In this article, which is the second part of a two-part series on sweeteners, we will focus attention on traditional sweeteners that are a bit more natural and whole than the sweeteners discussed in Sweeteners, Part 1. They are not perfect and some of them may seem to be of little difference when compared to some sweeteners in part 1. However, each of the sugars discussed today contain a fuller compliment of vitamins and minerals to help balance their impact upon the human body than the sweeteners discussed in part 1. Keep in mind however, that from the worst to best sweeteners, none should represent more than a minimal or sparing use in your diet. Used artfully and sparingly in an otherwise healthful diet sweeteners can occupy a place in your life, but they currently occupy too great of space in most people's lives. Let's take a look at more traditional sweeteners.
Honey: honey and dates are perhaps the most natural of all sweeteners; honey is produced by bees and has been used by man for thousands of years. It has been spoken of in holy writ by nearly every major world religion. Hindus believe honey to be one of the five elixirs of immortality and honey is used as a part of Hindu temple rites. For the Jews, sliced apples are dipped in honey and eaten during the traditional Jewish new year's meal to celebrate the hope for a sweet new year. The Bible contains many references to honey, including a land that flows with milk and honey, of John the Baptist living in the wilderness on locust and wild honey, as well as other accounts. In Buddhism Honey is used in a celebration that remembers Buddha's making peace among his disciples by retreating into the wilderness. Similar to bible stories of John the Baptist living in the wilderness on locust and wild honey, the Buddhist legend teaches that while Buddha was in retreat in the wilderness, a monkey brought him honey to eat. The monkey's gift of honey is depicted in many Buddhist's works of art today. Islam's Prophet Muhammad included writings in the Qur'an that promote honey for its healing purposes and as a nutritious and healthy food: "And your Lord inspired the bees, saying: "Take you habitations in the mountains and in the trees and in what they erect. Then, eat of all fruits, and follow the ways of your Lord made easy (for you)." There comes forth from their bellies, a drink of varying colour wherein is healing for man. Verily, in this is indeed a sign for people who think. Traditionally, honey has occupied a place as an important sweetener.
Honey should be raw and unfiltered. Most of today's supermarket brands of honey have been altered through modern processing and do not contain the same benefits of the honey used successfully in the traditions mentioned above. True raw honey contains enzymes, antioxidants, micro nutrients, pollen, and propolis which help to balance the impact of this sweetener on human metabolism. Even the flavor of natural unprocessed honey is more fragrant than commercial brands. If you are going to use honey, take the time to find a good source of raw or even wild honey. For example, I read recently of a 25 million acre tract of land that is dedicated to pesticide-free, organic agriculture. Honey produced in such an environment would undoubtedly be better for you than honey produced in an area where pesticides become a part of the makeup of the honey, as the bees free-range while gathering pollen. The fructose and glucose content of typical honey samples ranges in the 30+ percentile range for each of these two sugars, with fructose content slightly higher than the glucose.
Whole Dates and Date Sugar: date sugar is made from pulverized dry dates. The resultant granular powder is a whole sweetener that is balanced by all vitamins, minerals, fiber, and so forth that existed in the whole date. Date sugar, as well as whole dates, can be used in blended drinks, sauces and homemade ice creams. We really enjoy whole dates or date sugar blended into several of our creamy ice cream bases, curries, and so forth. We use about half as much date sugar as we would otherwise use granulated white sugar because of its sweetness.
Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar: Native American Indians taught European colonists how to collect maple syrup from maple trees that are indigenous to northeastern United States. In these cold northeastern climates maple trees store starch (sugar) in their stems and roots just before the cold weather of winter sets in fully. During the winter the starch is then converted to sugar and then the sugary sap rises out of the roots into the tree during the spring. To collect maple syrup native Indians cut a V-shape notch in the trunk near the base of the tree. This injures the tree causing sap to run toward the injury. The indians then placed reeds or concaved bark extending from the V-notch in the trunk into a collecting container where the sap, or maple syrup could drain. The process for collecting the sap, although streamlined a bit since then, remains basically the same today. Once the sap is collected, it is heated in containers to drive off water content until the syrup thickens to contain at least 68 percent sugar. Today maple sap is collected wherever sugar-, black-, and red-maple trees are found throughout the northeastern U.S. and Canada. Maple syrup is made up primarily of sucrose and water but also includes small amounts of fructose, glucose, potassium, calcium, zinc, manganese, and trace amounts of amino acids, each of which help balance the effect of this sugar within the body. There are many derivative products commercially made from maple syrup today that are not healthful or natural; however, if you can obtain pure maple syrup without added salts, High Fructose Corn Syrup and unnatural flavorings added to it, then it ranks as one of the better sweeteners of choice, as far as sweeteners go.
