevia is available in the form of leaves or as a white powder. This South American herb has been used for centuries by native people, doesn't cause fluctuations in blood sugar and actually can help regulate blood sugar levels, says Lisa Turner in a Better Nutrition article titled, "You can Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth with Some Help from Mother Nature." Nevertheless, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refuses to approve stevia for use in food, stating there is not enough data to support its safety.
Amasake uses nearly all rice and is a mild, slowly absorbed complex carbohydrate fermented food. Prepared dry koji, found in natural foods stores, is mixed with rice and water and allowed to ferment. Then it is blended, filtered, or diluted to make a naturally sweet, somewhat thick, soft liquid. This sweetener is used in baking, over cereals or even in puddings.
Fruit juice concentrates also have proven to be a promising sweetener. These fruity discoveries consist of mostly sucrose and some fructose, and calories per cup depend on the type of fruit. According to Shopper's Guide to Natural Foods, fruit-based sweeteners retain many of the properties of the original fruit because they are minimally processed. Unfortunately, fruit juice concentrates are not a sure shot when it comes to offering nutrition. They are filled with simple sugars that increase blood sugar levels.