Now that we’ve taken a look at the spiritual side of sugar, let’s assume we’re so together that we only eat the sweet stuff on special occasions. Great. And when we do, what sweetener should we choose?
Generally speaking, sugar is sugar is sugar. Except when it’s not. Here’s a detailed list today’s most popular sweeteners and my personal verdicts:
Over-consumption of sugars and other carbohydrates leads to pre-diabetes (impaired glucose tolerance aka hypoglycemia). Depending on your paradigm, over-consumption might mean eating dessert three times a day or tasting a teaspoon of honey once a year.
Many natural foodists believe no sugar is good sugar and that there is no such thing as moderation when it comes to sugar. I can’t say that they aren’t technically correct. I pretty much think they’re close to the truth, but I do know that the total sugar-is-poison approach will negatively impact a person’s family and social life. If you come across as too sanctimonious you’ll definitely annoy everyone you know. Plus, what happens when they catch you eating ice cream?
I remember walking by the Haagen-Dazs in Olde City, Philadelphia, late one afternoon in the last century, and there, nearly crouched at a table with his back to the sidewalk (wearing dark sunglasses, to boot), was the top East Coast macrobiotic celebrity (who happened to be lecturing in the city). I asked my then macro-teacher what was that all about? He said, “Well, if Mr. X is eating ice cream you can be sure that he’s so in touch with what he needs for inner balance that it’s okay.” Need I say more?*
1. Popular Sugars: The most popular natural sugars include: white and brown sugar (made from cane or beets), Sucanat™(evaporated cane juice), raw sugar, Florida Crystals™, molasses, honey, maple syrup, rice syrup, barley malt, cane syrup, corn syrup, etc. All raise blood sugar (and set up craving cycles), and some have a stronger negative impact than others.
Verdict: I like raw honey (for its sweetness and anti-bacterial qualities), pure maple syrup for an occasional and expensive treat, and Sucanat and (cooked) honey once in a while. I don’t like the aftertaste of rice syrup or barley malt. Once every five years or so I make gingerbread in which I’ll use molasses though I cannot remember the last time I did that. And yes, I’ll come clean. Once in a great while I’ll eat a food which contains plain, old sugar. Don’t tell.
2. Designer Sweeteners: The most popular in the U.S.A. are sucralose, aka Splenda™, Aspartame, Saccharin, and neotame, aka NutraSweet™. Each has their detractors and supporters.
Verdict: I never use ’em. The few times I’ve tasted foods or drinks made with any of these, well, yuccch.
3. Sweetener Cocktails: Sorbitol, Xylitol, Maltitol, Manitol. The “ol” ending signifies that these sugars are alcohol-sugars. Can cause serious upset stomach, gas, bloating in some individuals. Sometimes they’re used in candies, gum, and toothpaste.
Verdict: I don’t recommend using them in home baking or cooking but if they are an ingredient in gum or toothpaste and you won’t be swallowing large quantities, then okay, don’t kick up your heels.
4. Old-New Sweeteners: Stevia and Agave Syrup.
Stevia, aka sweetleaf, is produced from a leafy plant and is generally sold as either a powder or a liquid. There are claims made that it actually improves glucose tolerance. For centuries, it has been used medicinally by the indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, Brazil and, Paraguay, and today there is evidence it can help treat high-blood pressure and obesity. It can have a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Agave Syrup is distilled from a few varieties of the agave plant, which is related to Yucca, and has also been used medicinally by indigenous Peoples. Currently, most agave syrup in the U.S.A. comes from Mexico. It is intensely sweet, and some varieties and brands have a stronger taste than others. It is nearly twice as sweet as sugar (and is a high-calorie food) but has a much lower glycemic index. This means that it does not appear to cause the yo-yo effects of many other sweeteners. Sounds good, right? However, it has been implicated in raising triglyceride levels.
Verdict: Occasionally use of small quantities shouldn’t be a problem for healthy people, but don’t rely on this sweetener.
