Natural Sweeteners: Information and Uses

by in Healthy Tips, November 17, 2012

maple syrup
Added sugars in out diet have been shown to increase the risk of obesity and disease. Does this mean you can never have sweets again? The answer is no, but it is important to understand the facts. With constant media hype surrounding buzz words like high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugar, how do you know what to choose and how much is too much? And are natural sweeteners really better for you?

The truth is, all sweeteners (both refined and natural) are considered to be discretionary calories. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day for women, or about 100 calories worth. Men should aim for about 9 teaspoons a day, or 150 calories. The problem is, with so many added sugars in our diet (surveys have shown that the average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day) we can achieve this quite quickly. A 12-oz soda contains 8 tsp of sugar. Many cereals, even the “healthy stuff” have 3-4 tsp of sugar per serving and the same goes for flavored oatmeal, some tomato sauces, condiments like BBQ sauce and even that granola bar you are eating. Needless to say, the teaspoon of honey you put in your tea is rarely the culprit.

No need to panic: you can easily reduce the amount of sugar in your diet by avoiding processed foods and eating the real thing (yes, this seems to be the solution to most of our daily nutrition dilemmas  . . . convinced yet?).

Still craving something sweet? Some options are better than others. When sugars are refined (think cane sugar, brown sugar, confectioners’ sugar) all the nutrients and removed and just the sugar remains. They are digested very quickly and cause spikes in our blood sugars and also have an inflammatory effect in our body. Natural sweeteners can have similar effects on our bodies and should still be used in moderation but they are much less (sometimes not at all) processed so do contain some nutrients and tend to have a lesser effect on our blood sugars so are considered better options is the sweet treat category.

One of the oldest, as well as most common, sweeteners available is honey. Honey can vary in both taste and color depending on the predominant flower in bloom at the time of the bees’ production and many varieties can be found at local farmers’ markets. In some cultures, honey is used medicinally and is touted for its antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Research has shown that honey has some immune boosting powers and don’t forget, it’s a great throat soother and cough suppressant.

Another natural liquid sweetener is maple syrup. Pure maple syrup is the boiled-down sap of maple trees and is rich in trace minerals. Syrup labeled “pancake syrup” is not pure maple syrup. Maple syrup can also be dehydrated and sold as maple sugar. They both have strong, sweet, distinctive tastes. Maple syrup contains zinc and manganese, minerals that help support immune function.

Molasses is a by-product of the refining process of white sugar and is rich in iron. It also contains calcium, zinc, copper and chromium. However, because molasses is only 65 percent as sweet as sugar and has a distinctive flavor, it may not be suitable in all recipes.

Agave is another liquid sweetener that has gained popularity in recent years. Agave is obtained from the core of the Mexican Agave cactus, the same plant from which tequila is made. Agave has a neutral taste and it is useful in sweetening drinks because it dissolves in both hot and cold liquids. Agave tastes sweeter than sugar; therefore a smaller amount is needed in recipes, which may reduce the overall calories in the final product.

Two additional liquid sweeteners include barley malt syrup and rice syrup. To make barley syrup, barley is soaked and sprouted, then dehydrated into a thick syrup. For rice syrup, a combination of barley and rice is used a similar process. Both may be digested more slowly than sugar and therefore be gentler on blood sugar levels.

Coconut is found in two of the newest natural sweeteners in the mainstream American market. Coconut nectar is a syrup made from boiling down the sap of coconut flowers and coconut sugar results from dehydrating the nectar. Coconut nectar and sugar are less sweet than white sugar and have scores of 35 on the glycemic index.

There are also a variety of granulated natural sweeteners. Three that are often confused are sucanat, turbinado and evaporated cane juice. All are made by extracting and evaporating sugar cane juice. However, sucanat is the least refined and contains the most trace minerals because it maintains a high molasses content. Evaporated cane juice contains the least molasses and therefore, the least minerals.

Date sugar is a natural sweetening alternative made from dehydrating dates. It is a good choice for those looking for a fruit-based option but it may present challenges in baking because it does not dissolve readily.

One of the most publicized granulated natural sweeteners is stevia. Leaves of the stevia plant are harvested, dried and steeped in water to release the sweetener. It has no calories and is much sweeter than sugar so less of it is needed for a similar effect. It is also sold in liquid, powdered and tablet forms.

My recommendations:

  • Curb sweet cravings with naturally-sweet foods like fruits and veggies like carrots, sweet potatoes, beets and squash because we know they are good-for-you grub.
  • Treat yourself to the occasional soda, cookie or brownie so you never feel deprived.
  • Avoid processed foods with added sweeteners and focus on a more whole-foods diet.
  • Need to add sweet?  A natural sweetener is your best bet so explore the many options available.
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