Sorghum Syrup: African slaves introduced a crop known as "Guinea Corn," in the early part of the 17th century. It has been cultivated in the U.S. since the 1850s for use in sweeteners, primarily as sorghum syrup. By the early 1900s, the U.S. produced 20 million gallons of sorghum syrup per year. Today only about one million gallons is produced each year. It is produced primarily in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Because the sorghum plant can grow in drier climates than corn, it has also been produced as an alternative to corn used in silage production and for forage for cattle. As a syrup it can be used in any recipe that calls for a liquid sweetener. It is the sweetener of choice to create the distinct flavor in pecan pies. It retains much of its nutritional content as it is prepared as a syrup and is a good source of manganese, vitamin B6, riboflavin, magnesium, and potassium. To make the syrup, sorghum canes are first stripped of their leaves and then specialized milling equipment is used to press and extract their sweet juices. Evaporating pans are then used to steam off excess water contained in the juices, requiring about 8 gallons of juice that is reduced to make one gallon of syrup.
Coconut and Palm Sugar: This traditional sugar is made similar to how maple syrup is produced. Several slits are cut into the bud of a coconut tree; the sap is collected and then is boiled down into a thick syrup. It is then poured in bamboo tubes between three to five inches in length, and is left to solidify to form cylindrical cake blocks. Alternatively, it is also left to solidify in jars, bags, and other containers. Compared to today's commercial sweeteners, it is very high in both macro and micro nutrients which help to stabilize the impact of the sugar upon human metabolism. Because of its low glycemic qualities and higher nutritional profile, it is gaining popularity for a wide array of uses. It is used in cookies, baked goods, energy bars, beverages, and as a replacement wherever granulated white sugar might otherwise be used. It is used in the Thai cuisine in sweet desserts, and also in curries and sauces. It is also beginning to replace agave as an alternative sweetener of choice.
Stevia is a South American Herb known locally as "honey leaf." As an all natural non-caloric sweetener stevia offers an alternative to manufactured artificial sweeteners. However, stevia was used traditionally by native people as a natural contraceptive, so if you are seeking to produce offspring, you may want to choose another sweetener. Green stevia leaves can be used whole and undried, or may be dried and then turned into green powders. Both of these methods of use preserve stevia as a whole and natural sweetener. By comparison, white and liquid stevia are commercialized forms of the green stevia leave. Users beware; as with so many newer commercialized sweeteners today, the white and liquid forms of stevia are not natural and may lead to unfortunate health consequences. Stevia can be used in cooking and also in beverages such as shakes and smoothies. The Glycemic Research Institute reports that in clinical trials stevia, even with its zero calories, induces a glycemic index with doses as low as 1 gram. As doses increase, so too does the glycemic response. They have discovered similar responses with sugar alcohols such as xylitol. It does not appear as if there is any such thing as a free pass when it comes to the insulin stimulating properties of sweeteners. Even with these seemingly harmless low glycemic sweeteners prudence must be observed if you don't want to store a lot of excess harmful fat on your body. From such clinical trials, whole new factors other than the glycemic response are now being studied regarding their relationship to the production of fat-creating insulin in the body.
Molasses: Molasses is one of the byproducts derived from processing sugarcane juice into white sugar. Mild molasses is the leftover sugarcane juice from the first boiling and extraction of sugarcane crystals. Dark molasses comes from the second boiling of sugarcane juices, and blackstrap molasses comes as a result of a third boiling of sugarcane juice. Molasses is generally recommended as one of the "best of best" sweeteners, not because it is all natural or a whole food, but because it is one of the better byproducts of white sugar production. It is high in niacin, thiamin, and magnesium, copper, and potassium content. There is also sulfured and unsulfured molasses. Sulfured molasses is made from young sugar cane. The preservative, sulfur dioxide is added during the sugar extraction process with young sugar cane. By comparison, unsulfured molasses is made from mature sugar cane, which does not require the preservative treatment. The three grades of molasses--mild, dark, and blackstrap molasses--can each be sulfured or unsulfured, depending upon whether they are made from young or mature sugarcane. One tablespoon of blackstrap molasses provides up to 20% of the recommended daily allowance for calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron.
