A solid premise for deciding the healthiness of a food item is seeing
how recognizable it is as a product of nature. We are repeatedly shown that
Mother Nature really does know what she is doing. She is able to orchestrate
complex interactions in the natural world producing beauty, establishing
equilibrium when things get out of balance and creating such a perfect system
of interdependence among flora and fauna/ animal, vegetable and mineral. Even
when man messes things up nature is there to bail us out, to the best of its
ability.

Analogous to nature's wisdom is the wisdom of the human body. It knows
what it needs, it is not attracted to and rejects what is harmful to it, and it
is able to repair itself if given the chance. Our bodies give us signs — in the
form of "symptoms" to let us know that some sort of input is not conducive to
optimal functioning. Symptoms such as headaches, digestive turmoil, insomnia,
pain, allergies, fatigue, etc, are the body's way of telling us that there is a
factor or combination of factors, such as harmful foods, harmful emotional
conditions or harmful environmental conditions, that are damaging the integrity
of the body. The principles of Eastern Medicine emphasize balance and harmony,
not just within the body, but also in respect to nature to determine one's
physical and mental health. Thus, being in tune with the natural world is key
to well being.

 

So, how does this relate to
sweeteners?

Well, you know those little blue and pink paper packets of a completely
unnatural but sweet tasting powder? How can one classify this "food stuff" in
the natural world? Animal, vegetable, mineral? Perhaps we have a new food
kingdom: chemical.

Artificial sweeteners, along with processed foods, are in supermarkets
to turn a profit for a corporation not to nourish our bodies. Sweet'n Low, which is
one of the first artificial sweeteners, generically called saccharin, is a
derivative of coal tar. Splenda, or sucralose, named that to sound more like
sugar, is one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners today. It is a
"chlorinated sugar" which means that it is produced from sucrose with three
chlorine atoms replacing three hydroxyl groups. It
is the chlorine that provides the sweet flavor, not the sucrose. So, despite
the advertising campaigns trying to make Splenda sound very much like sugar
(without the calories), it doesn't resemble sugar in chemical structure any
more than ozone (O3) resembles oxygen (O2). Saccharin has been suspected of
being carcinogenic; and only 15% of sucralose is absorbed in the body while the
rest passes through unchanged, which has a tendency to cause digestive
disturbances such as bloating and diarrhea.

These
sweeteners are chemicals, not foods. The FDA approves these sweeteners as safe
but the FDA frequently acts, not in the best interest of the consumer, rather
in the best interest of the corporations that produce these products. So, who
can you trust to determine what is safe and healthy for your body if government
and private corporations in charge of food safety are corrupted by self-interest?
Nature and yourself!

 

Question the "experts": Advertisers
and research studies may not be right

In
the second half of the 1900s, margarine was touted as a healthier alternative
to butter, and infant formula was advertised as nutritionally superior to
breast milk. It turned out that the beneficial health claims for these food
substitutes were absolutely incorrect. Hydrogenated margarine turned out to be
dangerous to our cardiovascular systems whereas butter, despite being a fat,
contains Vitamin A, trace minerals and essential fatty acids that actually
benefit our cardiovascular systems. Infant formulas lack all the
highly beneficial immunity-building constituents found in breast milk and are
loaded with non-beneficial sugars contributing to infant obesity. In both of
these instances, the natural food ended up being the healthier choice.

Supermarkets
are being bombarded with new products daily that are "enriched", "heart
healthy", "carb smart", and "sugar free" but these slogans do not mean that the
products are good for you. Why is it that carrots do not have stickers on them
that boast "high in beta-carotenes and fiber"? Foods that are the most
nutritious lack stickers and slogans and nutritional claims because they are
"foods" not "products"! Too often we find out that these "food products" have
some ironically negative effects on our bodies.

 

The irony of artificial
sweeteners and sugar-free foods

Have you noticed that most consumers of diet products are actually
overweight? All those low fat, sugar-free foods are not helping to keep anyone
slim; in fact, they are causing people to eat more!

