How to Choose the Healthiest Sweetener

Lots of people ask me what is the healthiest sweetener. I really don’t think there is an absolute answer to that, and that’s because we all have different needs, wants and values. Someone struggling with their blood sugar is going to need to choose a sweetener with a low GI, most of the time. Usually the lower the GI the higher the fructose – and visa versa.

Others avoiding fructose will no way go near agave, and vegans won’t go near honey—no matter how raw it is. Some of us are concerned about the impact coconut sugar has on the tree itself. And of course price is going to be a factor for many. And then there are flight miles: do I choose something from our closest neighbours in Indonesia, or a ‘super food’ from the Amazon?

I believe that we should vary our sweeteners. Try not to stick to just one, as we have done in the past. In my pantry I have local, raw honey (mostly for visitors), raw agave, coconut nectar and sugar, brown rice syrup, rapadura, maple syrup, yacon and some organic dried fruit (for Bliss Balls). I don’t crave sweet foods so I rarely need to replace them, but I know many people do and tend to go overboard sometimes, so it’s important to know the low down on your sugars.

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown Rice Syrup or sometimes called Rice Malt is a versatile sweetener made by culturing rice with enzymes to breakdown the starches – then cooking it until it becomes a syrup. The final product contains soluble complex carbohydrates, maltose, and glucose. It’s not as sweet as honey so experiment with amounts. I love using it sometimes. Look for an Australian, organic brand with no other ingredients apart from brown rice. Brown rice syrup has a glycemic index (GI) of 98, which is higher than table sugar (65) and about the same as glucose (100), so not a great alternative for diabetics.

As an aside, on brown rice – many people are asking about arsenic in brown rice products like rice bran oil and rice syrup. Arsenic is a natural element that can contaminate soil, as well as groundwater used for drinking and irrigation. Residue from decades of the routine use of arsenic-based herbicides and insecticides pose a real threat to all food production, organic and conventional. Regardless of how it is raised, rice plants grown in soils still contaminated with arsenic will extract the element from the soil, and some will be present in the grain harvested from those plants. It’s also important to note that all minerals, including heavy metals, cannot be created or destroyed – they can only be redistributed and recycled in our ecosystem. Therefore, these minerals are everywhere.

Regardless of how it is raised, rice plants grown in soils still contaminated with arsenic will extract the element from the soil.

Man has played a role in the concentration of some of these minerals in certain areas. The historic use of arsenic-based pesticides and herbicides (especially with crops like cotton) has concentrated this mineral more in certain agricultural areas than others. According to what I read, the arsenic in question is largely organic arsenic, the version of this mineral that is not absorbed by the human body. If you’re worried, then check with the manufacturer as to where their rice is grown and if that country has a history of arsenic in the soil. Pakistan, a country along with India and parts of California has shown to produce rice with the least amount of naturally occurring and arsenic-based pesticides. Another reason to eat seaweed – they help pull heavy metals out of our body.

Agave

There are about 300 species of agave plants – mostly growing in the southern United States, northern South America, and the hilly regions of Mexico. Agave nectar has been used for centuries as a folk remedy for its medicinal properties. The Aztecs mixed it with salt and used it for skin infections and wounds. There is something called agamiel or ‘honey water’ at the core of the bluagave plant used for its nectar, and when fermented – for tequila. This is totally natural syrup direct from Mother Nature.

The problem, as usual, lies in the processing it usually undergoes. However if you get raw agave then it hasn’t been messed with thereby creating high fructose syrup – unfortunately that is most of the agave available. They may also add an enzyme during the processing and this wont necessarily be vegan. Altogether not what you want. 
 Agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon, compared to 40 calories for the same amount of table sugar. But because agave is about 1 1/2 times sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it – which means you can achieve the same sweetness for about the same number of calories. It’s gluten free. Agave nectar consists primarily of fructose and glucose. One source gives 47% fructose and 16% glucose; another gives 56% fructose and 20% glucose. Probably reflecting variations from one manufacturer to another.

The problem, as usual, lies in the processing it usually undergoes. However if you get raw agave then it hasn’t been messed with thereby creating high fructose syrup – unfortunately that is most of the agave available.

