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Natural honey

The sweetening market is composed of two types of sweeteners, natural and artificial. We know natural sugars as cane sugar for the most part, but there is also molasses and honey as well as others. “Artificial sweeteners” would include aspartame, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and Saccharine.  At least that is how we consider them.

It seems in some ways that consumers who are insisting on more “natural” sweeteners are having an effect. Unfortunately, the effect is not what we would hope, which would be more natural sweeteners being used. Instead, in the last two years, certain makers of what we commonly consider to be artificial sweeteners are trying to change their names and are doing so while insisting that their products are natural.  HFCS now wants to be known as “Corn Sugar” and aspartame would like you to call it “Amino Sweet”.

Aspartame was created by a chemist working for a drug company in 1965. Like so many innovations, the chemist was looking for something else. Once they discovered that aspartame was sweet, the drug company (G.D. Searle) sought FDA approval as a food additive. Aspartame is made from two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine), both of which are “natural” and hence where the name “Amino Sweet” comes from. But just because something is natural, doesn’t mean that its good for you.

Aspartame is considered by a number of scientists to be carcinogenic.  In some research its been associated with high rates of lymphoma and leukemia when dosed in rats in amounts equivalent to someone drinking 4-5 20 ounce diet soft drinks a day. Other research has associated it with a number of health issues including: headaches, dizziness and seizures.

So while the name “Amino Sweet” brings to mind a natural ingredient, keep in mind that the two amino acids that make it up are not mixed together in nature, so in reality, how natural is this sweetener.

In the last few years, the words “High Fructose Corn Syrup” seems to be on the labels of most of the processed foods available. One reason for this is that it is a cheap sweetener, much cheaper than table sugar. But the word has gotten out and many people look for HFCS on labels and now move to avoid products containing it. So rather than appeal to obvious consumer wants, what does the industry do? It attempts to change the name (not the product) to “Corn Sugar” and market it as a more natural product.

But how natural is HFCS?  If you watch the commercials, you will note that you are told that your body treats “Corn Sugar” just like it does sugar. How true is that?  It’s true that HFCS and sugar have the same amount of calories per gram, and both consist of two simple sugars (fructose and glucose) in roughly the same ratios.  But that’s where the similarities end. Table sugar is naturally bonded portions of glucose and fructose, HFCS is blended together.  Corn starch is treated by an industrially produced products such as alpha-amylase, aspergillus and glucose-isomerase to yield first glucose and then fructose. These are then blended together to create HFCS. In 2009, almost half of all tested commercial samples of HFCS were found to contain mercury, a heavy metal that is toxic.

So when something is so heavily processed as to be unknown in any natural state, is it fair to call it natural?

But what about our “Natural Sweeteners”?  Are they truly natural and healthy for us?

Honey for the most part, is. Honey which comes from local growers and bee keepers is a natural, nutritious product that has a number of beneficial minerals and enzymes. There are issues with imported honey and honey currently being sold in a number of supermarkets (which will be a subject in a future post), but for the most part, honey is both natural and healthy in small amounts.

Real Maple Syrup is a syrup that is tapped out of maple trees and minimally processed. Again, a natural and nutritious product that can be used in small amounts.

Coconut sugar or Palm Sugar is made from the sap of the coconut flower buds. Its a traditional sweetener that is used extensively in areas where coconuts are grown. Basically coconut sugar is the sap which is heated slowly until the water is boiled off, the result being either a crystal or granular product, block or liquid. Coconut sugar is actually low on the glycemic index (about 35).

Molasses comes from the table sugar refining process. It is a byproduct of sugar cane or sugar beets when processed into table sugar.  It’s commonly used in baking and is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron.

Agave Nectar comes from the bulb of the agave plant, which makes it mostly starch. The process to create agave nectar is similar to that used to create HFCS. While HFCS comes in at about 55% fructose, agave comes in at 70% fructose.   So while the name conjures visions of native Mexican people utilizing the sap of a local plant, it’s truly anything but.

Stevia is a plant which is naturally sweet.  In fact Stevia is 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar. When taken in liquid form as an extract from the plant, stevia is fairly natural. However, products like “Truvia” or “Stevia in the raw” are not simply stevia. Instead, these products mix stevia with other “bulking agents”such as Erythritol (in Truvia) which is a corn-based sweetener and Dextrose and Maltodextrin (Stevia in the Raw) which are  bulking agents derived from corn (most likely GMO corn).

The last “natural” sweetener to look at is table sugar.  Commonly derived from either sugar cane or the sugar beet, table sugar is highly refined. If it is white, its been bleached. Either way it is heavily refined by dissolving the sugar into a syrup and then clarifying it by applying phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide. While these items are used to trap and remove impurities, they do not chemically change the sugar in the same way that HFCS is created.

One of the claims put out by the corn industry is that HFCS and table sugar are very similar and in the research I’ve done, it’s actually true. What they don’t tell you is that table sugar is equally bad for you.  Both HFCS and table sugar are fairly high in fructose, which is used mostly by the liver. (Glucose is used by all the cells in our body). The fructose in either will hit your body much faster in its refined state than if you simply ate an apple. When fructose hits the liver that fast, studies show that most of it gets converted to fat.

So in reality, whatever a sweetener is called, it’s still not the healthiest thing in the world for you. Not all sweeteners are equal. If you need to use a sweetener, use honey, coconut sugar, molasses or liquid stevia extract. Don’t be fooled by the marketing or the hype.

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6 Responses to “Sweeteners, What’s in a Name?”

  1. Tim Lasko says:

    So maple syrup is good or bad?

    • Sandra Clark says:

      Maple syrup ia a natural sweetener. My opinion is that it is safe in reasonable amounts.

      • Tim Lasko says:

        Oh, good. Here in New England, it’s one of my favorite sweeteners. 🙂 It has a distinct flavor, though. But, I find that honey and coconut sugar do, too.

        (As long as the syrup is real, of course. You may have heard of stories like this one: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/31/fake-maple-syrup-law_n_1067114.html)

        Renee and I were in a Whole Foods last weekend and all of the various sweeteners you listed were there and then some. And the “then some” were processed versions of the natural ones, too, a lot of them stevia or agave in various combinations. I haven’t been sure what to think of stevia yet and your post is giving me more food for thought. Thanks.

  2. maggie says:

    Thanks for this — I’m trying to buy all of our honey from our local farm from now on. I still use a lot of granulated sugar in baking — still have to figure out the best way to fix that (replacement sugar or better brand of granulated).

    • Sandra Clark says:

      For granulated sugar for canning, (and other things) I found Organic Cane Sugar from Whole Foods in their 365 brand. Its not processed like the regular table sugar so for items that I have to use “sugar”, I’m trying to use that. The bag says “Our 365 Organic Everyday value Cane Sugar is produced by “washing the crystals with steam to remove as much of the natural molasses syrup as possible with no de-colorizers used in the process”.

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