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Some Notes on Natural Sweeteners

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I have lots of notes in the recipes indicating that I use sweeteners other than regular old “sugar”. Some people have asked me about why I do this, so this post is an attempt to explain my reasoning. Please know that this is not intended to be an instruction to anyone on what sweetener you should be using. If you’re comfortable using what you’ve always used, that’s great. If you want to try something new, that’s great too.

There’s a fair amount of debate amongst those “in the know” (aka doctors, nurses, nutritionists, herbalists, cooks) about so called “natural sweeteners” vs. refined white sugar (RWS) vs. artificial sweeteners.

Some people will insist that using natural sweeteners, like blue agave syrup or sucanat, is better for your health than using table sugar.

Others will insist that this idea is a hoax and the effects on the body are chemically no different amongst the different categories of sweetener so just use regular old sugar.

There is yet another group who will tell you that all sweeteners, natural, artificial, or traditional will ALL kill you so don’t eat any of it! If you want a sweet have an apple and count your blessings!

To be fair, I think everyone has some decent points to make and, as with most things, I tend to be in favor of moderation rather than any dramatic stance in either direction. That said, I have my own thoroughly unscientific and anecdotal experiences with sugar that have influenced the choices that I make in my cooking and eating.

But let’s start with basic facts that most reasonable people in this debate don’t argue over:

1.      Vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants are naturally found in food and these things assist the body in the digestion process and in metabolizing the sugars the food contains.

2.      This is true for sugar too. The sugar cane plant itself is has high levels of vitamins and minerals. However, when it is processed into table sugar (aka refined white sugar) all those vitamins and minerals are removed from the sugar. This is why sugar is often referred to as “empty calories” since it doesn’t provide any nutritional value.

3.      Refined white sugar (with the vitamins and minerals removed) reduces white blood cell activity, as soon as 10 minutes and for as long as 5 hours, after its consumption. This means there is decreased immune system response during that time. This is why a connection is sometimes made between sugar consumption and getting sick more frequently.

4.      Less refining means more vitamins and minerals, which means higher nutritional content, which means fewer “empty calories”.

Now for the thoroughly unscientific anecdotal evidence… I try very hard to make all the cakes, cookies, ice-cream, etc. that my family eats from scratch, but I can’t control everything my kids eat because they got to school , friend’s houses, birthday parties, camp, go trick-or-treating etc. where I can’t control the things they are fed. So my “moderation in all things” mentality kicks in with this simple formula: What I have the ability to control (aka cook myself) I do and I use only natural sweeteners, and what I can’t control (i.e. what they get on Halloween) I don’t worry about. It works pretty nicely for my sanity level.

But this is what I’ve observed: when my kids eat something highly processed and refined they act like caged wild animals afterward. When they eat something I’ve made with natural sweeteners I do not see any behavioral problems out of them afterward. It’s damn near clockwork and there isn’t a lot of “scientific evidence” that’s going to convince me that there isn’t a cause and effect relationship here.

Next is my own personal experience. Remember how I mentioned in the salted chocolate caramels post about that monster bursting out of my chest when I eat refined white sugar? Well it’s true. About 1o years ago, after having been off RWS for a while, I ventured back to see what it would be like. In short, it was like my brain had been taken over by aliens. I couldn’t think clearly or abstractly. My emotional state also got really volatile. Basically, I became an adult version of that hyperactive kid hopped up on sugar.

Oh, and I also can’t stop eating the things that are made with RWS. That means that if I have a box of cookies then I have to eat the whole box of cookies and then figure out how to get a second and third box too. On the other hand, when I cook with natural sweeteners I can have a couple of cookies and feel satisfied. My kids too, will eat a couple of cookies but then be ok with putting the rest away for tomorrow. Regardless of what’s happening chemically in our bodies, being able to enjoy treats in moderation is always going to be healthier in my book.

Some resources to read more about this topic: