From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser
Sweet never goes out of style. "Humans have an inherent craving for sweets, and it's not all bad, because mothers' milk is sweet and some of the most nutritious foods on our planet—the fruits—are sweet as well," says Boulder, Colo.-based herbalist and author Brigitte Mars.
However, unlike fruits, which contain vitamins, minerals and fiber, many common sweeteners are nothing but sugar. The refining process that extracts sucrose from sugar beets to make white table sugar removes any nutrients the food once had. What's left is a sugar so basic it bypasses the body's digestive process and goes straight to the bloodstream.
That's where trouble starts. Each bit of sucrose entering the bloodstream triggers an insulin release to stabilize blood-sugar levels. Consistently high sugar intake not only may flood the system with insulin (hypoglycemia), it also may strain the insulin-producing pancreas, eventually shutting it down altogether. "It's leading people to be more prone to diabetes," says Marge Roman, licensed nutritionist and general manager of Spartan Health Foods in Las Vegas.
In addition to instigating diabetes and hypoglycemia, research suggests high-sugar diets are associated with tooth decay, obesity, heart disease and colon cancer. But reducing sugar intake is easier said than done. Most sugars are so well hidden in sodas, baked goods and yogurts, customers probably underestimate just how much they're getting.
"The average American ate four pounds of sugar [annually] 200 years ago. Now people eat up to 142 pounds a year," says Mars. "Some people are eating more than their weight in sugar every year."
To help customers cut back sugar consumption and reduce disease risk, recommend alternative sweeteners that enter the bloodstream slowly, or that contain additional nutrients. Some do both. The following natural sweeteners will satisfy a die-hard sweet tooth without ruining customers' health.
Dried fruits: Dried dates, raisins, figs and prunes are concentrated natural sweeteners. In addition to containing vitamins A and C, fruit is heavy in minerals such as potassium and iron. "Figs and raisins are also nice laxatives," says Mars. She recommends dried fruit to satisfy wintertime sweet cravings when fresh fruit isn't locally available.
Fructose: Spartan Health Foods' best-selling sweetener by far, fruit-derived fructose metabolizes more slowly than white sugar and generates less insulin release, which is important for people concerned about their weight, cholesterol and diabetes. "I'd say it's six to eight times slower than the response to sugar," Roman says. "Even diabetics can use small amounts of fructose." Fructose retains its popularity primarily because it crystallizes like sugar during baking and is used in similar proportions, she says.
Honey: Made by bees from high-sucrose flower nectar, honey contains trace amounts of vitamins, minerals and enzymes. If raw and unfiltered, the levels are higher. "Honey also has some antibacterial properties," Mars says. Honey contains fructose, sucrose and glucose and, like white table sugar, is immediately absorbed into the bloodstream. Although it's the No. 3 selling sweetener in her store, Roman says, "we sell honey more for people who use it for allergies." Honey made from local flowers is thought to inoculate allergy-prone people during pollen season.
Molasses: A byproduct of sugar manufacturing, molasses contains all the nutrients removed from white table sugar, including B vitamins, iron and calcium. Blackstrap and unsulphured molasses are less refined and contain more nutrients than lighter varieties. Molasses is 50 percent to 70 percent simple sugars, yet still absorbs more slowly than white sugar.
Stevia: Leaves of the South American shrub, available as a dietary supplement, generate no insulin response and are the only sweetener entirely safe for people with diabetes or hypoglycemia. "Not only is stevia's whole leaf 30 times sweeter than sugar, but it has zero calories, and is rated zero on the glycemic index; [and] it is incredibly nutritious," says Jim May, president, chief executive officer and founder of Wisdom Herbs in Mesa, Ariz.
Stevia is available as cut whole leaf, powder or a molasses-like extract, but by far his best-seller, says May, is Stevia Plus, a powdered concentrate 300 times sweeter than sugar that's blended with fructo-oligosaccharide, a natural fiber. Although many stevia products have a slight licorice aftertaste, Roman says their sales are creeping up and may soon displace fructose as her most popular sweetener. "We sell most of it for people who use it on cereal or in beverages," she says. "You can also bake with it and use it like you use sugar." One teaspoon of stevia is the equivalent of one cup of white sugar.
Unrefined cane sugar: Essentially sugarcane with its water content removed, unrefined cane sugar (or granulated cane juice) is 85 percent sucrose, yet contains all of the plant's naturally occurring minerals as well as chromium, B vitamins and amino acids. "Sugarcane is a nutritious plant," says Mars. "In Ayurvedic medicine, sugar is actually considered a medicinal tonic food when used in moderation."
Sweet Reasons To Switch
Natural sweeteners may appeal to customers for reasons other than disease prevention. Organic cane sugar, for instance, is less of a burden on the environment than traditionally grown cane or sugar beets. Locally produced honey supports area bees, flowers and open spaces. And some sweeteners, such as fructose, are easy to bake with.
"Realize we're not going to be able to get away from the quest for sweet," Mars says. "This is so much a part of people, we need to make it nutritious, so that eating a cookie or a cake can actually be part of our nutritional intake, rather than something that causes a health concern."
Catherine Monahan has published more than 150 articles on health, medicine and nutrition. She can be reached at [email protected].