Natural Foods Merchandiser
Getting to know your sweeteners

Getting to know your sweeteners

Consumers have a sweet tooth. According to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research company, the fastest-growing category within natural products stores for the 24 weeks ending in September 2009 was sweeteners. But with so many product choices hitting the shelves and confusing information abounding, shoppers could easily fall back on old standbys instead of sticking with alternatives to white sugar. How do you combat that? “We have a sweetener handout that we give to customers to help them figure out the differences,” says Cat Hill, assistant manager at Vitamin Cottage in Lafayette, Colorado. The store features the handout on two endcaps dedicated to the category. Want to make your own leaflet, signs, website page or enewsletter tidbit? We dug through, decoded and compiled the latest sweetener wisdom to help you be your shoppers’ up-to-date resource.

stevia

Stevia

what it is
“[Stevia] is a plant leaf, crunched up into a nice powder or added to a liquid extract, that is naturally sweet,” says Mona Morstein, ND, chairwoman of nutrition at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Ariz.

pros
Stevia is popular with nutritionists and consumers because it doesn’t bump your blood sugar levels and it’s noncaloric. “It’s innocuous,” says Morstein. “There are no real health problems associated with it.” Early studies on rodents indicated potential issues with birth defects, but the old research has since been debunked. “Now, stevia is not contraindicated in pregnant women,” says Morstein.

cons
“Some people don’t care for the taste,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a certified diabetes educator in Sarasota, Fla., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Stevia can taste bitter, and it lacks the sweetness of sugar when used in cooking or baking. Some people find the glycerin drops more palatable than the powder form.

Retailer tip
Until recently, stevia had to be sold as a supplement, but the Food and Drug Administration gave the go-ahead in December 2008 for stevia to be used in foods and beverages. Coming in NFM’s March issue: new ways retailers are merchandising stevia products.

sugar alcohols, xylitol, sorbitol, erythritol

Sugar alcohols

what they are
Sugar alcohols, including xylitol, sorbitol and erythritol, have become popular additions to natural gum, candies and chocolates because they are high in sweetness but low on the glycemic index, which ranks foods on a scale from 1 to 100 by how they affect blood glucose levels. The lower the ranking, the more beneficial the food is for blood-sugar management.

pros
Xylitol is the most common sugar alcohol, used in gums and sucking candies. “Xylitol is antibacterial in the oral cavity,” says Morstein.

cons
Sugar alcohols are only partially absorbed by your body, and eating too much can lead to digestive problems. “All of the sugar alcohols in larger amounts will give you diarrhea, bloating and gas, and act as a laxative,” says Gerbstadt.

b
To prevent tummy troubles, advise customers to enjoy just one sugar alcohol–infused chocolate or chewing gum at a time, but not two. Or point them to similar products using erythritol, which is more easily absorbed by the body and excreted in the urine, says Morstein. Also, because of their low rank on the glycemic index, sugar alcohols are now being used by manufacturers to make various products marketed specifically to diabetics.

maple syrup crystals

Maple syrup crystals

what they are
Maple syrup crystals are dehydrated pure maple syrup—nothing more, nothing less.

pros
Maple syrup crystals are the true meaning of a natural product and have trace amounts of manganese, calcium, potassium and zinc. They can also be a “designation of origin” product, with a guarantee of where they are from and how they were manufactured.

cons
Many shoppers think that maple syrup crystals are healthier for them than table sugar. But the trace nutrients aren’t enough to add much nourishment. “Nutritionally, maple syrup crystals are the same as sugar and brown sugar,” says Gerbstadt. “They have the same glycemic index.”

Retailer tip
More and more product manufacturers have launched dried forms of maple syrup—powder, granules, crystals, flakes—to make it easier to incorporate the maple flavor into recipes.

molassesMolasses
what it is
A thick syrup, molasses is produced during the refining of sugar or sorghum and varies from light to dark brown in color.

pros
Molasses is the most nutritious sweetener a customer can select. “Of all the additional sugars we play with in our diet, blackstrap molasses is by far the healthiest,” says Morstein. “That is where all of the nutrients from the sugarcane and the sugar beets are. It contains iron and the B vitamins and calcium.” Molasses also ranks lower on the glycemic index than table sugar and many other natural sweeteners.

cons
Molasses can overwhelm a dish. “It imparts flavor, so you can’t actually switch [sugar for] molasses,” says Hill.

