One of my sweetest memories as a child in the tropics is biting into a fresh piece of sugar cane. I don’t even recall rinsing the cane before sinking my teeth into the juicy, fibrous stem. It was a superb sweet break that could fuel hours of running, jumping and assorted shenanigans. Nutritious? I didn’t care — it simply tasted good. Today, I no longer have the luxury of ignoring nutrition and am thus more mindful of the sweeteners I use.
It’s alarming to realize that in the United States, individuals are consuming 140 pounds of sugar each year — enough calories for an extra 70 pounds of body weight! It wasn’t always this bad: Consider the typical 19th-century American pioneer, who scrimped by with a meager 12 pounds of sugar yearly. Today, we seem to be shackled to sugar, and all that sweetness can launch a bitter assault on our health. Obesity, diabetes and hyperactivity in children are just a few of the afflictions linked with excessive sugar consumption. Some argue that sugar, rather than dietary fat, is the real culprit behind heart disease.
There will be many more debates about sugar’s role in disease. Meanwhile, we can do something about the amount of processed sugar we consume. Many natural alternatives can satisfy your sweet tooth without wreaking havoc on your health.
Nature’s Bounty of Sweeteners
Plants are the original sweetener factories, making various sugars and more than 100 other sweet compounds. These include intense sweeteners, reduced-calorie sweeteners and natural sugars — the first two are generally considered safe for diabetics if used in small amounts.
Stevia — The Sweet Herb of Paraguay
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a celebrity among intense sweeteners. Natives of Paraguay have used this native South American plant for centuries as a natural sweetener, its leaves rich in several sweet compounds. Two compounds are prevalent: stevioside and rebaudioside A. Stevioside is up to 300 times sweeter than sucrose —so you need only a drop of extract in a mug of tea instead of a teaspoon of sugar. Because such teensy amounts are needed, you don’t have to worry about calories, nor about it elevating your blood sugar levels.
Paradoxically, stevia can have a bitter aftertaste that many find unpleasant. That’s also from the stevioside, which has a bitter aspect to its otherwise sweet disposition. In contrast, rebaudioside A tends to be sweet without the bitter aftermath. The taste of the product you buy will depend on the balance of these two constituents. Some extracts guarantee 80 percent rebaudioside A, and these could be just your cup of tea.
In other parts of North America, stevia is available as dried leaves, liquid extracts, powders or tablets. In the United States, it is marketed only as a dietary supplement, not as a commercial food additive. So you won’t find stevia in your typical grocery store products. Elsewhere, in Asia and South America, stevia is used freely in commercial food products, and it has had a sterling safety record.
Is there anything you can’t do with stevia? Well, although you can bake with it, your cakes won’t turn golden brown without sugar. And stevia won’t work as a sugar substitute in yeast breads — yeast needs sugar to make bread rise, and it won’t get any from stevia.
Lo Han Kuo — The New Intense Sweetener
From the mountains of southern China comes another sweet plant — the luo han kuo (Siraitia grosvenorii). Its kiwi-like fruits contain intensely sweet substances called mogrosides, which are 250 to 425 sweeter than cane sugar, depending on the particular mogroside (mogroside V, also called mogroside 5, is considered the sweetest). The concentrated fruit has been used in China for hundreds of years to sweeten foods and beverages.
Now highly purified mogroside extracts are available for use in commercial foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a product called PureLo for use by the food industry as a sweetener and flavor modifier. Consumers usually cannot purchase PureLo, but you can buy either the dried fruits (which are about 300 times sweeter than sucrose) or powdered extracts that contain about 80 percent mogrosides. You’ll see the dried fruits in Chinese shops; to use them, simply crush, or simmer to make a thick sauce for sweetening foods. Unfortunately, mogrosides can be unstable at temperatures above about 250 degrees, so they’re not suitable for baking, but they’re fine in refrigerator desserts.
Stevia and Luo Han Kuo — Sweeter News Yet
If you’d like more reasons to try stevia or luo han kuo, some recent research findings may interest you. Stevioside was found in a Chinese clinical study to reduce blood pressure, possibly by influencing calcium transport in the body. After three months of taking a 250-gram capsule of stevioside three times daily, patients’ systolic blood pressure dropped from 166 to 153, and diastolic from 105 to 90. The effect persisted for the full year of the study as they continued taking the herb.
