Time for a healthy sweetener update!
Some months ago I wrote about sugar, good and bad alternatives (helloooo aspartame!). Ever since I have been meaning to do an update, a rectification and add some invaluable additions. We live, we learn, eh? Refresh your memory with this post on sugar first and then let’s roll.
Once the lovechild of the raw food community, agave is now quickly becoming l’enfant terrible, and with good reason. Agave tastes amazing and you know what they say: if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Agave is (was?) hailed for being raw and unprocessed and for being low-glycemic (meaning: having less influence on your blood sugar level than sugar).
But let’s look at some facts. Agave is not found in nature the way you find it in your plastic squirt bottle. To get that honey-like consistency it is, in fact, heat-treated and processed. To what degree, and if it’s even possible at all to make really raw agave, is still up for debate. Point is, it’s been touted as a natural, raw, unprocessed product which is simply not true. I feel kind of silly/ignorant for not having realized this sooner myself (I mean come on, it comes from a cactus!) but sometimes even I buy into the craze .
More importantly than the whole raw/not raw debate, agave is indeed low-glycemic, but what has been left out of this sugar-coated story (get it?) is that agave is pretty much all fructose. Hmm, any alarm bells going off? Everyone on this planet and their sisters are bashing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and with good, goooood, reason. Without going into to much techy details, HFCS has been linked again and again (and again) to obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Even though HFCS is low-glycemic, it makes you gain weight faster than glucose- the main proponent of ‘normal’ sugar. Knowing that, I am hesitant to still use agave in my own raw or baked goodies….
In my last post on sugar and alternative sweeteners I wrote I wasn’t in favor of honey for multiple reasons, but I did make sure to add these were my concerns with processed honey commonly found in supermarkets. Since then I found out it’s slightly easier to get by raw, local and organic honey that I thought, and it’s often reasonably priced (in my opinion). The health benefits of raw organic honey are undeniable, and have been promoted as such by many cultures and for centuries (a big plus in my book). Ayurveda claims honey (again: raw & organic!) is a miracle food and and even has medicinal properties (like-wise, they say heated honey is toxic). Raw honey is antiviral and antibacterial so it’s great to use for coughs and colds. It works very nourishing on the skin too and as such can be used topically for wounds, zits and eczema. Furthermore, honey contains varies nutrients and probiotics.
Honey is one of nature’s truly natural sweeteners, it is not adulterated. But always make sure your honey is, next to raw and organic, also locally and ethically sourced. Talk to the sales person if it is something you are concerned about. I get my honey (at Amsterdam’s Noordermarket) from people who do treat their bees very well and don’t engage in practices like feeding the bees sugar… Honey is not strictly vegan though so you should decide for yourself whether or not you feel comfortable eating it. Here is a small excerpt of an interview Kimberly Snyder did with a bee-keeper:
Kimberly: Some strict vegans are against the use of bee products, as they feel that it exploits the bees. What would you say to them?
Mike: I would say that in some apiaries bees can be exploited, but when you treat the bees as a worker and not a tool, those mistakes don’t need to happen. A worker bee will generally have a 6-week lifespan, and its only desire is to work from the moment it is born, and basically horde honey. 99% of the time that will result in a vast excess of honey un-consumable by 1 hive. That uneaten excess leads to other problems of bees robbing each other, wax moths laying eggs, hive beetles destroying comb, to mice etc… When we can work together as a whole to provide them with all the tools they need for success and not harm any bees in the process then we have a beautiful symbiotic relationship that works. There can be no exploitation when both parties are happy.
The desire of a bee is to help the hive survive and that’s no different then a farmer growing produce for his family and selling the excess. It is just as unethical to take advantage of the many hard-working American farmers by demanding rock bottom prices for food at the supermarket.
I don’t focus on quantity and stress the bees, some years I wont even take honey because the bees need it and I don’t. I charge more for my product (Kimberly note: Mike’s products are morethan reasonably priced!!) so we can both survive off of what we produce not what we have to produce to compete, because neither the bee nor myself need to bee pulled into the failing industrial agricultural model any time soon. And I can honestly say the bees are happy because I have yet to wear a bee vail when I enter my bee yards and they often come over to say hello when they land on my shoulder. The day I will need to wear a bee vail to enter my bee yards because of bee stings I’ll know I’m doing something wrong and change it, but at this point we both have a great relationship that works on both ends.
A popular sweetener in the raw food world is coconut nectar since it is raw and low glycemic and contains some nutrients. I myself am not a fan because of it’s super thick consistency and the taste resembles pancake syrup, of which I have never been a fan. But alas, if you are you might want to give this one a try!
Another up and coming sweetener which is slowly but surely becoming my favorite! Yacon syrup is syrup freshly pressed from the yacon root, a root vegetable found in the amazon, most notably Peru. This sweetener has some pretty impressive stats. It is low glycemic due to to the fact that most of its fructose is in the form of fructooligosaccahride (FOS) which has shown to have many health benefits. FOS has a sweet taste but is actually a prebiotic, aka food for your good bacteria. FOS can also not be absorbed by the body which makes yacon syrup low in calories. If that wasn’t enough, yacon syrup contains iron, can lower blood pressure and is chockfull of antioxidants. Also, I like the taste! It’s thick and the taste is a little like caramel.
Xylitol & Erythritol
Though these two sound pretty damn scary, they are actually natural sugars derived from fruits and plants. They are less sweet than sugar but also contain less calories. They both have their pros and cons though. Erythritol is sweeter and virtually calorie-less and is said to be easier on the tummy than xylitol (both can have a laxative effect when consumed in excess), but it has quite a cooling after taste (both sweeteners are used in gum!). Xylitol is good for your teeth (awesome eh?), super low glycemic and has about two thirds of the calories of sugar. It’s quite sweet and with no nasty aftertaste. But if you have a very sensitive stomach and/or add a substantial amount of sugar to baked goods, coffee, tea, etc, than xylitol is not a good option for you.
I am fascinated by all the natural sugar alternatives out there these days and I’m sure there are many more to come. What is your favorite healthy sugar alternative? And one I haven’t covered yet but definitely should?