Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ingredients 301: Natural Sweeteners

"Sugar free". "Reduced sugar". "Refined sugar-free". "Made with all natural sweeteners".

Confusing!

There are a lot of "labels" out there with regards to white, refined sugar alternatives. I was on the hunt for chocolate at my International Farmer's Market the other day, and I thought I could find "just dark chocolate" (with no sugar added). So I bought some "sugar-free" chocolate (and yes, I read the label which said the only ingredients were cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, cocoa nibs, and non-GMO soy lethicin). "Great!" I thought, BUT it had in small print at the bottom (which I read post-buying the product) an excerpt about how it's sweetened with Maltitol, which is a sugar alcohol derived from corn! Since Maltitol has no nutritive value, it doesn't have to be listed in the ingredients list!!!! I don't know a lot about possible negative effects of this sweetener; however, I try to not eat sugar alcohols because they are chemically processed ingredients and I want to eat things I can understand!

This experience was a bit frustrating, but, yes I ate the chocolate anyways... I mean it was chocolate for crying out loud! But lesson learned: ALWAYS, always, always read your labels :)

Here is my "middle-of-the-road" approach to Natural Sweeteners. With all the confusion out there I thought I would post some information on the pro's and con's ...so here is the good, the bad, the ugly, and also where to find them :)

First up: Agave
Pros
- Agave is low glycemic (meaning it can be a good alternative to white sugar for diabetics- not spiking their blood sugar as much as white sugar)
- It also has a low glycemic load, about a 6 for an oz. of Agave (an oz. of raw apple is a 1 for glycemic load and an oz. of regular sugar is about 19 to give you a comparison)…although this differs from brand to brand
Cons
- Agave nectar (at least the way it is sold in stores) is a “processed” food- meaning it has to be processed to be sweet (hydrolyzing the polysaccharides usually by thermal hydrolysis (meaning temps of 160+ or more). If it’s not processed by hydrolysis, then it’s not sweet- therefore, the question begs can it really be “raw”?
- Also, the processed product of the agave plant we eat is very high in fructose. Fructose alone is not a monster by any means (I know we think of it that way because of High Fructose Corn Syrup—which now the evil food conglomerates are petitioning congress/ FDA to rename it “corn sugar” for a while until the public catches up!...I digress). But high fructose intake (which some agave syrups can be almost all fructose- 98%) is linked to a number of not-so-good things: diabetes, obesity (fructose converts to fat more easily than any other sugar), malabsorption, and even high blood sugar! Fructose is harder on the body to process because it must be processed by the liver, whereas glucose can be processed by every cell we have in our bodies.
- Agave, because it is processed, even if it says “RAW” (which there are no FDA regulations on what “raw” has to mean if it’s not a vegetable, fruit, or animal product), contains very little of the nutrient benefits of it’s parent plant.
- Although this cannot be confirmed in the major brands, imported Agaves have been thought to have additives like corn syrup in it to make it more profitable, and the corn syrup can easily be “snuck in” across the border.

Where to Find:
Agave can be found most everywhere from local grocery stores, to whole food markets to Costco (not sure about Sam’s Club)

Raw Honey
Pros
- Honey is a “whole food”, meaning it contains vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, phytonutrients, etc.
- It is lower in fructose than Agave, and usually has a 1:1 ratio of glucose:fructose.
- Raw Honey may also have anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral benefits.
- Also, if you get your honey Raw and Local, you may see a reduction in allergy symptoms because the bees have enzyme aides to process local pollens and allergens
Cons
- It is closer to the glycemic load of regular sugar than Agave, for example. Honey is a glycemic load of 14 per oz. (real sugar is 19 per oz.)
- Many of the anti-inflammatory benefits/ enzymes/ Vitamins are reduced significantly when heated, making it similar to Agave when used in baking.
- Raw honey may not be suitable for babies or small children (botulism, toxic things the bees may have gotten into that cannot be processed easily by tiny digestive systems)
Where to Find:
The best place to find raw honey is a local beekeeper. Savannah Bee Company has nice raw honeys, mostly grown in FL or the North, though- but they are sold across the South in specialty shops. Whole Foods also has local honey companies products and most often, raw honey from at least the regional area. Localharvest.org is another good way to find local honey in your area.

Coconut or Palm Sugar

Pros

- If you want to support small farmers, coconut sugar is the way to go…this is a highly sustainable product….

o “The most remarkable blessing about tapping a coconut tree, is that once it is tapped, it flows its sap continuously for the next 20 years. From a sustainability viewpoint, the harvestable energy production from tapping coconut trees for their sap (which yields 5,000 liters per hectare), rather than allowing them to produce fruit, is 5-7 times higher per hectare than coconut oil production from mature coconuts.” [from here]

- Even if it is processed, it requires much less because it is more naturally sweet coming straight from the sap of the palm trees (thus requiring evaporation over heating to process and can many times be found truly “raw”)

- It’s loaded with vitamins, essential amino acids, etc.

- Also can have anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial properties like honey

- Low glycemic index and, more importantly, low glycemic load (1.4 per serving= appx an oz. compared with white sugar at 19 per oz. serving)

Cons

- If highly processed, which each brand processes it differently, it can be boiled denaturing some of the beneficial enzymes and vitamins the raw form contains

- It is also very caramel-like (stronger than brown sugar) in taste and has a strong flavor when used for confectioner needs. While it is a good healthy alternative to white sugar, you wont get the same results (i.e. a fine crumb) when you use in baked goods…although, it does have descent caramelizing properties

- This is my favorite natural sweetener to work with so it’s hard to find “cons”…maybe I’m a little biased :)

Where to Find:
Coconut sugar can be found at Whole Foods (I have not seen it in local grocery stores yet). It can also be purchased for a reasonable price at iherb.com.

Maple Syrup

Pros

- A unique “maple” flavor, ideal for candy making, maple flavored desserts, or a breakfast topping.

- If you buy Pure Maple syrup (or Grade B), you are most likely supporting responsible, sustainable forestry and local businesses.

- Grade B can sometimes have higher mineral content, adding minerals like calcium to your diet.

- It is lower in fructose, thus, less hard on the liver to metabolize.

Cons

- This stuff is pretty on par with regular sugar as far as the glycemic load goes- and sometimes is higher on the glycemic index than refined sugar per volume. This, therefore, would not be a good choice for diabetics or people with blood sugar problems.

- It can be quite pricey if getting the Grade B kind in the grocery store.

- Also, as with agave, this sweetener can sometimes be called “raw” but be wary of that label because, again, to have a sweet product some processing and, perhaps, some heating must occur.

- Beware of regular "maple syrup" or generic brands in grocery stores: most of the time these are blended with 15% or more refined, white sugar!

Where to find:
You can find Grade B Maple syrup now at most grocery stores. If you want a higher quality product, also try iherb.com.


Stevia

Pros

- Lowest glycemic index and load of ALL “natural sweeteners”, which is zero, making it an ideal sweetener for all!

- Can be found in neat flavors like: Vanilla Crème, Hazelnut, or Root Beer (yum!)

- It can be found in liquid or powder form, making it versatile for both baking and smoothies/ lattes/ etc.

Cons

- Some brands have bitter aftertastes

- Does not work as a direct replacement for white sugar in baking needs as it has little ability to caramelize through the baking process

- Although stevia has been used to sweeten for centuries, not enough is known about the derivative of stevia (Rebaudioside A) and it’s effects that we consume in today’s modern society

- Anything that your body perceives as sweet will trigger a release of insulin into your blood. If it actually is sweet (containing glucose- like honey, fruit, etc.) the combination of glucose and insulin in the blood will activate the satiety center of the brain (making you feel full). HOWEVER, if there are no actual sugars in what you are eating (like stevia or artificial sweeteners like aspartame), the insulin in the blood without the sugars being present will activate the hunger center of the brain. Therefore, stevia could promote hunger- leading to over-snaking!

- Also, if some of you care- Truvia is made by Coca-Cola and PureVia is made by Pepsi.

Where to Find:

I try to buy brands other than Truvia and PureVia (for personal reasons), so I usually buy mine at Whole foods or my local organic co-op. It can also be found in more flavors in both liquid and powder from at iherb.com.


Dried Fruits (Dates, Cherries, Raisins, etc.)

Pros

- These would be my first choice (other than real fruits) to go to for a sweetener.

- If not heated too high to dehydrate, they have all the benefits of their full-version fruits (vitamins, proteins, etc.), just less water.

- Depending on the dried fruit, they can contain essential minerals as well

- They usually have a good deal of fiber which aides in the bodies process to process sugars (not spiking blood sugar because the fibers bond to the sugars and make them slow to release into the blood stream)

- They usually have a low glycemic load because of how much fiber they contain per volume

Cons

- Because they contain much less water than whole un-dried fruit, you can eat a lot more of them and don’t get the “full feeling” quite as fast as with real fruit

- Some dried fruits were heated at extremely high temps, and, therefore, have lost some of their original vitamins

- They will never fully dissolve or caramelize and, therefore, can not be a replacement for all baking needs

- Also, many times white sugar is added to dried fruits (especially cranberries)- so read the labels!

Where to Find:

You can find dried fruits at a plethora of places. I recommend making sure they are organic and looking into how your favorite brand is “dried” to see how high it has been heated to dehydrate.



Sweetener Free: see my recipe index and be waiting for upcoming recipes using whole fruits as a sweetener!
There are others, like Yakon Syrup, for example. But I felt this was a good starter list :)

References:
My husband (from his Physiology class :)
http://www.living-foods.com/articles/agave.html
http://www.allaboutagave.com/agave-nectar-and-the-glycemic-index.php#gl
http://www.organiclifestylemagazine.com/blog/healthy-sugar-alternatives.php

http://www.coconutsecret.com/index.html

http://nutritiondata.self.com/

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