Both stevioside and mogroside V also might help prevent cancer caused by harmful chemical radicals. Extracts inhibited skin cancer formation in mice exposed to nitrites and nitrous oxides. Scientists suggest these extracts may be promising cancer-preventive agents.
Agave — Beyond Tequila
The agave plant from Mexico made its reputation as the famous tequila plant. Now Agave tequilana is enjoying a revival, this time for the sweet nectar contained in the inner core, or heart, of this gigantic succulent. A mature agave plant could literally fill a 12-foot room and produce a pineapple-sized core. About 25 percent sweeter than sugar, the nectar’s golden creamy quality makes a good substitute for honey in most cooking and baking — use about three-quarters (as compared with the honey requirement) of the volume of nectar.
There’s a certain amount of snobbery among agave producers. Some say it must be the blue agave to be any good, while others use alternate Agave species. Blue agave flourishes in the rich volcanic soils that blanket the Mexican mountain ranges. Nectar from the blue agave has been rated as “low glycemic,” meaning it is generally safe for diabetics in specified amounts — but check that the product you’re buying has been tested by a reputable organization.
Agave is high in fructose. The key, sweet carbohydrate in agave is inulin, a complex form of fructose consisting of long chains of sugar molecules strung together. But our bodies can’t digest inulin, so we obtain no sugar value from it and it does not destabilize blood sugar. Interestingly, the beneficial bacteria that live in our digestive tracts love inulin and digest it very well for their own use, so using it as a sweetener has the added benefit of nurturing our good intestinal flora. Inulin also is found in chicory roots, Jerusalem artichokes, dahlia tubers and many other plants. In the food industry, it is often used to confer a creamy texture and to balance the taste of more intense sweeteners, such as stevia.
Natural Sweeteners in Commercial Foods
Various naturally derived sweeteners are used to sweeten and flavor diet candies, chewing gums and breath fresheners. Diet candies often contain a licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) extract called glycyrrhizin, a noncaloric substance that is 50 to 170 times sweeter than sucrose. You should avoid glycyrrhizin (and licorice root products in general) if you have hypertension, heart or kidney problems or glaucoma. Research suggests that a daily upper limit for otherwise healthy individuals is about 2.3 mg of the root or 0.1 mg of glycyrrhizin extract per pound of body weight.
Another sweetener comes from the fruit of the West African katemfe shrub, Thaumatococcus daniellii. It yields phenomenally sweet proteins called thaumatins — 2,000 to 3,000 times sweeter than sucrose and virtually calorie-free. In the United States, thaumatin is used commercially in chewing gum, breath fresheners and as a flavor enhancer by the food industry.
Then there are the sugar alcohols (or polyols), which are neither sugar nor the kind of alcohol that makes you tipsy. An example is xylitol, originally extracted from birch wood chips and now manufactured mainly in the laboratory. Popular in sugar-free gums and candies because it doesn’t rot the teeth, xylitol is as sweet as sugar with 40 percent fewer calories. It and other sugar alcohols — mannitol, sorbitol, lactitol, erythritol and maltitol — do elevate blood glucose, but less rapidly than sugar, as they’re absorbed very slowly. You can buy xylitol sweetener for your own use, but be aware that sugar alcohols sometimes can cause stomach upset and diarrhea.
My Favorite Sugars
My personal favorites are the natural sugars. For example, tea sweetened with a delicate wild honey, wild blueberry sauce sweetened with maple syrup, or a favorite gingerbread laced with molasses — these are great treats to be enjoyed in moderation. And that sugar cane I loved to chew on as a child even had a good dash of riboflavin. I also like the rich spicy notes of birch syrup, perfect on pancakes, in meat marinades and in other assorted delicacies.
Most of us can enjoy natural sugars with a measure of wholesome restraint, but 140 pounds of it is too much. So if we imitate those pioneers, we should hit it just about right.
Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist living in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Contact her at www.HerbsForHealth.com/ contributors.
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