Naturally Sweet

Give your body a boost with stevia and other natural sweeteners.

| November/December 2006

  • Glycyrrhizin, extracted from licorice root, often is used to sweeten diet candy — it’s 50 to 170 times sweeter than sucrose.
  • Sugar cane grows in tropical and subtropical climates. About 1,324 million tons are produced annually by 200 countries. The average American consumes 140 pounds of sugar each year.
  • Native to Paraguay, naturally sweet stevia extracts have become popular in the United States.

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.

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