Natural Foods Merchandiser

Hold the sugar: sweet tropical alternatives

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.

Glycemic Index: a sweet tool for predicting blood sugar
The glycemic index basically measures how fast carbohydrates convert to glucose in the blood. The higher the number, the faster the rate of conversion. While baguettes and chocolate bon bons have a rating of around 100, meaning they convert to sugar in the bloodstream very quickly, peanuts and prickly pear come in around 7, converting at a much slower pace. Table sugar, usually processed cane sugar, has a GI rating of about 68, honey is in the upper 70s and maple syrup is around 55. Worse, high-fructose corn syrup, by far the most prevalent sweetener in soda and prepared foods due to its low cost, easily tips 90 on the GI scale. By contrast, palm sugars come in around 35, and agave nectar has a GI score in the teens.

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."

Stevia: The Holy Grail?

At press time, the FDA was poised to rule on filings for stevia-based sweeteners that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo hope to use in their brews. With some strains 300 times sweeter than sugar, stevia's natural sweetness has a slower onset, longer duration and lower calorie count than sugar. Extracts from the stevia plant have been used for generations in South America. Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South America have approved stevia as a sweetener for food and beverage, though stevia sweeteners are banned in much of Europe. In the U.S., it can be sold as a tabletop sweetener, per recent self affirmed GRAS status, though food manufacturers are waiting for FDA recognized GRAS status before launching food and beverages with stevia. To date, a few companies have launched stevia sweetened beverages—but they are marketed, labeled and branded as dietary supplements. Some public advocacy groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, are raising concerns about potential cancer-causing properties of stevia, urging the FDA to test further before approval. The FDA's pending decision will determine whether stevia (specifically, the strain Rebaudioside A) is safe enough to be used as an additive in processed foods. Stay tuned to for the latest updates.

Chris O'Brien is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

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