Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sugars and Alternative Sweeteners

Sugar = sweet. Sugar can be good or bad depending on what kind of sugar you are talking about. Sugars in the most technical definition are basic food carbohydrates and can be broadly classified into 3 types:

(1) Refined sugars
a. Crystals that are 99% sucrose and commonly called empty calories because they are ripped of all nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, proteins and fibers found in sugar cane and sugar beets.

b. Examples: beet sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, confectioners’ sugar, invert sugar, powdered sugar, raw sugar, saccherose, table sugar and turbinado.

(2) Natural sugars
a. Comprise all completely unrefined sugars and found in fruit, grains and vegetables in their natural or cooked form.
b. Examples: honey, maple syrup, stevia and agave syrup

(3) Synthetic sugars
a. Man-made chemical compounds that has a sweet taste.
b. Examples: saccharin, aspartame, sucralose

What’s bad about refined sugars?
Refined sugars are bad because the excessive consumption of them is associated with a higher incidence of several health issues such as diabetes, obesity and tooth decay. So why not get more while you sweeten your food? But as usual, remember to always keep everything in moderation.

Natural vs. artificial sweeteners
There is debate as to what is considered natural sugars and what are considered artificial. For me it’s really simple. Natural sugars should be natural. That is, they should be sweeteners that come naturally from Mother Nature. They can be in its natural form or extracted from their “parent” but not processed through procedures that rips them of their natural nutritional elements or combined with other non-natural substances.

Artificial sweeteners on the other hand are totally man-made chemical compounds that cannot otherwise be found naturally in the environment. They are food additives that mimic the taste of sugar. Like refined sugars, artificial sweeteners therefore have no nutritional value as well. Although they do not carry with them the large amounts of calories that refined sugars do, our bodies are not naturally made/designed to recognize and digest man-made stuff. It makes me feel like I am eating paper – edible but super hard to digest; won’t kill you but makes you feel super uncomfortable.

Natural sweetener choices
Most commonly available and economical natural sweetener choices are honey and maple syrup. And when I say maple syrup, I am referring to the real syrup from maple trees. Not the corn syrup that are commonly used on pancakes.

As of now, all my dessert recipes use either honey or maple syrup as a sweetener when required. I have not developed any recipes using stevia and agave yet but I have heard quite a lot of good things about both of these 2 natural sweeteners. They come in solid form and will definitely open up a lot of opportunities for me to create a lot more delicious and healthy recipes!

Pasteurized honey is honey that has been heated for up to 24 hours to prevent it from turning hard or hazy. Unpasteurized honey is raw honey in its purest form. I personally prefer raw honey. Honey has a milder taste compared to maple syrup but I sometimes find the texture of honey too dense and therefore prefer maple syrup in some of my cake recipes.

Maple syrup
A natural sweetener made from the sap of maple trees. Both Canada and the US produce maple syrup. My personal favorite is 100% pure dark amber maple syrup from Canadian maple trees. If you prefer a lighter taste, go for the light amber. The maple syrup is a little pricier than honey but it is sweeter than honey. So when using it in your recipe, you can use less of it than honey and the regular refined sugar.

A genus of about 240 species of herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family, the stevia plant is widely grown for its sweet leaves. It is 300 times sweeter than table sugar and has a negligible effect on blood glucose. Stevia is not as widely commercially available as honey, maple syrup and artificial sweeteners. Its limited availability may be due to the mixed research about its health benefits and toxicity to the body.

The upside of stevia includes the promotion of insulin production (good for diabetic conditions) and potential reduction of hypertension. One research also indicated that millions of Japanese have been using stevia for over thirty years with no reported or known harmful effects. Although the bulk of the studies out there show an absence of harmful effects, there are a couple of reports out there that found steviol and stevioside (2 of the sweet chemical compounds in the stevia leaf that gives the stevia leaf its sweet taste) to be weak mutagens in animals but not sure if it applies to humans too.

All that being said, there seem to be more positive reports about stevia than negative ones. However, this is an herb afterall and there is always a possibility for allergies for some people, just like I am allergic to ginko nuts…what a shame. Well, I have to admit that I have never seen stevia in many of the Asian countries that I have been to, definitely not in Singapore and Thailand. But here in the US, you can definitely get it at Wholefoods.

I know of 3 commercial brands of stevia available at Wholefoods – Truvia, Sweetleaf and Sun Crystals. All 3 brands come in a box containing individually wrapped smaller sachets. Of the 3, Sweetleaf is the only one that contains stevia and nothing else. If I were to use stevia in my recipes, I would go for Sweetleaf. I just don’t like to eat stuff that I can’t really pronounce. :)

Agave syrup
Also known as the agave nectar, this natural sweetener is tapped from the sap of the agave plant, filtered and heated at a low temperature, which breaks down the carbohydrates into sugars. Because of this, I am actually not in as much favor of using agave syrup as I am of maple syrup. I would rather use something that does not have its chemical structure changed.

Like maple syrup, agave syrup has a very low glycemic index (i.e. it does not raise your blood sugar suddenly and therefore keeps you fuller for a longer time). Agave is typically cheaper than maple syrup and has a milder taste but it has a higher caloric count than maple syrup.

If cost is an issue and you would like to give agave syrup a try, again, make sure you select only the ones that contain 100% agave syrup and nothing else.

More about artificial sweeteners
If you want to know more about why I don’t like the idea of using artificial sweeteners, read the article from Wikipedia.


Anonymous said...

I found your blog on the YSC website and I, too, have tried to re-evaluate what I put in my body. I have recently bought agave syrup and was confused while making my selection at the store. You can either buy it raw or not.......which is better/worse for you?

Carolyn in NC

Kelly said...

Hi Carolyn,

Thank you for your question and I totally understand where you are coming from. It seems that most agave syrup is heated to release the sugars in the agave sap. If you consider any application of heat as a process, then getting raw agave syrup may not be very practical.

Regardless of the chemistry behind the different sugars and the application of heat, the one sure upside to consuming natural sugars (raw or heated) instead of refined sugars or artificial sweeteners is that while consuming the sugar content in there, you also consume other nutrients at the same time. It’s similar to a “value-for-money” concept. And the bottom-line to eating is always moderation.

I can’t say for sure whether eating raw agave syrup better. But I can tell you definitely stay away from anything artificial and anything that has nothing good for you other than sweetness. Another reason why I tend to keep to honey and maple syrup is because I know exactly what they are.

Btw, what brands of agave syrup is available at your neighbourhood store? If you can give me their names, I can go check it out for you. :)