REVISED FALL, 2012
It’s 1975 and I’m in North Country Coop on the West Bank in Minneapolis – a naive pre-med student at UofM. Coop’s were pretty “seedy” back then – roughly tossed together and staffed by the real political anti-establishment animals – called hippies.
“Yea, man – that stuff is WHITE DEATH” barked the bearded, ever-so-slightly odorous co-op worker in his soiled white apron chatting energetically with another shopper. “People just don’t know – white sugar is government trying to dumb us down and manipulate us – just feed ‘em, White Death and you’ve got control!”
“Sheesh,” I though to myself, “what a wacko.” I bought an odd-looking, lumpy cookie, trotted out of the store and took a big bite. “Plaaaaa!” I exclaimed, spitting it out on the sidewalk, the taste being what I imagined a mouthful of peat moss and gravel would offer. Sugar was definitely verboten in that hippi-hollow.
Fast forward to 2009 as I am giving away the few last bags of refined organic cane sugar to my neighbor to use for hummingbird sugar-water, ever so anxious to get this white stuff (white death?) out of my house. Notice it was “organic”. The assumption (and lingering hope) upon purchasing some semi-aware months before was that maybe “organic” sugar wasn’t that bad- even though it was still refined white sugar (dumb, really dumb).
(On the fence about white sugar? Think it’s “not so bad for you?” go here and weep)
I’m not going to recap all the myriad dangers of consuming sugar here – (check out this litany of ill effects HERE)
Refined sugar and high-fructose sugars are killing us in a multitude of ways. I’m also not here to advocate that you continue to consume much – if any – sugar. However, gettin’ honest, the fact is that we will all continue to use some sweeteners – so let’s know about the smartest, “healthiest” ones to consider.
There is also the issue of your conditioned tastes. If you are not willing to let/help your own tastes to change – that is to give your own sensibilities the chance to live without the constant sweet stimulus – then changing to a healthier sugar consumption state will be difficult. While living in Europe, I found myself adjusting to a much less “sweet assult” on my taste buds and I seriously reduced my American conditioned preference for that sickeningly sweet style of almost everything.
For reasons ranging from having high GI (glycemic index, glycemic load) having inflammatory properties, being high fructose, being extracts from seeds or grains, being chemically extracted/processed - these are the sugars we recommend you avoid completely: white refined table sugar, conventional brown sugar, agave syrup, barley malt sugar, rice sugar, sorghum sugar, (and in fact ALL grain sugars), sugar beet syrup, fruit juice sugars, date sugar, any and ALL ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS including but not limited to Aspartame, Cyclamate, Saccharin and even Splenda (avoid Splenda till proven safe and as of FALL 2012, it has not had the trials).
The simple fact of the matter is that the chemical companies producing artificial sweeteners, the researchers investigating them or the marketers selling them **have no complete idea** what the safety of these fake-out chemical sweeteners do to the human body – especially over time. For all the hype (mostly promotional) about helping diabetics, reducing our sugar use, calorie intake etc etc, the upshot is that every chemical artificial sweetener is a product – patented and cheaply produced – with some chemical company (or big pharma) making mucho bucks from “pushing” them. Just DON’T USE THEM!
ALSO, you saw agave on the no-no list. As “natural” as the sellers of agave syrup want you to believe it is, it is highly processed and super-high in fructose. The chemical processing alone disqualifies as a healthy sweetener. Here is an excellent take-down of agave .
Finally, I’m not sure there are any “ideal” sweeteners because, as a practitioner of the evolutionary/paleolithic diet – I believe virtually none of these was available to our human ancestors in any amount and so our physiology is simply not equipped to process larges amounts of any sugar substance.
What is an ideal white sugar replacement? Well, we tend to judge every “replacement” against the very substance (white sugar) that we now know we should not have been consuming in the first place! Learning to use alternative sweeteners is simply re-learning about sweetening in general and it is a lot less frustrating if you dump your expectations and embrace the new tastes, textures and characteristics that the better sweeteners offer.