The body is smarter than we think. It keeps track of what is going into
it and responds with appropriate physiological activities and sensations to
metabolize, compensate and regulate as necessary.

In an interesting series of experiments at Purdue University, rats fed
artificially (saccharin) sweetened yogurt for a two week period, ended up eating
more and gaining more weight than their counterparts being fed yogurt sweetened
with sugar. Why would the yogurt with the non-caloric, artificial sweetener
actually result in weight gain for the rats? Two biological mechanisms are
responsible for this unexpected result:

1. Artificial sweeteners somehow disrupt the body's ability to
regulate incoming calories. When foods sweetened with natural or even refined calorie-laden sugars are
consumed, the body registers this intake of calories and limits appetite
appropriately. When artificially sweetened foods are consumed, the body
continues to expect a caloric equivalent to the sweet taste that it senses. The
empty, zero calorie sweetness miscommunicates the caloric content of food. The
body senses the sweet flavor but the metabolic system does not, triggering the
desire to eat more.

2. The consumption of natural or sugar sweetened foods revs up the body's
metabolism and temperature in anticipation of burning off and utilizing the
calories taken in. The rats in the study had no rise in body temperature after
eating the artificially sweetened yogurt resulting in
a sluggish metabolism that stores, rather than burns, incoming excess calories.
These calories are tucked into storage as fat.

And
so it follows that people drinking diet sodas, eating diet ice creams and
other artificially sweetened, sugar-free products end up overeating and gaining
even more weight than if they had eaten the sugar sweetened versions of these
foods.

 

Should we, therefore,
just eat sugar?

No.
Artificial sweeteners are a lose, lose (or perhaps gain, gain) situation, but
refined sugars are consumed in enormous quantities in the US (a whopping 135
pounds of sugar per person per year!) and are a primary cause of obesity and
disease. Though white sugar either comes from sugar cane or sugar beets (at
least we can identify it's plant source) it is too refined of a substance for
the body to assimilate properly. When we eat a beet in it's entirety, we are
taking in dietary fiber, a bit of fat, protein, water, vitamin A in the form of
beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, pantothenic
acid, folate (vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and B9), Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron,
Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Zinc in addition to the carbohydrates.
Pure sucrose, which is refined out of the sugar beet, is stripped of all of
those vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and water. Because it is missing these
natural constituents, the body is unable to digest it properly. The sucrose
speeds right into the bloodstream prompting a fatty liver, an overworked
pancreas, blood sugar instability, fat storage and contributing to a huge array
of chronic and debilitating illnesses and premature aging.

 

What is all the fuss
about HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)?

HFCS is not very different from white sugar. In the 1980's it
started replacing sugar in many sodas and prepared foods because it is
considerably cheaper, making use of our subsidized cheap corn over-production.
It keeps prepared foods moist, is easy to transport in tanker trucks and has a
long shelf life. The problem component in both sugar and HFCS is the fructose.
It is found in combination with glucose in both sweeteners. It is the fructose
component that goes directly to the liver, where it gets converted into fat,
leading to health problems like heart disease and diabetes. HFCS has a slightly
higher percentage of fructose to glucose than sugar, making it slightly worse
in comparison. The real problem with HFCS is it's preponderance in such a huge
percentage of prepared foods. It's cheap, it's a big industry, and it's
weaseled into too many foods that are making people fat!

 

Brown Sugar and Raw
Sugar

Coming
back to our rule of thumb that the foods in their most natural states are the
healthiest, we can get a pretty good idea of what sweeteners are bad, better
and best. Brown sugar is either slightly less bleached and refined as white
sugar or is white sugar with some molasses added back into it. Brown sugar,
along with raw sugar, has traces of nutrients but not enough to redeem them as
healthy and non-harmful.