Retailer tip
Hill advises customers to trade a small amount of sugar for a touch of molasses to add nutrients without affecting overall flavor.

sucanat

Sucanat

what it is
Dried cane syrup and evaporated cane juice are generally used interchangeably. They are, essentially, a dried form of sucanat, which is raw cane syrup that has not been fully refined.

pros
“Sucanat is very low in nutrients, but slightly better than sugar because it has been less processed,” says
Morstein. Processed white sugar has had the nutrient-rich molasses removed. Sucanat retains trace amounts of molasses’ nutrients.

cons
Sucanat, dried cane syrup and evaporated cane juice have the same glycemic index as sugar, says Morstein. Sucanat has limited uses because it tends to lump.

Retailer tip
In October 2009, the FDA released a draft guidance calling on manufacturers to stop using “evaporated cane juice” in ingredients lists because “the term falsely suggests that the sweeteners are juice.” Instead, the FDA recommends (but not yet requires) that manufacturers call the ingredient “dried cane syrup.”

brown rice syrup

Brown rice syrup

what it is
Brown rice syrup is simply cultured rice and enzymes.

pros
Mostly a complex carbohydrate, brown rice syrup breaks down slower in the body than sugar and thus provides a steadier supply of energy. Morstein recommends brown rice syrup as the sweetener of choice to her patients. “It’s only 20 percent as sweet as sugar, but it does have a better effect on your body,” she says. “It has a nice mellow, almost vanilla flavor.”

cons
Brown rice syrup is only slightly lower than sugar on the glycemic index.

Retailer tip
To expand the applications of the sweetener, brown rice syrup comes in various forms, including liquid, or is combined with other sweeteners into a dry product. Morstein says the vanillalike flavor works well in pecan pie and atop sweet potatoes.

honey

Honey

what it is
Like maple syrup, honey is a pure product, generally with no additives or preservatives.

pros
Honey contains antioxidants and phytonutrients. Recent research shows that honey may ease children’s coughs better than over-the-counter medicines.

cons
“Honey is just below table sugar on the glycemic index,” says Gerbstadt. A form of honey called royal jelly can offer help with immunity to allergens, but regular honey doesn’t supply this health benefit, says Morstein. A tablespoon of honey has more calories than a tablespoon of sugar, but because honey is sweeter, people actually use less honey.

Retailer tip
Cross merchandise and sell customers on honey’s skin benefits. Antibacterial honey has long been used as a topical healing agent. Manufacturers are incorporating one honey type—Manuka—into skin-healing ointments, creams, lotions and more.

agave

Analyzing agave

Agave, derived from the plant of the same name, is the cause célèbre of sweeteners. “Agave is mostly fructose [fruit sugar], so it’s lower than sugar and honey on the glycemic index,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a certified diabetes educator in Sarasota, Fla., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “It is higher in calories than table sugar, has no nutritional value, but lends itself to interesting culinary applications.”

Agave can score 39 (on a scale of 1 to 100) or even lower on the glycemic index, but not all agaves are created equal. While stevia’s GI score (the rate at which a carbohydrate is absorbed into the bloodstream) remains constant, agave’s GI fluctuates depending on the product. Different brands of agave contain different amounts of fructose versus glucose, says Gerbstadt. Brands with a higher percentage of fructose score lower on the GI because fructose is converted to fat in the body. “Its value on the glycemic index is also going to be different depending on the food you are pairing it with,” says Gerbstadt. Eating agave with a healthy fat, such as a nut crust or avocado will slow down the absorption rate, according to Gerbstadt.

The issue with agave, according to Mona Morstein, ND, is that because it’s lower on the glycemic index, people think they have the green light to eat as much as they like. Yet too much of any sweetener, like agave, can lead to sugar-based health problems, such as cavities, joint issues and an overgrowth of candida, says Morstein. –J.W.

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