Insights by Goldie: Natural sweeteners: Sweet enough!

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in September 2008

When asked to recommend “the healthiest sweetener,” I always cringe because it sounds like a seeker looking for the Holy Grail. I hate to break it to them, but in my view a) it’s the wrong quest and b) there is no one “best” sweetener.

Take a look at PCC’s brochure, A guide to natural sweeteners, on our Web site and in the stores. The less-refined sweeteners are most recommended since they’re closer to their whole food forms and retain some nutrients. Examples are date sugar (dried, ground dates), maple syrup (concentrated from the tree’s natural sap), and both rice and barley syrups (concentrated from malted grains and the least intensely sweet).

Tips are included on replacing white sugar with various less refined sweeteners. But whatever sweetener is used — and no matter how natural, organic, whole and unrefined — use a light hand so the sweetener enhances the flavors of your recipe but doesn’t dominate.

Experiment with various sweeteners, appreciating the character of each, such as the dark, unrefined agave syrup (from the juice of a desert plant) or the truly unrefined Rapadura™ that mimics brown sugar but has a richer, more robust flavor — and nutrients intact!

In baked goods, use these natural, least refined, organic sweeteners in combination with whole-grain flours. They contain all the original nutrients, the good plant oils, minerals, vitamins and beneficial natural fiber.

This holistic approach to sweeteners promotes satiety — that pleasant sensation of feeling satisfied but not overly full. The whole food fibers and nutrients tame the sugars and starches, slow their digestion, and promote healthy metabolism — the opposite of products with excessively refined sugars, fats and flours.

PCC stocks three low or no-calorie sweeteners but no artificial sweeteners or products that contain them. We also have eliminated foods with high fructose corn syrup.

One product, stevia — from a sweet-leafed herb — has no calories and is available in liquid or powdered form. It’s classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “a dietary supplement” and is in several sweetened teas and the natural “diet” soda at PCC called “Zevia.”

Two low- or no-calorie products are based on “sugar alcohols,” which occur naturally in numerous plants. Emerald Forest brand Xylitol is extracted from corn cobs with about half the calories of sugar. Wholesome Sweetener’s product labeled “Zero” is another sugar alcohol, erythritol, made from fermented cane sugar; it has no calories and is certified organic.

Both xylitol and erythritol can be substituted for white sugar in baking or cooking without changing recipes, and neither promotes dental cavities.

One advisory: sugar alcohols can promote loose stools in some people. Additionally, xylitol is known to be dangerous for dogs (which have very different metabolisms).

I’d keep all types of substitute sweeteners away from pets or check with your vet. If you’re considering any of these for young children, you might want to discuss it with your child’s physician.

I’ve observed sometimes that discussions on finding “healthier” sweeteners may have emotional aspects — worries about all things sweet. Much of this is manufactured worry that emanates from elements in the food industry. They’ve baited their hooks and are trolling for us to bite. The bait? It’s usually the latest “diet sweetener” promising “safe, natural, no-cal, won’t affect your blood sugar!”

Witness the current battle between two industry goliaths battling for our attention (and dollars). As mentioned earlier, all stevia products currently are licensed by FDA only as a dietary supplement. That may change soon.

Coca-Cola has patented a no-calorie form of stevia and named it “Truevia.” Not to be outdone, Pepsi took the challenge and hurriedly patented its version, calling it “Purevia.”

Each company says FDA will license their stevia knock-offs as “natural sweeteners” — not dietary supplements. It seems all it takes is money — BIG money — to get FDA to reconsider such things! Stay tuned.

Now, a confession: In 1973, following my “natural food epiphany” and “conversion” to natural foods, I banned all forms of beet or cane sugar. (Disclosure: so did PCC in those early years.) For months I bought raw honey by the gallon.

After six months, I had another epiphany: no matter how healthy and natural the ingredient, my family still was mainlining honey (duh!). I pulled the pendulum back to a sensible, moderate center and that’s where it remains.

Also in this issue

Ames Creek Farm tour: peak of the season

This article talks about the upcoming King County Harvest Celebration Farm Tour on September 27, 2008. Ames Creek Farm will be part of the tour and PCC is a major sponsor. Also discussed is a new donation program, the Farmland Sustaining Circle.