Unlike the weak, much debated arguments against salt (the subject of my salt post here), sugar has very real, significant and immediate metabolic effects that are NOT good, de-sensitizing your insulin response being one of the biggies. This is argued to be the beginnings of diabetes, chronic inflammation, and depression of your immune system.
(check out our new science support for xylitol and kids dental health HERE)
Until we learn otherwise (and we have been keeping our eyes peeled), Xylitol looks to be the best choice for a “white sugar replacement” of any of the choices out there. It’s texture, taste and general characteristics are the closest to white table sugar that most of us are used to. Technically not a “sugar” but rather a “sugar alcohol”, xylitol exhibits somewhat different properties in cooking and in digestion.
The worst thing we have yet found said/researched about xylitol is that it can cause gastric/bowel disturbance for the first days of consumption and/or if over-consumed. Xylitol is not digested in the mouth or the stomach and is not degraded until it reaches the large intestine where certain bacteria will start to feed on it. This is part of the reason why is is so good for dental health (it does not feed bad bacteria in the mouth or stomach- in fact, inhibits staph. mutens* in the mouth) and it does not spike blood sugar/insulin as it is also not absorbed in the stomach/small intestine. * staphylococcus mutens is the bacteria responsible for most of the damage in tooth decay.
Also, although it is derived from the woody bark and stems of birch trees (birch trees being revered by the native Americans), it has to go through an extraction process in order to obtain the final sugar alcohol product (thus not really qualifying as “natural”) . Xylitol can be extracted from any woody-stem plant and it often processed from corn stalks. We advise strongly that you check for GMO-free corn xylitol at the least (the NOW brand we link to is this) or, if you spend a few more bucks – get the better birch-extracted xylitol.
Xylitol has been known to cause lower bowel distress when used to fully replace high sugar consumption as it ferments in the large intestine. Intelligent and modest use of xylitol is adapted to quickly and then the dental benefits really begin.
Xylitol has 50 years of substantial use and research in many countries other than the US. Countries like Japan, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden (and other European countries) have had extensive use of xylitol since the 1960′s with virtually no negative effects or concerns for it’s ultimate health save for the initial digestive issues – and in fact the dental benefits have been astounding. Additionally, xylitol dental trials have been held in numerous countries around the world.
In the US, xylitol is unable to be patented (as the process is already established years ago) and therefore it is an orphan substance. Being an “orphan” drug or substance means that substances that show great promise may well never be extensively tested as no one is willing to pay for the expensive testing in order to make claims. Big Pharma couldn’t give a sh*t about even the most exciting substances if they can’t control the production and get their obscenely high profits.
Tests for dental benefits in the US of xylitol have actually be canceled in favor of fluoridation, fluoride treatments and tooth-glazing coatings – all things that are highly profitable to major corporate and professional dentistry concerns. The FDA and the USDA – in case you have not figured it our by now – exist (in no uncertain terms) NOT for the safety of the people, but for the protection of big money corporate interests (don’t get me started on that one!). Why else would you see such obvious poisons as Aspartame approved and marketed as safe?
After consuming it as a sweetener for gluten-free, grain free snacks for over 4 years, no one in our little community is suffering any digestive side effects. I would guess that our consumption is less than 5 teaspoons a day for any one of us. We also combine xylitol with raw honey or maple syrup when sweetening baked goods and some snacks.
Here is a very good explanation of the past 40 years of xylitol use and research trials. It is from a site promoting xylitol, however, they are very candid and honest with their information.
Well – yes – we all know what honey is – but here is the Wikipedia entry anyway: a sweet food made by bees using nectar from flowers. The variety produced by honey bees (the genus Apis) is the one most commonly referred to and is the type of honey collected by beekeepers and consumed by humans. Honey produced by other bees and insects has distinctly different properties. Honey bees form nectar into honey by a process of regurgitation and store it as a primary food source in wax honeycombs inside the beehive.
