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Oh sugar … what natural sweetener shall I use?

Sugar cubes

Looking at the ever increasing types of sugar on offer, one could easily get confused. In an ideal world we just keep walking past the sugar, but realistically, giving up added sugar completely is not for everybody. Australians consume on average 42 kgs of sugar per year or 115 g per day (1). It clearly is part of our daily food intake and we are accustomed to the taste. With the increase of chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, keeping an eye on sugar intake is really important. The following article covers some of the many sugar alternatives on the market.

Honey

Honey contains the same basic sugar compounds as table sugar. Both contain glucose and fructose. Granulated table sugar, or sucrose, contains 50% glucose and 50% fructose molecules, whereas honey, contains about 31% glucose and 38% fructose. Fructose is sweeter than glucose, which is one of the reasons fructose is used in so many food products today. However, fructose does not convert to energy as efficiently as glucose. As a result, processed foods containing sugar high in fructose convert to fat stores more easily than honey.

Honey has proved itself as one of the healthier sweeteners on the market. In a series of experiments (2) involving healthy human subjects, and those with either high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes, showed the reduction of cholesterol levels and significantly lower rise in blood sugar in type 2 diabetics.

Honey has the unique ability to fight infection on multiple levels, making it more difficult for bacteria to develop resistance (3). That is, it uses a combination of weapons, including hydrogen peroxide, acidity, osmotic effect, high sugar concentration and polyphenols — all of which can actively kill bacterial cells. The osmotic effect, which is the result of the high sugar concentration in honey, draws water from the bacterial cells, dehydrating and killing them.

Raw honey that has not been heated over 47.2 degrees celsius is loaded with amylases, a carbohydrate digesting enzyme (4). This makes it an ideal sweetener for porridge and toast, as the enzymes in honey help break down grains. Only use it in dishes that do not require too much heating.

Caution: Do not give honey to infants (under the age of one) as the ability of their stomach acid to deactivate bacteria spores is not fully developed.

Maple Syrup

Concentrated sap of the maple tree that is rich in trace minerals and brought up from below ground through the tree’s expansive, deep roots. Tastes delicious in muffins and pancakes.

Rapadura

The commercial name for dehydrated cane sugar juice, which has been used in India for thousands of years. It is rich in minerals, particularly silica (4). The taste of Rapadura is very similar to sugar and can easily be used in cakes and cookies.

Stevia

A sweet powder made from a South American herb that is ideal for people who are even sensitive to natural sweeteners. It is a very concentrated form of sugar and a pinch of stevia has the same sweetness as a teaspoon of sugar.

Caution: Stevia does not add the same bulk as sugar and is therefore more suitable for creamed desserts, smoothies, drinks.

Molasses

A ‘waste’ product from the production of refined sugar. Provided the sugar cane grew in well fertilised soil, molasses can be rich in iron, calcium, zinc, copper and chromium (4). A very strong taste and moderate sweetness.

Malted Grain Syrups

These syrups have been around for thousands of years, especially in the Orient. Sprouted grains are kiln-dried and the rootlets removed. The grains are then ground up, dipped briefly in an acid solution and heated with water to form malt syrup. Malt syrup is about 65% maltose (that is two glucose molecules combined). Malted syrups contain very little fructose, which in large amounts is much more harmful than glucose (4).

Naturally Sweetened Jams

Look for jams sweetened with dehydrated sugar cane juice rather than fructose corn syrup which is very high in fructose.

Bottom line

There are many different natural sweeteners to choose from. Even if they are more natural, moderation and limiting where possible is vital for good health. With sugar so cheap and plentiful, we have lost sight of the fact that desserts are something special that you should treat yourself to on occasions, not on a daily basis.

References:

(4) Fallon, Sally 2001, Nourishing Traditions, New Trends Publishing, Washington

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