How Sweet it Isnt?

Natural Alternatives to Sugar, Minus the Calories and Carcinogens

While visiting my local coffee shop, I watched a presumably aware, health-conscious patron (she ordered a fair trade coffee with low-fat soymilk) quickly dump three packets of that ubiquitous aspartame sweetener in her beverage before heading out the door. Maybe she knows that aspartame has been implicated as a cause of a plethora of ailments, from cancer to digestive problems, but most likely not. Unfortunately, much of the American public consumes all forms of sweeteners without knowing that there are low-calorie ways to make your food more palatable without synthetic chemicals or cancer-causing ingredients.

The Good, The Bad and the Sticky

Natural sweeteners include maple, date and fruit sugar, dark brown molasses, honey, stevia, evaporated cane and xylitol.© Brian Howard

Known by the trade names NutraSweet, Equal and Spoonful, aspartame has been attacked by healthcare practitioners for years. Besides evidence that artificial sweeteners don’t help with weight loss (since 1981 when aspartame was introduced, Americans have become significantly more obese), it is still consumed for health reasons. Like saccharine, aspartame has been linked to cancer in rats, though unlike saccharine it is not labeled. Some reports link aspartame to a host of human problems, including symptoms that mimic lupus and Parkinson’s disease, anxiety attacks, depression and brain tumors.

A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) representative responds, "Analysis
does not support an association between the use of aspartame and increased incidence of brain tumors in human beings." But National Cancer Institute data do indicate a significant increase in the frequency and severity of brain tumors since aspartame was introduced into our food supply.

Contained in more than 5,000 products found in 90 countries, aspartame accounts for 75 percent of reported adverse reactions to food additives according to the FDA. In 1994, a Health and Human Services report listed 90 documented symptoms associated with aspartame exposure.

The aspartic acid in aspartame excites brain cells, some say to a dangerous level. "The ingredients [in aspartame] stimulate the neurons in the brain to death, causing damage of varying degrees," argues neurosurgeon and author Dr. Russell Blaylock, who is a professor at the Medical University of Mississippi.

Betty Martini, founder of Mission Possible International, an anti-aspartame advocacy group, says "There are so many dangers of using aspartame that it took 1,038 pages to describe them in a medical text, Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic, by Dr. H.J. Roberts. It triggers brain, mammary, uterine, ovarian, thyroid, testicular and pancreatic tumors. It triggers seizures and interacts with serotonin, which can lead to ADD, ADHD, autism and other behavioral problems." While the FDA stands by its 1981 decision to approve aspartame, Japan and some European governments have recently decided to study the chemical sweetener more closely.

Sugar itself is also controversial, and has been implicated in causing or worsening a variety of health problems, including diabetes and obesity. Recent evidence even suggests that it may be addictive. Avoiding sugar may be a good idea, for both your health and the environment. Sugar cane plantations in Florida and the Philippines are responsible for the loss of important wetlands and are highly intensive uses of land (see "Bitter Sweets," feature, July/August 2003).

Sugar is very high on the glycemic index, explains holistic health and nutrition counselor Cynthia Stadd. "All carbohydrates, whether a piece of chocolate, fruit or whole grain rice, will break down into glucose after being ingested," says Stadd. "Both the amount of sugar in the food and the kind of carbohydrate will affect how your blood sugar rises, creating a number for the glycemic index. Foods high on the glycemic index cause a problem when they are ingested in large amounts on a regular basis, and are particularly unhealthy for people with hypoglycemia or diabetes." Don’t be deceived by "naturally milled" and browner variations. Stadd says, "As far as the effect they have on blood sugar, there is no difference between brown and white sugars."

Honey, especially in raw form, can be a natural alternative to sugar. While honey contains vitamins C, D, E and B-complex as well as traces of amino acids, enzymes and minerals (up to 50 percent of which are lost when it is commercially processed), it is still high in calories and acts in your body much the same way sugar does.

For a taste similar to honey with fewer calories, try agave nectar, which is made from the Mexican agave plant. Agave nectar is a fruit sugar, which absorbs more slowly into the bloodstream and is suitable for diabetics, since it’s much lower on the glycemic index. It has a light, mild flavor with a thinner consistency than honey. However, because of a rapid rise in popularity of tequila, which is also made from agave, National Geographic reports that the agave plant has been seriously over harvested, threatening the dry forests of Mexico. Conscientious consumers should look for sustainably harvested agave.

For baking, date sugar is a good replacement for conventional sugar. Actually consisting of finely ground dates, it contains all the fruits" nutrients and minerals. "Date sugar isn’t highly processed, and it can be used cup-for-cup as a replacement for white sugar," says Stadd.

Also good for baking is xylitol, which sounds like an artificial chemical but is actually birch sugar. Unlike conventional sugar, xylitol is actually reported to fight tooth decay, and has fewer calories. Both date sugar and xylitol are much lower on the glycemic index and are suitable for diabetics and others who are sensitive to sugar. Evaporated cane juice and maple syrup are also alternatives, but are still fairly high on the glycemic index.

The Stevia Solution

The FDA considers stevia a supplement, but its properties extend beyond what you will find in your morning multivitamin. Several companies are now marketing stevia in the United States as a sweetener. Made from the stevia leaf, it comes in either liquid or powdered form and is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, with no calories.

Stevia leaf originated in Paraguay, and has been used as a sweetener for bitter drinks for thousands of years. Japanese drink manufacturers have been adding stevia for more than 30 years with no known health effects, according to scientist Douglas Kinghorn in the journal Food Ingredient Safety Review. However, because stevia is so concentrated, it is best used as an additive to drinks, cereals or yogurts. It doesn’t have enough bulk for baking.

There are enough alternatives to sugar out there to satisfy any taste or craving, but it still may take some time before we learn to kick the sugar habit.

STARRE VARTAN is a freelance writer with a legendary sweet tooth.