Jul 3, 2012

On Sugar and Other Sweeteners


Sugar; from children we were told it's bad for us: it's not good for you teeth, it'll ruin your appetite, etc,. We all know it's bad for us, yet as Americans we still consume tons of sugar every day, from the moment we get up in the morning and pour a bowlful of cereal, to when we're relaxing at night watching TV with a tub of ice-cream. Have you ever tried to calculate how much sugar you're actually eating every day?


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There is a cool website I found called Sugar Stacks that shows how much sugar common drinks and foods contain using sugar cubes.  I encourage you to go take a look around because most of us really don't know how much sugar we are getting.

"White sugar is a 'pure' industrial product that can hardly be called a 'food' as it doesn't provide us with anything beneficial, and in fact takes away vitamins and minerals from our bodies! Some would say it is closer to a drug, which affects our bodies adversely and is very addictive. Many studies have shown what sugar does to our bodies – it causes dental decay, weight gain, headaches, diabetes, depression, loss of libido, suppresses the immune system (decreasing vitality and number of white blood cells), decreases energy (after the initial 'spike' in blood sugar is gone), raises blood pressure, feeds bacteria (making you more susceptible to candida and yeast infections), makes your blood more acidic (a precursor to cancer), and is highly addictive." (Read the rest of this article here).

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Because there have been many health complications as a result of eating too much sugar, there are a lot of substitutes available on the market. As we American's found the large quantities of sugar we habitually consumed were bad for our health, chemists developed sugar substitutes so we could continue to eat as many sweets as we felt like. Unfortunately, the cheaper the substitute (in general) the worse replacement it is nutritionally.  How many times have you felt good about yourself for choosing a diet soda instead of a regular one, thinking that it would be healthier, or at least a wiser choice because of the reduced calories? It's true that tons of sugar can lead to health complications, but artificial sweeteners have become so hugely popular their many health hazards are largely ignored. 

The real answer is not to use tons of sugar substitutes, whether they be natural or not, but to eat sweets the way God designed us to; in limited moderation. We don't need a soda every day, or a dessert, or a candy bar, or a highly sweetened Starbucks coffee. Part of learning to eat healthily is rethinking how we view sweets; they should be occasional special treats. 

Here is a run-down on the most well known sweeteners, starting with the more healthy choices.

Real Maple Syrup: This is natural sweetener from the sap of the maple tree. Maple syrup is a very good source of many vitamins and minerals, including, potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, manganese, and even has some protein. It's also high in antioxidants. In addition to being low in calories, maple syrup can aid those dealing with high cholesterol.

Raw Honey:  This natural sweetener created from bees has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, and even anti-cancer properties as some studies indicate. It's also rich in amylase, an enzyme which facilitates the proper digestion of carbohydrates. It has a lower glycemic index than refined sugar.

Regular (Pasteurized) Honey: Not as good as raw honey, but still a very good natural sweetener.

Whole Cane Sugar (formerly know as Rapadura): This is a natural sweetener from sugar cane syrup which has been dehydrated at low heat and contains all the original vitamins and minerals. It still has the natural balance of sucrose, glucose, and fructose, and contains components essential for its' digestion. It is metabolized more slowly than white sugar, and therefore will not affect your blood sugar levels as much as refined sugars. The more refined the sugar, the more it raises your blood sugar. Sucanat is different than whole cane sugar in that the sugar stream and the molasses stream are separated from each other during processing, then reblended to create a consistent product, whereas Rapadural/whole cane sugar is a wholefood product which can vary according to sugar cane variety, soil type and weather. (Read more on natural sugars where this info came from here.) 

Stevia: Stevia is a South American herb that has been used as a natural sweetener by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay for hundreds of years. So far it has not been found to have any negative effects on our health, but the Guarani did not consume it in large quantities. Like any natural sweetener, it should be used in moderation.

White Sugar: Also known as sucrose. It's made from sugar cane or sugar beets and refined to within an inch of its life. I believe a healthy person should not feel guilty eating white sugar in moderation, but obviously it would not provide any additional health benefits like the above mentioned sweeteners.