Unrefined or Low-Refined Sugar Cane: The sugarcane plant is much maligned; however, like so many other plants that contain sugar it is neither good nor bad. It's the uses we choose to make of it that determine the viability of this plant being used in the human food chain. Some minimally processed sugars that are made from this plant (rapadura, sucanat, turbinado, and piloncillo) preserve much of the natural vitamin and mineral content during processing. After the juice is extracted from the sugarcane, it is heated to reduce moisture content and to create a thick syrup. The molasses in the sugar and its accompanying nutrients are not extracted from the sugar. The end result is that the final product is rich in minerals compared to white granulated sugar.
Dried and Whole Fruits: many dried fruits such as raisins, figs, dates, apricots, pears, apples, bananas, and so forth can be added to various blends to provide a more balanced and natural sweetener. For example, golden raisins can be blended in marinara sauce to take of the acidic edge and to sweeten the sauce a bit. A date or two can be added to a vegetable smoothie to perk it up a bit, or can be blended in natural raw yogurt to become a base for a 100% living sprouted pulse mix that tastes wonderful over a fruited salad. Figs can be blended with balsamic vinegar, avocado and mustard powder to make a wonderful salad dressing. Dried pears can be added to sweeten leafy green smoothies. As you look to fruit as a sweetener, there is no end to the creative possibilities.
If you are looking for whole, natural, and raw in your sweeteners, the best of all sweeteners is whole fruit. To the extent you can creatively learn to use whole fruits or dried fruits to sweeten sauces, drinks, and so forth, the greater will be the healthful response of your metabolism.
What is the bottom line when it comes to sweeteners? Most all sweeteners are concentrated sources of sugar. If you want to avoid storing fat, then you cannot consistently or chronically maintain blood glucose levels above 100 mg/dl. They ought to range between 60 and 100 mg/dl most of the time and research indicates that it is best if they do not rise more than 7 to 10 mg/dl after any given meal. When they exceed 100 mg/dl, insulin is produced to carry away the excess sugars. Where do these sugars go? Some go to be stored as glycogen within the muscles and liver. This is good! These glycogen stores provide on-demand energy producing capacity for your cells. However, if your glycogen stores are full (most people can only store up to 2000 calories of glycogen) and you continue to maintain elevated blood-sugar levels, then excess sugars will be converted to fat. It is very difficult to lose fat when insulin levels remain chronically high. Insulin interferes with the ability of fatty acids to enter the mitochondria of cells to participate in the energy production cycle. Therefore, as you consider sweeteners, never forget your true aim in a healthful diet is to obtain the vital nutrition you need to meet the demands of metabolism, while at the same time maintaining stable blood sugar levels that do not remain chronically high.
By learning to eat in a manner that maintains stable blood-sugar levels between 60 and 100 mg/DL of blood, the over-production of insulin does not occur and insulin does not disrupt the metabolism of fat in the energy production cycle, nor does it create needless additional fat. Our diabetes epidemic as a nation has occurred simply because we eat in a manner that maintains excessively high blood-sugar levels around the clock. Sweeteners play a major role in this epidemic.
Whether it is common whole-wheat breads, or crackers, or candy, or sweeteners, each of these can cause blood-sugar levels to increase to levels that stimulate the over-production of insulin, leading to the creation of more fat in your body. The reason the Atkins diet has been successful for many diabetics is because insulin levels come down and fat metabolism goes up. You want to learn how to create a similar effect, but with a far more healthful approach--one that utilizes God's Dietary Pattern for Man. Therein lies a sustainable balance that leads to ideal body weight and longevity.
Minimizing the use of all sweeteners and limiting sweetener choices to those that are not as problematic in this cycle, will pay dividends to you in the long run. Speaking of the long run, did you know that drinking just one soda (not diet soda) per day will cause you to ingest 32.5 lbs of potentially fat-producing sugar annually. Sugar has been added to nearly all processed and refined foods and beverages. It's time to get rid of the sweeteners and fake foods and learn to eat only real foods from God's garden according to a pattern he has given man.
All My Best,
James Daniel Simmons