How Sweet it Is

Natural Alternatives to Table Sugar, NutraSweet, Equal and Sweet’n’ Low

Americans are sweet on sugar—that’s no big news. What is surprising, however, is the size of our sweet tooth. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey found that the average American polishes off the equivalent of 160 pounds of sugar a year. That’s 53 heaping teaspoons of sugar a day, a hike of nearly 30 percent since the early 1980s.

The effect that sugar overload has on our health is as obvious as our expanding waistlines. Sugar weighs in at only 15 calories per teaspoon, but it also whets our appetite for more food, fueling an eating binge that can lead to a host of physical ailments, including obesity, diabetes and heart problems. Sugar-laden foods promote tooth decay, too, and deprive the body of vital nutrients.

In our quest to have our cake—and eat it, too—we’ve turned to low-cal artificial sweeteners, like aspartame (i.e., NutraSweet and Equal) and saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low). The solution is not without danger: Several animal studies have suggested that saccharin, for one, may cause cancer in humans.
Concluding that the animal studies aren’t applicable to humans, the government removed saccharin from its official list of cancer-causing agents earlier this year. The move did nothing to convince critics that it is safe. Warns Suzanne Havala, a registered dietician and author of The Natural Kitchen, “I would still avoid saccharin—nobody knows what minimal exposure to a carcinogen is necessary to cause cancer in people.”

Although no proven long-term affects have been associated with aspartame, it nonetheless carries a label warning consumers that it may harm people afflicted with a rare genetic brain disease. Anecdotal evidence has also linked aspartame to a wealth of symptoms, from headaches to depression. “I’d give aspartame a yellow light,” says Havala. “If you’re going to use it, do so with caution.”

Sweet and Natural

Luckily, the word on sweeteners isn’t all sour. The natural world, with a little man-made assistance, offers a host of sweeteners that are both easier on the body and tantalizing to the tastebuds. The “sweetest” of these is stevia.

Derived from the leaves of a shrub native to Paraguay and Brazil, stevia has been used as a sweetener for centuries by South Americans. Three hundred times sweeter than sugar, stevia has all of the benefits—with none of the disadvantages. It’s all-natural, free of calories, doesn’t promote tooth decay and won’t elevate blood sugar levels.

To sweet-toothed and weight-conscious Americans, stevia would seem a culinary godsend. But you won’t find it in the grocery store. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned stevia in 1991. Why? “We don’t have enough data to conclude that the use [in food] would be safe,” reads an agency position paper. In contrast to its position on saccharin, the FDA bases its claims in part on animal studies. In one, rats that were fed large amounts of stevioside, the main ingredient in stevia, produced fewer sperm; in another, female hamsters that consumed a great deal of stevioside derivative gave birth to fewer and smaller offspring.

Dr. Ray Sahelian, co-author of The Stevia Cookbook, has read the studies and doesn’t think they’re worth worrying about. “If you take any substance in huge amounts, you’ll get some side effects. Aspirin can kill,” he says. “And people would be taking small, not large amounts, of stevia. You only need three drops to sweeten a cup of coffee.”

Moreover, says Sahelian, there’s historical evidence: In the thousands of years that stevia has been used in South America, and in the 30 years since its introduction in Japan, no ill health effects have ever been attributed to its use. Like many proponents of stevia, Sahelian believes the sugar industry has a hand in the FDA’s strict stance. Still, consumers can buy stevia. The FDA ban allows it to be sold as a dietary supplement, and it’s found in most health food stores.

Sweet Treats

While the flap over stevia continues, other, less-controversial, sweeteners are readily available. They’re sugars of one sort or another—that is, they’re still caloric, boost blood sugar levels and target teeth—but they’re a cut above regular refined table sugar, which has been stripped of trace minerals and vitamins that lurk in the sugarcane plant. And, these natural sugars are generally easier on the body, since they contain a variety of “soft” sugars, not just sucrose, the prime ingredient in regular sugar.

Best of the lot, nutrition-wise, says Havala, is an old standby: blackstrap molasses. A thick syrup processed from sugarcane, blackstrap is freighted with about a quarter as many calories as table sugar, and it’s half as sweet and rich in iron, potassium and calcium. Intensely flavored, it’s best used in gingerbread, baked beans and cookies. Substitute it roughly cup for cup. When buying, go for an organic brand, like Wholesome Sweeteners. Molasses may otherwise contain pesticides, herbicides and sulfur dioxide, an allergen.

Lighter yet in calories—570 per cup, versus 860 for refined sugar—is Sucanat. It contains the juice of the pressed sugarcane, thus offering consumers all the vitamins, minerals and trace elements found in the plant. Substitute Sucanat for brown sugar, one to one. Certified organic Sucanat is available from Now Foods.

Roast whole barley, add water, and cook it down—you’ll end up with barley malt syrup. With maltose as its main sugar, this sweetener affects blood sugar levels more moderately than straight sucrose; it contains some B vitamins as well. Similar in taste to molasses, barley malt may be cut with other sweeteners to lighten its intense flavor. Eden Foods offers a certified organic version.

Similar in texture though less sweet than barley malt syrup is rice syrup. It imparts a mild butterscotch flavor and is gooey, which makes it an ideal ingredient to caramel corn and pies, though less so for cakes and breads. About half as sweet as sugar, rice syrup contains some B vitamins and minerals. Use as you would barley malt syrup.

Another sweet choice is maple syrup. “Pure” maple syrup is a healthier alternative to sugar, containing about half the sucrose and boasting both potassium and calcium. Avoid the “maple-flavored” syrups, which are largely a blend of corn syrup (i.e., pure sugar) and artificial flavorings. Organic maple syrup, like that offered by Sweet Retreat, is free of formaldehyde and mold inhibitors that may taint the regular stuff. Use as you would honey: A third cup of maple syrup replaces a cup of regular sugar.

Finally, to your list of natural sweeteners add amasake (a liquid made from the combination of sweet and fermented rice that’s ideal for puddings) and honey (up to 60 percent sweeter than table sugar and significantly more caloric, so use judiciously. It should not to be given to babies, since, as Health Canada reports, contaminated honey is the only known food source for infant botulism).
There does appear to be sweet life after sugar.