When William Dufty published his classic book, Sugar Blues, he probably did not imagine the quandary that so many people would face in later years with the abundance of sugar alternatives. The predicament goes something like this: "I would really like to cut out all the sugar and empty calories I get from soft drinks, but I've heard that the aspartame in the diet drinks is bad for me too."
As we look at sugar substitutes let's remember the warnings: saccharin is bad for you – it can cause cancer. What about saccharin's replacement, aspartame? Rumor says that it can change to formaldehyde. However, it's reasonable to assume that if this were true it would have been pulled off the market a long time ago.
There are two general points that are very important to think about before we specify the sweetener resources:
- It is useful to get familiar with several different sweeteners.
- While it is crucial not to be too limited in a diet, it can be helpful to use sweeteners that contribute to health building.
In a recent US Department of Agriculture study it was discovered that the typical American uses the equivalent of 160 pounds of sugar a year – a 30% increase since the early 1980s.
It is thought that cane sugar was discovered before the Birth of Christ. As early as 500 BC, India was said to have a "reed that gives sugar without bees." The invasion of Arabs into India in 642 A.D. led to the spread of sugar cane to other parts of the world. First brought in by the Crusaders returning from their journeys in the 11th century, sugar is comparatively new to the western world. When Columbus sailed to the New World in 1493 it was recorded that he took sugar cane plants with him to grow in the Americas.
Not just refined sugars, but all sugars have received a bad reputation lately. They provide easy food for oral bacteria, and can promote cavities and the accumulation of plaque.
In 1957, Dr. William Coda Martin tried to answer the question: when is a food a food and when is it a poison? Dr. Martin categorized refined sugar as a poison because it has been depleted of its life forces, vitamins and minerals. Refined sugar is toxic when ingested by humans because it supplies only that which nutritionists refer to "empty" or "naked" calories.
Sugar is a compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and refers to a large group of carbohydrates that are soluble in water, sweet to the taste and either directly or indirectly fermentable. Sugar lacks any key vitamins and minerals, and it gums up the immune system. Ingesting sugar can cause a major spike in triglycerides, cause kidney damage, decrease useful high-density fats, and encourage a rise in damaging low-density fats and all those problems associated with vitamin deficiencies.
Americans have been looking to cut back on their intake of sugar, perhaps since the diet crazes of the 1970s. By far the most commonly used sugar alternative today is aspartame. Another popular sugar substitute, honey, contains vitamins C, D, E and B-complex, as well as traces of amino acids, enzymes, and minerals. Fortunately for those with a passion for sweets, quite a few other healthy alternatives to sugar exist and can be found at most natural foods markets and even in conventional supermarkets with natural-foods sections - alternatives such as:
Stevia: this wild plant grows and thrives from Argentina to Mexico. The sugar alternative is refined from its potently sweet leaves. Stevia lends a soft spice flavor to your drinks not unlike cinnamon. It mimics the flavor of sugar without its calories or carbs and without adverse effects on blood sugar levels. Unlike old-fashioned artificial sweeteners, Stevia can be used in baking.
Rice syrup: rice syrup by tradition is made by mixing cooked brown rice with dry sprouted barley and culturing the combination until malt enzymes change some of the rice starch into glucose and maltose.
Sorghum syrup: this sweetener, made from stalks of a cereal grain related to millet, was frequently used in the South prior to 1900.
Splenda: released in 2000, Splenda is a mainstream alternative, somewhat expensive but heavily advertised.
The major portion of sugar-replacement options available to the food technologist is sugar alcohols, or polyols. The human body does not require insulin to metabolize polyols, so they are true alternatives to sugar (sucrose). Examples are sorbitol, used in foods for over 50 years, and maltitol, the sweetest of sugar alcohols, having a sweetness equivalency of 90% of sucrose sweetness.
Here are some guidelines on using alternative sweeteners:
- When replacing sugar with a liquid sweetener, decrease the total amount of other liquid ingredients in the recipe by about ¼ cup for every cup of liquid sweetener used.
- To liquefy a crystallized liquid sweetener, place the jar in a pan of hot water for a few minutes.
- Rub some oil in your measuring spoons and cups so liquid sweeteners won't stick.
The principal outlaws to the health food store were typically that terrible trio of white substances: refined sugar, salt and bleached flour. Those consumers who are smart enough to read labels may have become progressively more conscious of sugar's reintroduction into many "healthy" products that used to avoid it. Many companies are using the word "crystals" in describing sugar these days, possibly because it sounds like it fits in with a New Age outlook.