The impact of agave nectar on blood sugar (as measured by its glycemic index and glycemic load) is comparable to fructose. From the ‘Loving Earth’ website – ‘Look for certified organic RAW agave syrup, light and dark, harvested in Mexico. It’s naturally low GI, greatly beneficial to the local community it comes from and processed below 40 ºC using a vacuum evaporator and certified organic vegan enzyme.’ From what I can see agave is a good substitute for white sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HGCS) – that is if it hasn’t been heated therefore processed to within an inch of its life resembling something as bad if not worse than high fructose corn syrup. We have many different complex sweeteners available to us these days so why not mix it up a bit?Agave contains cancer fighting saponins & inulin.

Maple Syrup

Tests on the syrup, which is made by boiling sap from the maple tree, found that it contains compounds which could help manage Type 2 diabetes, as well as acting as anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory agents.

Researchers identified 54 compounds; twice as many as the syrup was previously thought to have. Five were found to be unique to maple syrup. Several of the syrup’s polyphenol, or water-soluble, compounds inhibited the enzymes that convert carbohydrates to sugars, raising the prospect of a new way of managing Type 2 Diabetes. They also found that many of the antioxidant compounds, which prevent the oxidation and ageing of the body’s cells, aren’t found in other natural sweeteners.

Dr Navindra Seeram, who led the research at the University of Rhode Island, said: ‘We don’t know yet whether the new compounds contribute to the healthy profile of maple syrup. But we do know that the sheer quantity and variety of identified compounds with documented health benefits qualifies maple syrup as a champion food. It is a one-stop shop for these beneficial compounds, several of which are also found in berries, tea, red wine and flaxseed, just to name a few.’

Explaining the science behind the findings, he said: ‘We found a wide variety of polyphenols in maple syrup. We discovered that the polyphenols in maple syrup inhibit enzymes that are involved in the conversion of carbohydrate to sugar. ‘In fact, in preliminary studies, maple syrup had a greater enzyme-inhibiting effect compared to several other healthy plant foods such as berries.’

‘By 2050, one in three people will be afflicted with Type 2 diabetes, so finding a potential anti-diabetic compound in maple syrup is interesting for the scientific community and the consumer.’

Maple syrup has a GI of 54. Of course you need to buy (preferably organic) maple syrup. Imitation maple syrup is just white sugar and artificial flavourings.

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Raw Honey

Raw Honey is totally unheated, unpasteurized (not heated) and unprocessed. It is the sweet liquid as it is when the bees produce it from the concentrated nectar of flowers. Honey is the only alkaline-forming sweetener. It doesn’t ferment in the stomach and it can be used to counteract acid indigestion. It contains amylase, an enzyme concentrated in flower pollen which helps predigest starchy foods like breads. Most supermarket honeys have been pasteurized (heated at 70 degrees Celsius or more, followed by rapid cooling) to make bottling and handling easier, and also so that it looks cleaner and smoother. When honey is heated its yeast and enzymes, which are responsible for activating vitamins and minerals in the body system, are partially destroyed. Honey contains about 32-40% fructose, compared with white sugar, which has about 50%. And naturally GI of 51 per 1 tbsp.
But bees are in danger, with whole populations being destroyed overnight, as a result of introduced threats.

Threat number 1 – the parasite Varroa Destructor (more info here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varroa_destructor) is a flea-sized mite which attaches to bees, weakens them, and spreads a virus that can kill whole colonies.

Threat number 2 – a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (more info here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder) is the second major killer. Its causes are still being debated today – pesticides in conventional farming, (the flora they collect the nectar from has usually been contaminated with toxic sprays), pathogens and environmental stresses have all been cited.

Australia is the last country free of these threats, but we still need to be mindful of the type and amount of honey we buy and use. As always, make it as close to its natural state as possible and organic.

If bees disappeared from the earth, man would have four years to live.

Einstein

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Yacon

This tuberous plant is closely related to the sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke, and the tuber is composed mostly of water and fructooligosaccharides (FOS). It’s traditionally grown in the Andes for its tuberous roots. Yacon syrup is pressed from these roots and has a sweet flavour and few calories at around 15-20cal per 100g. It is becoming very popular due to its beneficial effect on the digestive tract and in weight loss. It’s also a prebiotic and great for diabetics as yacon syrup has been found to have the lowest glycemic index of 1. You’ll find it in health food stores – it’s quite pricey.

