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
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!
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. :)
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.