Natural Healing: Alternative Sweeteners

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Given the variety of reasons to avoid refined sugar, it is nice to know there are alternatives. Science has given us a variety of artificial sweeteners, and now several natural sweeteners such as stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) are readily available in stores. If the goal is to enjoy the taste of sweet while maintaining health or losing weight, will any of these sweeteners do the trick?

The Artificial Options

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet), saccharine (Sweet’N Low) and Acesulfame-K (Sweet One) are now present in many foods or available for addition to foods and beverages. These laboratory creations are up to 200 times sweeter than sugar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Dietetic Association and the American Cancer Society have all declared these sweeteners safe based on scientific studies. However, some citizen groups believe artificial sweeteners can cause a number of health problems such as headaches, tumors, seizures, panic attacks, hyperactivity and multiple sclerosis. Some nutritionists and herbalists recommend against using them for a variety of other reasons.

Medical herbalist Susan Mead of Fort Collins, Colorado, believes that “anything fake is suspect in terms of how it affects our health. We cannot mimic Mother Nature in a laboratory.” She also says it is important to her that a substance be studied long-term and not just for a few years before she feels safe using it. “What we’ve studied short-term in a laboratory can’t be compared to empirical evidence over several centuries,” she says.

Physiologist and nutritional counselor Deborah Shulman, also of Fort Collins, says that although she doesn’t believe artificial sweeteners are toxic, she nevertheless recommends against using them, because they cause “sugar-seeking behavior.” Studies show that people who use artificial sweeteners tend to eat as much sugar as those who don’t, Shulman says. She believes people should avoid sugar and other sweeteners except on special occasions and consume whole foods and fruits instead. “The only way you can really deal with sugar cravings is to not eat sugar,” Shulman says. “You sensitize your taste buds so that you don’t want sugar.”

Nutritionist Jennifer Workman of Boulder, Colorado, agrees that artificial sweeteners are ineffective as sugar replacements in helping with weight loss or health issues. “The problem in this country is that everybody is trying to find an answer to the obesity epidemic,” she says. “We’re using sweeteners to try and satisfy taste, but taste satisfaction isn’t there, and people end up overconsuming.”

Safety Concerns

Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, was created in 1879. The FDA proposed a ban on saccharin in 1977 after laboratory tests on rats suggested it might cause bladder cancer, but the ban was never enacted. No links have been found between saccharin and cancer in humans. Aspartame was approved by the FDA as a food additive in 1981. The FDA says that aspartame has been thoroughly tested and that it is safe for the general population. It is not safe, however, for people with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria. Acesulfame-K was approved by the FDA in 1988, and it is often blended with other sugar substitutes to create a more sugar-like taste. More than 90 studies conducted on it have concluded that it is safe.

What About the Natural Options?

As Shulman, Mead and Workman say, controlling the desire for sweet tastes is one option; another is to use natural sweeteners. If you decide to use natural sweeteners, there are a number of alternatives. Mead generally recommends that her clients use honey or Sucanat (dehydrated cane juice) in small amounts — although these are still sugar, they do contain some nutrients, she says. Other alternatives include maple syrup, blackstrap molasses (real maple syrup and blackstrap molasses are high in minerals), agave, rice syrup powder (DevanSweet) and stevia.

Stevia is a Paraguayan herb that has been used since pre-Columbian times to sweeten bitter drinks such as maté. In 1995, the FDA allowed stevia to be imported and sold as a dietary supplement, and it can now be purchased in health-food stores. This herb is available in the form of powder or extract, and only small amounts are needed to sweeten food or drinks. Other herbal sweeteners include licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Aztec sweet herb (Lippia dulcis, Phyla scaberrima) and serendipity berries (Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii), but, with the exception of licorice, these are not yet widely used in the United States. Herbs for Health editorial adviser Art Tucker says Aztec sweet herb should not be used during pregnancy.

Like Mead, Workman recommends that people use very small amounts of maple syrup, honey, Sucanat and stevia. A small amount of natural sweetener is fine, she says, and won’t adversely affect health, cause weight gain or lead to overconsumption of sugar. In her practice and in her book Stop Your Cravings (Free Press, 2001), Workman describes snack suggestions such as almond milk flavored with cinnamon and organic cocoa powder. This drink is low in sugar and carbohydrates, and the spices help with digestion. Her book also contains a recipe for a sweet marinade and recommends Maharishi Ayurveda’s Be Trim Tea, an herbal blend that may help balance sugar cravings.

Satisfying Spices

As a student of Ayurveda, Workman says that in the Indian perspective, use of flavors and spices can be good for digestion and helps stabilize blood sugar. Spices or culinary herbs such as cinnamon, cardamom and gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre) not only add flavor but can help manage sugar metabolism, she says. “People with addiction problems do well on spices — they satisfy cravings and don’t spike blood sugar,” she says.

As the problems of obesity, diabetes and heart disease grow, the question of how to handle the craving for sweet foods may be an important one. It’s natural to like sweet tastes, but, Workman says, “The question is, what are you choosing to satisfy the taste with?”

Lynda McCullough is a freelance writer living in Colorado.

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