These edible tubers contain fructooligosaccharides, an indigestible polysaccharide made up of fructose. Fructooligosaccharides taste sweet, but pass the human digestive tract unmetabolised and hence have very low caloric value and fructose level. The undigested portion of yacon serves as food for friendly bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species, thereby helping the intestines to function efficiently and eliminate toxins and waste products from the body, which in turn enhances our immune system and suppresses putrefactive pathogens such as Candida albicans.

The undigested portion of yacon serves as food for friendly bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species.

Until recently who had heard of yacon? It was hardly known outside of its native area, until the Japanese started using it for its purported anti-hyperglycemic (to lower high blood sugar) properties – great for diabetics, and gluten free.

Other benefits noted with FOS supplementation include increased production of beneficial short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate, increased absorption of calcium and magnesium, and improved elimination of toxic compounds. Preclinical studies indicate an increase in bone density after consumption of FOS. In addition, the beneficial effects of FOS on the presence of Bifidobacteria suggest an improved absorption of vitamins, such as the B complexes.

Yacon tuber provides an excellent balance of 20 essential amino acids (huge amounts). It has one of the highest levels of potassium found in any plant, and high levels of calcium, magnesium, iron, and phosphorus.

Yacon has proven useful in preventing the following conditions – acne, colon disease, constipation, diabetes, low immune system, poor gastrointestinal health, obesity, and osteoporosis.

It’s not cheap at around $25-$30 for a small 250g jar. It’s really delicious and is to be eaten mindfully – considered medicine, a bit like manuka honey.

Coconut Sugar and nectar

This sweetener – a traditional sweetener from South-East Asia – comes from the nectar of coconut palm flower buds (which means those buds won’t grow into coconuts). It is the most nutritious of all sugars and is the single most sustainable sweetener in the world. Coconut sugar has an extremely low glycemic index of 35 but yes it has fructose – about the same as honey. It comes from coconut palm blossoms. It is certified organic, minimally processed and has not been filtered.

Thanks Goodness we now have access to this beautiful and sustainable ingredient. It uses 1/5 of the resources white sugar does, and supports the Indonesian community’s who provide it. It isn’t destroying the forests where Orangutan’s and Sumatran Tigers live, nor is it polluting our planet like palm oil plantations are.

It isn’t destroying the forests where Orangutan’s and Sumatran Tigers live, nor is it polluting our planet like palm oil plantations are.

Coconut palm sugar is minimally processed and has not been filtered. It has a rich, toffee like flavour. Use it where you would’ve once used palm sugar or refined sugar.

Panela

Rapadura is an unrefined, evaporated cane juice obtained through boiling – then squeezed, dried and ground. Because rapadura hasn’t been overly processed, it retains many of its vitamins and minerals. It’s a low tech and inexpensive process. It is still a traditional food in many tropical regions of the world, which has been displaced by refined sugar in wealthier countries. The main producer of panela is Colombia.

The sugarcane plant is in the grass family, and its large stalks contain a sugary liquid that can be extracted and boiled down in a fairly low-tech process. The liquid from the mashed and shredded sugar cane stalks is boiled until it becomes thick syrup, which is poured into molds. The sugar crystallizes as it cools and turns into a firm, brown, solid block of molasses-flavored compressed sugar crystals. The remnants of the sugar cane stalks are often used to fuel the fires that boil the syrup. Donkeys are traditionally used to help out.

Because rapadura hasn’t been overly processed, it retains many of its vitamins and minerals.

The principal nutritional natural components of panela are sugars (sucrose, glucose and fructose), vitamins (A, some of the B complex, C, D and E), and minerals (potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc and manganese). Among the carbohydrates, the sugar sucrose is the principal constituent of panela with a content varying between 75 and 85% dry weight. Glucose and fructose are between 6 and 15% dry weight.

Panela has between 310 and 350 calories (1,300 and 1,466 kilojoules) per 100 grams, and a GI of 65. Naturally, buying it organic is best.

Lucuma

Lucuma is an excellent source of carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals.  It smells divine and has a creamy citrus flavour.  This exotic Peruvian fruit is known as the “Gold of the Incas” and is considered one of the lost crops of the Incas. Peruvian culture is steeped in traditions rich in fine foods and cultural culinary delights. The Lúcuma name has been honored both spiritually and culinary since ancient times.