Brown Sugar: Simply white sugar with molasses added. It is not any better for you than regular white sugar.

Agave Nectar: Comes from the agave plant but I found out it is not any healthier than regular refined sugar. It is produced using a highly chemical process so no longer can be considered a "natural sweetener," and actually has more concentrated fructose in it than high fructose corn syrup. Click here to learn the details.

Sucralose (Splenda): Sucralose is made by adding chlorine to sucrose; however, the sucrose itself goes away during the complex manufacturing process. It has been shown to lower the amount of good bacteria and disrupt the PH levels in the digestive tract which can lead to a number of health problems including yeast infections, irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disorders.

Sacchrin (Sweet 'n Low): The first artificial sweetener developed in the US. Some research indicates it can lead to cancer, liver toxicity, and is harmful for pregnant and breasfeeding women to consume. It will also lead to weight gain the same way sugar does. For more on sacchrin read this article.

Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal): Possibly the worst artificial sweetener out there. It is found in diet soft drinks and tons of other products. Research has linked the sweetener to diabetes, fibromyalgia and certain forms of cancer. Some of the dangers of excessive aspartame consumption also include vision problems, brain damage, and siezures. For more details read this article here.

Ironically, most artificial sweeteners still lead to weight gain. So not only do they have potential side effects, but they are not accomplishing their main purpose (limiting calorie consumption). How can that be? This article explains it very well;
"To recap sugar's role in weight gain: the carbs you consume are broken down into sugar (glucose), and raise your blood glucose levels. Your muscles, liver, and pancreas respond by releasing insulin. Insulin's role is to be the middle man that powers your cells with glucose molecules.
When insulin is circulating the blood, it prevents fat from being metabolized. It actually promotes the storage of fat. In insulin sensitive/resistant people (the majority of people), it will drive your blood glucose too low, which causes food cravings to replenish your energy, even if you just ate. This is the evil side of carb consumption.
So why is Saccharin bad? Well even though it doesn't break down into glucose (remember: it goes through your body completely undigested), once it hits your tongue, the sweetness will still stimulate an insulinemic response, except there's no real glucose to power up the cells.
So now you have insulin running around your blood stream with no purpose, which prevents fat burn and also drives your real blood sugar down too low for your brain to function. What will you do? Eat." (Source)

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Natural sweeteners are a great way to incorporate more vitamins and minerals into whatever sweet treat you are enjoying. Unfortunately natural sweeteners are considerably more expensive than plain sugar. For those who have a limited budget and desire to eat healthy, it can be hard to know what healthy sweeteners are worth the cost. Obviously it would be best to only ever use the very best organic natural sweeteners out there, but financially that's just not realistic for my family. Part of saving money when it comes to healthier sweeteners is just not eating as many sweets. Our bodies weren't designed to consume tons of sweeteners anyway.

Personally I use mostly regular sugar, with some honey, maple syrup and stevia. I have not used whole cane sugar yet, but I do want to get some and try that out as well. I would also like to get raw honey to sweeten unbaked treats, but in anything heated/baked it would be a waste of money to use raw honey.

I still use regular refined sugar in my baking, but I try to make my treats as healthy as possible in other ways (with whole grains and a lot of good protein), and use as little sugar as I can get away with and still have my treats turn out. For granola bars I always use honey, and I have started using maple syrup in a few things like granola and baked oatmeal. I use stevia and honey in my hot drinks.

Overall I feel having a small amount of sugar in our diets from time to time is not going to ruin our health. I want to include natural sweetener in my cooking for the health benefits, but I don't feel guilty when I use white sugar in an otherwise very healthy recipe.

(There are other healthy natural sweeteners out there besides the ones I mentioned, including date sugar, brown rice syrup, and palm sugar, to name a few. But since they are expensive and difficult to find, and this is a blog about eating healthy on a budget, I've chosen not to discuss those.)

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