 

Agave Nectar

Agave
nectar has recently become a popular "health food" sweetener. A sweetener
deriving from a cactus sounds very natural indeed. What we find here is a
highly processed product, which is technically a hydrolyzed high fructose
inulin syrup. The percentage of fructose to glucose seems to vary with the
different types of agave nectar, but overall the fructose component is far
greater than that of HFCS. Some agave nectars contain a whopping 92% fructose
compared to roughly 55% in HFCS. Some manufacturers mix it with high fructose
corn syrup or produce it from the nectar of a species of agave that contains
saponins that are actually toxic to humans. No bueno!

Maple
syrup, brown rice syrup, sorghum and molasses are brown and earthy natural
sweeteners. They are certainly better than white granulated sugar, as they
contain beneficial nutrients that help the body digest them more slowly.

 

Maple Syrup

Maple
syrup comes from the sap of a maple tree and nothing artificial is added to it,
that's good, but it is important to consider that the stuff that drips out of
the tree is only faintly sweet. To achieve the dense sweetness of store bought
maple syrup, one must boil down 32 gallons of sap to achieve 1 gallon of syrup.
Nutritionally, maple syrup does contain some trace minerals, a significant
amount of manganese and zinc.

 

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown
rice syrup contains several of the B vitamins and trace minerals. It contains
both maltose and glucose and is usually produced from organic rice. These
factors give brown rice syrup some beneficial properties but, once again, to create
a sweet syrup out of brown rice requires a lot of processing. Can you imagine
how much brown rice is needed to produce even a tablespoon of syrup? Brown rice
syrup has a rather intense cloying flavor that will make baked goods taste
like…brown rice syrup.

 

Sorghum Syrup and
Molasses

Both
of these sweeteners have a considerable fan base for nostalgic reasons and
molasses, also, for therapeutic reasons. Both sweeteners are endowed with
considerable amounts of iron, potassium, calcium, vitamin B6 and magnesium.
Black strap molasses, the darkest and most nutritious variety, is less sweet
and has a particularly high iron and potassium content. Just one tablespoon
contains 20% of a person's calcium and iron requirements! It is used
effectively for anemia and acne. Because of molasses' intense flavor, one is
not likely to consume it in large quantities. Therefore, as a sweetener in
coffee, tea and milk or used to bake some gingerbread, molasses makes a healthy
sweetener.

 

Honey (My favorite!)

The
only sweeteners that are not altered, refined and compromised are fruits and
raw honey. Honey is a yumalicious and versatile sweetener that can be used to
sweeten tea, spread on toast, and to bake with. It has the wonderful quality of
varying in flavor and color depending on the type(s) of flowers that the bees
feasted on. It is loaded with immune enhancing properties. It is best to obtain
honey that is produced locally as it will be created from local flora.
Environmental allergy sufferers will benefit from consuming local honey as it
will produce a homeopathic effect of acclimating one's immune system towards
tolerating the pollens and natural plant stuffs floating in the air. I give
honey 2-thumbs-up as the best sweetener. Besides eating it, one can use it as a
face wash (with the comb if you desire an exfoliating effect) for luscious
feeling skin. Honey is touted to have antibacterial, anti-fungal and
antioxidant properties. It can be used to dress a wound and helps with the
healing and the formation of healthy tissue regrowth.

There
are a few precautions to be aware of though: do not feed honey to children
under 1 year of age as a young digestive system lacks the enzymes to tolerate
it. When cooking and baking, be aware that baked goods with honey incorporated
in the batter or dough will brown and even burn more quickly. And if you happen
to be heating honey up on the stove (as when making baklava) and you have
screenless windows open — your kitchen will fill with bees!

It
takes some getting used to the distinctive flavors that more natural sweeteners
impart to baked goods, granola, beverages, etc. but the tastes take on a
satisfying quality. It is almost impossible to find ready-made cookies and
pastries that are completely honey or molasses sweetened, so one must
experiment and bake at home. Replacing artificial and refined sweeteners with
more healthful alternatives has the benefits of improved health, more beautiful
skin, and realigns us with the natural world.

 

Image by cocoinzenl, courtesy of Creative Commons license.