Today, this fruit is still prominent in contemporary Peruvian celebrations. Lucuma has an exceptionally high nutritional value, boasts powerful anti-inflammatory properties and is crammed with antioxidants, which strengthen our immune system, help heal wounds and slow down our aging skin. Lucuma powder also has a low glycemic value and is a particularly suitable sugar replacement for diabetics. In addition, lucuma is a valuable source of carbohydrates, fibre and B vitamins, which are crucial for healthy bowel movements, is rich in niacin, which helps prevent heart disease and depression, and contains iron, potassium, calcium and phosphorous, all required for healthy cell function.

Lucuma

Mesquite

Mesquite powder is a deliciously sweet, natural sweetener prepared from the beans of the Mexican mesquite tree, often referred to as the ‘Tree of Life’. It has an incredibly high nutritional value, which boosts our immune system and, as it scores low on the glycemic index, actively balances our blood sugar levels. Suitable for diabetics, mesquite is also packed with proteins, vitamins, minerals (including magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron and zinc), amino acids and antioxidants that you won’t find in processed sugars.

It’s rich in the healthy sugar, (isorhamnetin-3-diglucoside for example), which helps protect our liver and also contains lysine, which helps fight viral infections (including herpes and shingles). Mesquite contains serotonin, which helps combat depression, apigenin, which boasts anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, antibacterial and antiviral properties, triptamine, known for its antibacterial effect and quercetin, which can help prevent diabetes.

Mesquite contains serotonin, which helps combat depression, apigenin, which boasts anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, antibacterial and antiviral properties.

With a flavour similar to molasses, mesquite is a delicious addition to smoothies or desserts, and it likes being mixed with raw cacao and maca powder. Try mixing mesquite powder into side dishes or use it as a topping for desserts.

Xylitol

Traditionally derived from the birch plant, nowadays it’s common to see if coming from corn, which is then hydrolyzed into xylose and catalytically hydrogenated into xylitol. Xylitol in larger doses (more than 50gm per serve – just over a tablespoon) may cause gasto’ discomfort and have a laxative effect.

Xylitol is a low kilojoule sugar substitute that is gaining in reputation namely due to the effect it has on preventing tooth decay. Xylitol is found naturally in fibrous fruits and veggies such as plums and corn and is also produced in the body. With 40% less kilojoules than sugar, negligible carbohydrate content and a low GI of 7. 
Xylitol is added to chewing gums and other oral care products to prevent tooth decay and a dry mouth. Caution – it has been found to be very dangerous for dogs!

Traditionally derived from the birch plant, nowadays it’s common to see if coming from corn, which is then hydrolyzed into xylose and catalytically hydrogenated into xylitol.

I don’t use xylitol or other highly refined products. (Xylitol is very acidic on the acid/alkaline scale.) I’m a wholefoods gal and proud to be, so xylitol doesn’t cut it for me. Yes it has fewer calories than sugar and a lower glycemic index but I’d rather eat something closer to its original state.

Stevia

Part of the sunflower family, native to regions from western North America to South America. Commonly known as sweetleaf, sweet leaf, sugarleaf, or simply stevia, is widely grown for its sweet leaves. Stevia has a ‘slow release’ energy and longer duration than that of refined white sugar, although some of its extracts may have a bitter after taste.

With its steviol glycoside extracts having up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, low-carbohydrate and almost nil effect on blood glucose – it has been gaining popularity over the years. Stevia has been widely used for decades as a sweetener in Japan yet in some countries health concerns and political controversies have limited its availability. The United States banned stevia in the early 1990s unless labeled as a dietary supplement but in 2008 it approved an extract of stevia as a food additive.

In 2011, stevia was approved for use in the EU. Stevia contains no calories and a GI of zero. Many people have found Stevia to have an unpleasant aftertaste, which caused manufacturers to add other ingredients such as dextrose or maltodextrin to make a more pleasant-tasting blend. Make sure you check the ingredients only whatever products you buy. Stevia only. It’s available as a powder or drops.

Make sure you check the ingredients only whatever products you buy. Stevia only. It’s available as a powder or drops.

I personally don’t get into stevia. I’ve tried it in cooking a number of times and I just don’t like the taste – but if you do then you’re onto a winner as this herb has been used for centuries as a ‘sweet treat’. Naturally growing your own plant then drying and blending the leaves to a power is the way to go. Avoid the powders and granules if you can, unless unrefined and totally pure and unbleached.

