What's more American than baseball and apple pie? Well, anything sweet. We decorate every holiday with sugar-laced delicacies from candy corn to pumpkin pie and eggnog, never mind the endless onslaught of cookies, caramels and truffles. Each celebration calls for a cake, every end cap a rack of chocolates. Forget foreign oil, we're addicted to sugar. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American eats about 24.5 pounds of candy a year.
It can be tough for the overweight/obese-syndrome Xers and diabetics to navigate the confections-consumption culture to avoid spikes in blood sugar. The same challenge holds for health-conscious parents of young kids. According to research published in the Journal of Pediatrics (June, 2002), American children between 2 and 5 years old are consuming up to 15 teaspoons of sugar a day, the equivalent of a can and a half of soda.
The good news is that alternative sweeteners such as palm sugar from the flowers of the coconut palm (also called coconut sugar), agave nectar and other natural sweeteners now give consumers the same syrupy satisfaction without the inherent health risks of regular sugar.
Can't sugarcoat health concerns
One of the biggest issues health-conscious consumers have with sugar is its high rating on the glycemic index. Increased glucose in the bloodstream from sugar and high-GI foods cause spikes in insulin, which, over time, can lead to insulin-resistance and type II diabetes. While body builders and athletes create insulin spikes to build muscle, for most of us, high insulin after that extra Krispy Kreme forces the body to convert carbohydrates into fat. In time, this metabolic reaction can lead to obesity and cardiovascular and other health issues. And from a marketing point of view, cooking with cupfuls of sugar and overindulging in sweet decadence is no longer in good taste with today's healthy consumer.
"I think people are just kind of put off by sugar at this stage of the game," says Zach Adelman, president and founder of Navitas Naturals based in Novato, Calif. "They are looking for something they can use in food that is healthier and gives them that sweetness they like."
Tasty new natural sweeteners
"It's made from the nectar of the flower," Adelman says. "They climb into the canopy of the coconut tree and harvest the juices of the blossoms. We have found that the crystals are very much like traditional sugar. It's the first natural sweetener that you can substitute on a one-to-one ratio with sugar."
Navitas also offers Yacon Power, a low-calorie, mild sweetener with a molasses-like flavor extracted from the Yacon tuber, as well as Lucuma Power, a good-for-cooking, maple-flavored powder from the dried lucuma fruit.
"The Yacon comes in three forms: a dried slice with the flavor of an apple, a powder that can be used as a sweetener, and as a syrup," Adelman says. "It is a prebiotic with high levels of FOS [fructooligosaccharide] and passes through the body without raising blood-sugar levels."
Agave is another low-GI alternative that has been gaining in popularity as a stand-alone sweetener and an ingredient in popular foods.
Wholemato, based in New York, recently released Spicy Organic Agave Ketchup as a healthy alternative to perhaps the most popular condiment.
"It has the sweetness and flavor people are used to without causing the spike in blood sugar," says Jason Kessler, president and founder. "The ketchup was tested and has a GI rating of only 9 per tablespoon. It is the only ketchup certified as low-glycemic for diabetics by the Glycemic Research Institute."
"The nice thing about agave is it gives the same mouthfeel and taste as sugar without the negative impacts," Kessler says. "It's also farmed on an organic, sustainable cooperative in Mexico and minimally processed."
Whether it's the empty calories, the GI rating, health concerns or just a souring reputation, sophisticated consumers are starting to reach for sweeter options than ordinary sugar.
"We have had a lot of very positive feedback to the point where we are focusing a lot of attention on our line of alternative sweeteners," Adelman says. "We see the potential for this to become a very big market."
Chris O'Brien is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.