Regurgitation? eeewww – but honestly, RAW honey (the refined honey is NOT as healthy) is very good for sweetening, and it’s GI (about 50) is less than refined honey so it will spike your blood insulin, but not sooo much. . Paleo thought is that raw honey OK but NOT too much – actually good advice we’ll repeat for ANY sweetener.
Again, from Wiki: A syrup made from the sap of sugar maple, red maple or black maple trees. In cold climate areas, these trees store starch in their stems and roots before the winter; the starch is then converted to sugar and rises in the sap in the spring. Maple trees can be tapped and the exuded sap collected and concentrated by heating to evaporate the water. Maple syrup was first collected and used by Native Americans and First Nations, and was later adopted by European settlers.
Maple syrup has a “medium” GI in the 50 range -not as high as straight white sugar (at 100) but not for diabetics either! It is mostly sucrose once boiled down and will spike insulin pretty well. It’s got a strong taste and although sweetens well, you better like that maple-y yumminess. We use maple syrup in moderation where we either don’t mind or even like the maple flavor addition. Using a little along with the xylitol or raw honey enhances the taste of many things.
This is one we actually learned quite a bit more about through doing this post. We are already big fans of coconut and coconut oils (**very** healthy) and, upon learning about coconut sugar (GI of about 35 and full of additional minerals and nutrients) – we are experimenting with this sweetener too. It is sustainably harvested – similar in concept to maple syrup harvesting – but the whole process must be accomplished in a tighter time frame as the nectar collected will quickly ferment into palm wine if not boiled down immediately. Sweet Tree Sustainable Sweeteners is a small company committed to sustainability and supporting local coconut farmers in Indonesia. This sugar is a good find – and if you commit to lower your sugar intake and using high-quality sustainably farmed and healthier sweeteners when you use them – this is a good choice. The chart here shows the relative nutrient/mineral values of coconut palm sugar. Try some from Sweet Tree here.
From Wiki: Molasses is a viscous by-product of the processing of sugar cane sugar beets into sugar. The word molasses comes from the Portuguese melaço, which ultimately comes from mel, the Latin word for “honey”. Blackstrap molasses has a very strong flavor, so it is best to just replace a small portion of sugar with molasses. 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.
Molasses is a very good sweetener for cooking but again, like maple syrup – you have to like the taste. Because it has some good mineral content – it has a little compensation for it’s medium GI (60 or so). Use sparingly as well.
Rapadura is a dried sugarcane juice that is common in Latin American countries The unique processing of Rapadura gives it a mild, caramel-like flavor which is good for baking and sweetening food and drinks.
Sucanut is a non-refined cane sugar that, unlike white sugar, is a pure dried cane sugar, retains its molasses content. Of all the major sugars derived from sugar cane, Sucanut ranks highest in nutritional value; although, as with most sugars, it is not a significant source of any nutrient apart from carbohydrate.
Sucanut or rapadura are useful when you want something that acts basically like the table sugar you are used to but just with the brown color and the molasses components not removed. It can be “browned” and has the characteristics of refined white sugar whereas the sugar alcohol xylitol does NOT always “act” like refined white sugar (won’t dissolve the same way or brown)
Here is a blurb I lifted about Stevia. Personally we do not use stevia for reasons of taste and aftertaste. That said, some people rave about it and use it many different ways. We cannot advise for or against it for that reason, you’ll just have to try it!
Stevia is a wonderful alternative for sweetening. Stevia is a herb that is a part of the sunflower family and is commonly known as sweetleaf, sweet leaf, sugarleaf, or simply stevia. It is widely grown for its sweet leaves. Its extracts have up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar and because it has a negligible effect on blood glucose and is known to enhance glucose tolerance.
One final time, I will emphasize that it is **really** a wise dietary choice to strictly limit your intake of ANY sugar – and to commit to re-adapting your taste to needing less sweetness in general. However, if you continue to consume processed/prepared foods, drink soda or eat things like ice cream, sugary candy and cookies – you are going to find this to be a very hard task. Try going cold turkey – you will be surprised at how quickly you will get over the need and how fast your taste buds will change.