5. Sweet-tasting Fruits, Veggies, Grains, Beans, and Dairy: The honey the Torah (Bible) is referring to is syrup made from fruit. There are over 50 mentions of honey including memorable, beautiful phrases such as The land of milk and honey; Honey from the rock, and so on. Scholars say this honey is date or fig honey. (There are two instances where it does refer to bee’s honey). This wonderful article explains this in detail.
Five main food groups contain sugar:
Fruit, including dates, figs, raisins, fresh grapes, bananas, papayas, peaches, apples, watermelon, cherimoyas, and other ripe fruit. Fruits contain fructose, sucrose, and glucose. Some fruits can raise the blood sugar levels very quickly in some people, especially when consumed without other foods.
Vegetables, including carrots, sweet potatoes, collard greens, eggplant, sweet corn, beets, zucchini, winter squash, cooked onions and other veggies. Vegetables contain sucrose, glucose, fructose and other sugars. Most vegetables contain less sugar than fruit. The most dramatic exceptions are beets and carrots. Eggplant helps beat cravings for many types of food, including sweet treats.
Grains, including wheat, rice, corn, spelt, etc. The starches in grains are actually molecular chains of simple sugars. In fact, some grains and grain preparations like pretzels or crackers raise the blood sugar levels even more quickly than eating some sugars. You may have heard the term low-glycemic applied to foods. These are foods that do not raise the blood sugar levels quickly. High glycemic foods do raise them quickly. Eating whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa or barley, doesn’t raise the blood sugar levels as quickly as eating more processed grain-based foods such as pancakes or cookies. Sprouted grains have an especially sweet taste; sprouted grain bread helps conquer sugar cravings. Potatoes, while a vegetable and not a grain, are classified as a starch so some people use them in place of grains. Potatoes can cause blood sugar to rise quickly in susceptible individuals.
Beans, including pinto beans, aduki beans, lima beans, lentils, and so on contain oligosaccharides, a type of sugar. However, when eaten whole, many legumes such as pinto beans and lentils actually lower blood sugar levels.
Milk contains lactose. Cheese, yogurt, and other cultured/aged dairy products, if made the traditional way, do not contain as much lactose as regular supermarket milk. But a lot of supermarket/commercial brands are made with modern methods and contain more lactose. Some believe the lactose in raw goat’s, sheep’s or even cow’s milk is more digestible than the lactose in homogenized and pasteurized milk and milk products.
Verdict: Healthy whole foods especially vegetables, are a great way to get that sweet taste without eating concentrated sweeteners.
My Personal Solution: I was off all sweeteners/sugars (except for those that naturally occur in whole foods) for several years but I ended up leaving the hermitage. Today, I primarily sweeten desserts with dates, very ripe bananas, and raw honey (and once in a while, cooked honey). Now and then I’ll use a touch of stevia or Sucanat™, which is delicious, by the way. My husband’s a fan of maple syrup and agave, and since he’s really so good most of the time, occasionally I’ll indulge him.
I should be clear: I do not eat sweets daily. I try to save desserts and sweet treats for Shabbos. When we have a lot of guests, I enjoy letting my inner pastry chef out. You can do amazing things with dates, bananas, and coconut.
The Sugar Puzzle: There is no one-size-fits-all solution to solving the sugar puzzle. Many people crave sweets. Our love of sweets is partly nurture, partly nature. If you give an infant a choice between a sweet flavor or another flavor, she’ll choose the sweet taste every time. But nurture is important, too. Some cultures don’t have a culinary history of serving desserts or sweets (Japan, for one). And of course, what works for one individual might not work for another.
If you are in good health, you might want to examine how much sugar you are eating and see if you can cut back. If you buy processed foods, read the label. Avoid ingredients ending in “ose” or “ol” or contain the word sugar or syrup. If you (G-d forbid), are pre-diabetic, diabetic, more than a little overweight, have cholesterol/triglyceride issues, blood pressure issues, heart problems, cancer, IBS, Crohns, Celiac Sprue, kidney, liver, or bladder problems, candida, nail or skin problems, insomnia, senility, ADD/ADHD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, addictions, and so on, you may want to seriously consider rethinking your sugar consumption.
*Well, yes. I need. I thought it was totally hypocritical.
Next up: Amazing Ice Cream