Molasses

To make molasses, the cane of a sugar plant is harvested and stripped of its leaves. The juice is then extracted by crushing, mashing and cutting the cane. The juice is boiled so you end up with sugar crystals only and this is called the ‘first boiling’ and has the highest sugar content because comparatively little sugar has been extracted from the source. First syrup is known as “cane syrup”, as opposed to molasses.

Second molasses is created from a second boiling and sugar extraction, and has a slight bitter tinge to it. The third and final boiling of the sugar syrup yields Blackstrap Molasses, known for its thick and dark consistency, and big flavour. The majority of sucrose from the original juice has been crystallised and removed here.

The roots of the sugar cane run a long way into the soil, and have received a broad spectrum of minerals and trace elements. Unlike refined sugars, it contains trace amounts of vitamins and significant amounts of several minerals. Blackstrap molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron; one tablespoon provides up to 20% of the daily value of each of those nutrients. Blackstrap has long been sold as a health supplement.

Unlike refined sugars, it contains trace amounts of vitamins and significant amounts of several minerals.

You really want to buy molasses organic as cane sugar is heavily sprayed with toxic chemicals plus if it’s not organic it may contain sulphur, which means allergenic chemicals have been used in processing.

In the Middle Eastern, molasses is also available made from carob, grapes, dates, pomegranates, and mulberries – and usually contains white sugar. In Nepal it is called chaku. One tablespoon (20 g) contains 58 calories (240 kJ), 14.95 g of carbohydrates, and 11.1 g of sugar divided amongst sucrose: 5.88, glucose: 2.38 and fructose: 2.56 g. Blackstrap has a GI of 55, so suitable for diabetics.

Dried Fruit

Once upon a time not so long ago, the only way to eat fruit out of season was in dried form. Drying fruit was once a favourite method for preserving fruit and preventing waste because the natural bacteria and enzymes need water to break down a food. So, the removal of water is all that is necessary to preserve a fruit or vegetable. Easy

It’s not something we should be snacking on mindlessly. Fruit that has been dehydrated has more than double the calories of its fresh counterpart – sometimes triple.

Dehydration, causes some nutrients to become more concentrated. A 2005 study in Journal of the American College of Nutrition revealed that antioxidants in dried cranberries, grapes, and plums are twice as potent as those in the fresh fruits. 
But…remember one dried apricot will have the same calories and amount of sugar as one fresh apricot, so avoid eating them by the handful.

When choosing which ones to buy – watch for added sweeteners like sugar and corn syrup, particularly in tart fruits, like cherries and cranberries. Also, check out the ingredient list – 100% fruit only. You don’t want any ‘sulfites’ or sulphur dioxide – a preservative that maintains color and extends shelf life and causes serious damage to our health. (Search ‘dried fruit’ on my websites search engine for more on this.) Dried fruit shouldn’t look like fresh fruit. Sure it’s not as pretty once dried but dark and shrivelled (‘like a prune’) is best.

Ok there’s the rundown on sweeteners. As I’ve said throughout – mix it up a bit where you can. There’s no need to think that all sweet foods are unhealthy or fattening. They’re not. Use complex whole sweeteners that suit your own individual make up and watch life get a whole lot sweeter.

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In Sweetness,

Janella

 

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Written By

A sought-after naturopath, nutritionist, medical herbalist, iridologist and chef, Janella Purcell has been a regular on Australian television with appearances on Masterchef, and as the “good chef” on Good Chef, Bad Chef. She is also a regular contributor, columnist for many of Australia’s best-loved magazines including Nourish, Woman’s Day and Good Medicine magazines. As an author, Janella has three best-selling books, including Eating for the Seasons, which won the “best health and nutrition” category at the International Gourmand Awards. Janella’s Wholefood Kitchen was also shortlisted for the prestigious award. Her latest is Janella's Super Natural Foods. She is also the much-loved ambassador of Lifestream wholefood supplements, a brand she has personally used for almost two decades. Janella has combined her vast knowledge of food and nutrition to create a multi-disciplined approach to health and wellbeing. Dedicated to a core philosophy of food as medicine, Janella teaches how to get the most out of our meals – and how to avoid the pitfalls. She has been working with wholefoods since childhood and honing special diets for the past 15 years. Besides her wholefood workshops, media appearances and online work, Janella can be found consulting with clients at her Natural Food and Medicine Store in Sydney’s Surry Hills, as well as from her clinic in Bangalow, Northern New South Wales.