Sweet as Sugar

By Barry Gottlieb

A word of warning to the casual reader: this article is not about artificial sweeteners. Artificial, highly refined and chemically processed sweeteners get enough press and there are enough new and improved brands coming out every day with brightly colored boxes and bags to get the point across. Popular brands of sweeteners claim to help lose weight or “taste like the real thing,” but what do they really do to your body?

Everyone knows that sugar is a “carb” and that “carbs” break down easily. Eating too much sugar, especially refined sugar, makes the body have a rush of energy and then a feeling of depletion when that energy runs out. Obviously, you should use sugar moderately, and many think that artificial sweeteners are the answer (“At least I’m not using sugar!”). One thing that artificial sweeteners don’t do and that they don’t advertise is that they don’t help curb our cravings for sweets. In fact, they just fuel the addiction cycle.

Imagine your children watching morning cartoons saturated with commercials advertising products (diet sodas, “lite,” “no sugar added”) that studies show cause brain tumors, birth defects, fragile bones, and depression. Imagine raising your children on these products. Artificial sweeteners, produced in chemical factories and globally marketed, are widely distributed to North American women and children without these warnings on the package. The fact is that most everyone has a sweet tooth. Humans love sweet things. They make us feel good. We may not know exactly why, but once we taste syrupy–sugary-sticky-sweetness, we just want more of it. It’s one thing to know in your mind the dangers of over consumption, but in the real world the body actually craves the flavor sweet. Glucose really. The basic on/ off switch for the body’s metabolic ballet. When we consume sugars intact, in their natural state, the body takes more time in the digestion process, slowly releasing into the blood stream. But when we consume refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, concentrated fruit juices, high fructose corn syrup, even the disguised as natural (dyed brown even in some cases) refined sugars like sucanat, turbinado, and “raw” sugars, the body floods the bloodstream with a vicious counter attack of insulin to bring the all important glucose level into balance. But it costs the body. Over time, the strain from this battle can lead to hypoglycemia and diabetes. Sugar has been linked to kidney disease, liver disease, atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, hyper activity, behavior problems (and not just in kids), candida, and cancer. Is anybody scared yet?

So what’s an all-American, sweet treat loving gal to do? We know sugar is bad but who can resist when Prince Sweet Tooth comes courting? Luckily there are alternatives to highly refined sugars. Probably the most perfect sweetener is fruit. In nature, naturally occurring sugars indicate ripening and optimal nutritional value. Fat blue berries, juicy apricots, soft bananas, these are nature’s desserts.

As a general rule, for your best all around sweetener try raw honey. Most studies show that honey does not upset the body’s delicate balance of insulin/ glucose. Raw honey, which is simply honey that has not been heated past 100° is full of digestive enzymes and other nutrients. It is important to note that raw honey should NEVER be given to children under one year of age. Their young bodies cannot properly digest the bacteria in the honey.

For baking, do as people have done for thousands of years, use maple syrup. Discovered by First Nation people noticing the frozen sapcicles gracing the tips of large deciduous tree branches, maple syrup contains all kinds of trace minerals, mined by the tree from deep within the earth itself. The fact that for many First Nation peoples, including the Iroquois who knew how to use the syrup, maple sugar constituted twelve percent of their entire diet, speaks to the nutritional value of maple syrup. Deliciously dark, creamy sweet, a little bit goes a long way. Try a little bit in your milk. It’s like drinking heaven.

Also excellent for baking is old fashioned molasses. While too strong-tasting to use in some recipes, molasses contains iron, calcium, zinc, copper and chromium. Try baking it into ginger snaps or molasses pudding.

Similar to molasses is a classic southern sweetener sorghum. Made from the stalk of a millet-like grain, sorghum is grown all over the south. Primarily used in baking breads and cookies, sorghum can be used very much like maple syrup. Loaded with vitamin B, iron, and calcium, sorghum is one of the healthiest sweeteners around. That buying sorghum most likely supports a local small-scale family farm is an added bonus.

Any of these truly natural and intact unrefined sweeteners are going to be far more digestible than their modern refined counterparts. That way when we do sweet binge (because you know you will) we do it more intelligently and less harmfully. We only live once. It may as well be sweet. n