Sweeteners: the good, the bad and the downright ugly...

By: Gemma Davies

By Gemma Davies, CEO Folkklore

‘Quitting sugar’ has gone mainstream, and in many ways that’s a good thing! Any health principle that turns us away from processed foods and veers us in the direction of traditional and wholefood eating is wonderful, but it has appeared to relegate all sweeteners as ‘bad’ in many people’s minds.

Truthfully, sweet treats are one of life’s true pleasures!

Ideally, our cravings for ‘sweet’ are balanced by enjoyment of the whole spectrum of flavours: bitter, sour, salty and ‘umami’ (savouriness). Given that many of us have vastly favoured candyland, it’s certainly important to moderate our intake of sweet foods, but that doesn’t mean we can’t indulge from time to time!

There are so many natural (and completely unnatural…) sweeteners on the market that confusion is quick to strike! We’ve created a basic primer of sweeteners to help you make the most nourishing choices:

The Worst Offenders:

  • Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, etc…): stay away! Stay RIGHT away! Artificial sweeteners are not only horrifically addictive, but have been linked directly to serious liver, kidney and neurological problems and cancer. It is inconceivable that products containing them are so easily and readily available: what is wrong with the world?
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): the problems with HFCS are so-many-fold… It is used widely in many processed foods hailing from the USA and is slowly creeping in to the Australian market as we develop our penchant for junk… HFCS is popular with food manufacturers because it is both sweeter and cheaper than sugar. HFCS is highly, highly refined and has been directly linked to obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. It’s an especially nasty sweetener because it stimulates lipogenesis and triglyceride production in the liver, ie. it’s metabolized into fat! Furthermore, the ingestion of HFCS does not send satiety signals to the brain, so you’ll end up eating far more of foods containing it in an attempt to feel satisfied and full. 

The Dirty Three:

  • Agave: ALMOST a worst offender, Agave is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It might hail from an exotic Mexican cactus, sweeten up your favourite raw chocolate and take pride of place in the health food store’s sweetener aisle, but this little deceiver is so high in fructose that it rivals HFCS in it’s level of nastiness. Steer clear!
  • Cane sugar and it’s refined derivatives (raw sugar, brown sugar, caster sugar, etc…): it’s not sugarcane itself that’s a bad bloke, but what we humans do to it. Refining sugarcane juice essentially strips it down to simple carbohydrates, meaning that while we experience a surge of energy and temporary deliciousness, our bodies have to deplete our stores of the nutrients required to metabolise it. Over time, this can lead to serious health problems.
  • Fruit Juice concentrates: a fruit juice concentrate is made by removing water and fibre from fruit, usually via heat and filtration. What do you have left, nutritionally, once fruit has been cooked and refined? Fructose, and not much else.

The Jury’s Still Out:

  • Alcohol sugars (xylitol and erythritol): whilst produced from natural sources like corn, strawberries and birch trees, these alcohol sugars are highly refined and come with label warnings that large quantities can cause diarrhea, bloating and gas. Perhaps best left for occasional use? Xylitol does have proven benefits to dental health and is included in naturally formulated toothpastes and chewing gums.
  • Stevia: stevia in its whole, green-leaf form is a healthy, low calorie, zero carbohydrate sweetener that may also help to improve pancreatic function. Good stuff, yes? The bad news is that it’s also available (far more readily) in very highly refined forms, namely white powders and clear liquids. Refining stevia, like any sweetener, removes important nutrients and plant chemicals from the whole plant and these versions are probably best left avoided.
  • Barley and Brown Rice Syrups: sourced from whole grains, these guys feature heavily in macrobiotic cuisine and have had several health benefits attributed to them. The truth is, these syrups are highly refined and give you a fair whack of simple sugar to deal with. Concerns have also been raised about high arsenic levels found in foods containing brown rice syrup.

The Good Guys:

  • Coconut sugar: made from the whole, dehydrated sap from coconut flower harvesting, coconut sugar is minimally processed and relatively micronutrient-dense, as sweeteners go. Coconut sugar has the added benefit of a very low glycaemic load, resulting in a slow release of energy rather than a sugar rush.
  • Molasses: whilst it is a byproduct of refined sugar production, molasses is nutrient-dense and a particularly good source of readily absorbable iron. It’s strong, almost bitter aftertaste is somewhat prohibitive in cooking though, and is somewhat of an acquired flavour.
  • Raw Honey: perhaps the nutritional queen of the sweeteners, raw honey is nutrient-dense and has a number of impressive health benefits. High in micronutrients and enzymes, raw honey is also antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal and has been shown to benefit immunity and digestive health. It’s important to note that many of its benefits are lost in cooking, so it is best consumed in its raw state.
  • Maple syrup: minimally processed and harvested from Maple tree sap, maple syrup is both delicious and nourishing. It is important to note that many ‘maple-style’ products exist on the market that constitute sugar syrup and maple flavouring, so be sure to read the fine print and choose a 100% organic, pure maple syrup. There’s some confusion about the ‘grades’ of maple syrup available, which warrants clarity. Grades A and B are available in Australia, with A having a lighter colour and flavour and B a darker shade and richer taste. Even though health advocates tend to recommend ‘grade B’ as the healthier choice, both are equal when it comes to nutrition.
  • Unrefined cane sugar (rapadura, panela, sucanat, etc…): with trace-nutrients and molasses intact, these products are simply dehydrated cane juice in it’s whole state. These are great for baking, beverages and sprinkling although, like all things sweet, they should be eaten in moderation.

About Folklore

Folkklore is the mischievous and unruly brainchild of Gemma Dee. Inclusive, evolving, eclectic and entertaining, Folkklore examines and explores ancient wisdoms, practical no-brainers and new-wave notions that can expand and accelerate your experience of being a mere human in full flourish.
Tend to your roots. Be radical.

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