So last week, we saw pretty clearly – in spite of efforts to confuse us on every front! – what a bad idea it is to put refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup in our bodies. The proof is in the pudding – and the ice cream, cupcakes, candies and cookies. (And the ketchup, cereal, and tomato sauce!) Obesity and disease are the results when we regularly consume highly processed sweeteners.
But what about all the other sweeteners out there that have been touted as healthier alternatives? That landscape is even more confusing, so once again – let’s try to cut through the overwhelm and get down to the basics.
At the outset, I will readily admit that I am not the authority on this subject. These are not definitive answers, nor is this an exhaustive list. Someone might even tell me I’m wrong about something, and I very well could be! But these are starting points based on my own online research in an attempt to help you gain a little clarity and make the best decisions possible for yourselves.
The first tip, however, I’ll give without hesitation:
Stay Away From Traditional Artificial Sweeteners!
Avoid artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame, sucralose, or any of those little pastel colored packets) like the plague that they are. The key word here is “artificial.” That means the sweetener isn’t food, and it doesn’t belong in your body. Such sweeteners are really just artificial substances that replace the sweetness of sugar – often without calories, sometimes with them, but always with chemicals. Artificial sweeteners are actually known, through research, studies, and experience, to lead to a wide variety of undesirable side effects. Just a few of them include increased appetite, headaches, seizures, enlarged kidneys, and brain tumors. This is the short list – the research continues, and yet these packets of Equal, NutraSweet and Splenda remain on almost every restaurant table in America. And they are the main ingredients in all the diet sodas people drink with the intention of being healthy and slim. (If you haven’t yet realized that diet sodas are just as bad as, if not worse than, the regular kind, stay tuned. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about that soon, too.)
So-Called Natural Sweeteners
It’s so easy to be fooled by packaging that states certain products are “all natural.” Truvia (and other stevia-based powders) and agave nectar, for instance, have both been celebrated as healthier alternatives to sugar and HFCS. There remains considerable debate about the facts, though. And where there’s debate, there’s almost always reason to be suspect.
Truvia and Stevia Powders
The stevia plant, which we’ll get to in a minute, is indeed an all-natural creation found in nature. The white powdered versions of Stevia, however, are not. What are they, exactly? Problem is, we don’t really know. What we do know is that they are highly refined products, made that way through a big secret process that the manufacturers (like Coca-Cola!) won’t reveal. If such secrecy isn’t a warning sign to stay away, I’m not sure what is! I have some old “Stevia in the Raw” packets in my pantry that will now end up in my trash can.
I confess I have a bottle of “Organic Raw Blue Agave Nectar” in my pantry. The jury seems to be out on whether or not it’s truly an acceptable alternative sweetener – but it also seems the jury is leaning toward “no.”
That’s because although there is indeed an agave plant, the nectar derived from it isn’t truly raw, and it’s not all natural. According to an expert in the food industry, the agave we find marketed on the grocery store shelves is created using a highly chemical process with genetically modified enzymes.
The big benefit of agave touted by its proponents is the fact that it has a low glycemic index and is supposedly better for diabetics. That’s because, surprisingly, it’s very high in fructose as opposed to glucose (not unlike high fructose corn syrup!). Whereas glucose does impact blood sugar levels, fructose does not because it is transported directly to the liver and converted to fat. So although agave nectar doesn’t raise your blood sugar, it taxes your liver and packs on the fat, especially around the liver and the abdomen.
My pants feel tighter already. I think the agave in my pantry will end up next to the stevia packets in the trash.
Actually Natural Sweeteners
I found this definition on the web for a natural sweetener: it’s something you could reasonably be able to grow, harvest, and, if necessary, process yourself without the use of added chemicals, enzymes, or expensive machinery. Now, this doesn’t mean that you would have to grow, harvest, and process the sweetener. I personally wouldn’t mess with a beehive or go to the trouble of tapping a maple tree. But I could. And you can benefit from someone else’s efforts to do those things for you in a natural, sustainable way. Here are a few examples of truly natural sweeteners:
Stevia is an herb that tastes sweet on the tongue without any actual sugar molecules. No calories, and there have even been claims about its health benefits. While there are a lot of questions surrounding the commercialized processed stevia powder, raw stevia is unquestionably all natural. You can even make an extract on your own at home. (I don’t have room to explain the process here, but you can easily look up the information on the web.)
Arguably, raw honey is the most truly natural sweetener you’ll ever find. It does has a stronger and different flavor than more neutral sweeteners, and it doesn’t always translate well to recipes because of its taste and consistency.
This is the other most truly natural sweetener you’ll find. You have to find actual, real maple syrup, though… not the artificially flavored syrups that are much more prevalent in the grocery stores. Drawback… it does rank pretty high on the glycemic index.
Applesauce, dates and other fruit
All natural applesauce is an excellent natural sweetener you can use in a wide variety of recipes. If you don’t need a liquid sweetener, you might try using pitted dates (medjool dates are exceptionally delicious) in certain recipes, such as the one in the link below for raw vegan chocolate brownies.
Another trick I use sometimes when a sweet or chocolate urge hits me is to grab a handful of raw cacao nibs and mix them with raw, unsweetened shredded coconut and raisins. At this very moment, I am enjoying a date roll with raw coconut. Not only does it satisfy my natural sweet tooth, but it’s very filling and there is no way I could possibly eat more than I should.
As I said, I’m no expert on the sweetener issue. But here’s the uncomplicated bottom line on sweeteners: use all of them sparingly. The best sweets to eat are nature’s own desserts – fruits. Sure, they contain fructose, but our bodies tend to process fructose well when consumed in its natural state – not in the large and highly concentrated amounts we see in processed foods. As for any other sweeteners, save them for the weekend, and then, make the best choices you can. If you don’t already appreciate the sweet taste of fruits, a sugar/sweetener detox is a great idea. Once your taste buds and system are no longer used to processed sugars or high glycemic sweeteners, you’ll not only find you’ve “kicked” the habit or addiction, but you’ll also find that such products become distasteful to you. Fruits will taste sweeter, and your body will crave them – both for the naturally sweet taste, and for the good they do your body.
I welcome your comments and insights on this topic, if you have any to share. And be sure to join me next week, when we’re going to “celebrate” the 150th birthday of the Unites States Department of Agriculture and take a look at the impact the department has had on our nation’s health with a blog article – and 150 candles on a nice big high fructose corn syrup-sweetened cake!