Adam's Corner

An A-Z Guide to Sweeteners / Part II

To repeat: Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the start: there is no sweetener that we can consume vast amounts of with impunity.  None.  There are certainly some that are better than others.  There are some that even have side benefits.  But the take-home message is still “eat sweets in moderation, if you eat them at all.”  Now onto more sweeteners alphabetically.Fruit Syrup is made from fruit juice, boiled down and concentrated.  Usually mild-flavored fruits, such as pears or white grapes are used.  Fruit syrups preserve at least some of the antioxidant and vitamin content of the fruit, and almost all of the minerals.  That being said, fruit syrup is devoid of fiber, and it’s the fiber that normally keeps whole fruit from spiking blood sugar.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is made by the enzymatic breakdown of cornstarch into glucose, about half of which is then “flipped” by another enzyme to fructose.  The result is pure sweetness, in liquid form.

It’s often noted that HFCS is cheaper than sugar.  Actually, HFCS costs more than sugar to produce and transport.  But here in the U.S., heavy tariffs drive the cost of foreign sugar up.  (The embargo of Cuba also helps).  Meanwhile, government subsidies for commodity corn pull the price of HFCS down.

For food manufacturers, the switch to HFCS was a no-brainer.  It helped them cut costs, and allowed them to say that their “new, improved” products were made “without sugar.”  Around the mid-1980s, HFCS started showing up everywhere.

In the last few years, however, the pendulum has swung back, hard.  Almost overnight HFCS has become a dietary bogeyman symbolizing all that’s wrong with the modern food industry: industrial production, cynical marketing, and belt-busting obesity.  Meanwhile “natural sugar” has returned to symbolize a Norman Rockwell age of innocence and purity, and mom and (non-fattening) apple pie.

Is this just a matter of shifting trends?

Looking at the epidemiology, we see the rise in consumption of HFCS paralleled by a corresponding rise in obesity, type II diabetes, and many of our other “Western” diseases.  However, this may or may not mean anything.  It turns out that as our consumption of HFCS has grown, so has our total sweetener consumption.  So is it that we’re consuming more HFCS, or just more sweets in general or something else entirely?

Looking at the nutrition science (and it’s surprising how little of it there actually is), we see that HFCS tends to score slightly lower on the glycemic index than sugar, but that it leads more quickly (at high levels, on an empty stomach) to insulin resistance.  And insulin resistance is an inability to manage glycemic spikes, regardless of the sweetener that causes them.   Insulin resistance doesn’t develop overnight.  But it increases the risk for obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

Recent evidence (some animal studies, and one small human trial) suggests that, in the short term, HFCS leads to the same weight gain as sugar, but that the gain from HFCS tends to be unhealthier, gathered more around the belly and liver.

So is HFCS actually worse than sugar?  I’d say yes slightly, probably.  It depends on how you look at it.   Either way, it’s a race to the bottom, not the top.

Honey is made from flower nectar, gathered by bees, and then processed inside their digestive tracts in a way that would seem kind of gross if you actually had to witness it up-close.  (There’s a lot of regurgitating involved).  When all’s said and done, however, golden amber honey is among the most beautiful foods we have ? to our taste buds, and to our eyes.

Health: there’s no denying honey will spike your blood sugar.  In this way, it’s even (slightly) worse than white sugar[1].  On the other hand, honey’s rich phytonutrient and antioxidant content make it a superior food in other ways.  Honey promotes healing along the upper GI tract, fights bacterial infections, improves immune adaptability, reduces insulin resistance, and may reduce the risk of cancer.  It’s generally Just Good For Us in moderation.  There’s even evidence that honey consumption vs. white sugar reduces your chance of gaining weight and getting heart disease.

Most of what I just said only applies to honey that’s raw, unfiltered, and generally un-messed-with.  Unfortunately, a lot of honey today is cooked, filtered, and very much “messed-with.”  Most is “pure” honey, where the “impurities” removed are health-giving substances.  Most honey is high-heat pasteurized, which destroys almost all of the nutrients that are left[2].

And most honey is taken from commercial hives that are fed on sugar water part of the year.  Understand: bees don’t create the phytonutrients and antioxidants in honey they gather them from flowers.  Remove the flowers from the equation, and these nutrients all but disappear.

If all that weren’t bad enough, there was the recent investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture which found that lots of so-called “honey”… isn’t.  Commodities marketed as “honey,” were in fact composed largely (illegally) of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.  If you can’t trust the label, what can you trust?  Stick with packagers who are also producers the guys with the hives.

When it comes to the genuine article, there’s a world of variety.  Some honeys are dark like molasses; other clear as sunlight.  Some are thin like syrup; others thick like caramel.  Generally, the darker a honey, the stronger and earthier a flavor it has.  Spend some time with the dark, earthy richness of a buckwheat honey; the heady floral bouquet of a lavender honey; or the bright citrus essence of an orange blossom honey you might very well become a connoisseur.

The variety also extends to honey’s medicinal effects.  All honey is effective as a topical germ-killer and healer, but some honeys are much more powerful than others.  By far the most clinically validated perhaps the most powerful is from the New Zealand Manuka plant.  I thought it was just a fad until I looked at the research: for healing ulcers and burns, sores, sore throats, and inflammation along the GI tract, Manuka honey has been compared, not just to placebo, but head-to-head against honeys from around the world, and always comes out on top.  For a domestic honey, Buckwheat is fairly effective.  Any honey from an antimicrobial plant should provide similar results.  Lavender honey, for example, or Thyme.

Finally, raw, unfiltered honey can be useful in the treatment of seasonal allergies.  When the traces of pollen in the honey come in contact with the mucosal surfaces of the mouth, the immune system senses that these aren’t dangerous invaders, and it doesn’t need to attack them.  Here, a local honey with local pollens is preferred.

Licorice: Licorice is the “original” calorie-free sweetener in the West.  Its strong licorice taste, however, makes it unpopular in all but licorice-flavored confections.

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into all of licorice’s amazing health-giving properties.  Suffice it to say, they are many, and they are impressive.  It should be noted, however, that licorice consumed in excess can spike blood pressure, sometimes dangerously.

Lo Han: The Lo Han fruit, native to China, has some minor uses in traditional Chinese medicine (dry cough, summertime thirst).  It’s also ridiculously sweet.  Meaning you need only a tiny amount of it to sweeten something.  Meaning it contributes almost no calories.  Having said that, Lo Han isn’t popular, mostly because the herbal sweetener, Stevia, is just as sweet at a fraction of the cost.

A recent study showed that Lo Han inhibits kidney damage and protects against oxidative stress in diabetes, at least in rats.  With all this talk about sweeteners that are simply “less bad” for diabetics, it’s great to find one that might actually be “good”!

Maple Syrup/Maple Sugar: Maple syrup is the sap from maple trees boiled down and concentrated until it’s thick and sweet.  About 40 gallons of sap go into one gallon of syrup.  Maple sugar is maple syrup that’s been boiled down to a powder.

Maple syrup comes in different grades (and sub-grades), and to further complicate things, the U.S. and Canada have different grading systems and then Vermont (always the maverick) has its own.  Basically, grade A is from earlier in the season.  It’s a lighter, cleaner-flavored syrup.  Grade B, from late winter/early spring has a more pronounced flavor.

Grade A costs more and is generally considered more desirable, probably because you can drench your waffles in it without overpowering them.  Debra, however, prefers the grade B “because it’s dark and luscious and flavorful.  It has all those overtones of maple, not just the plain sugar.”

Maple syrup tends to score in the mid-50s on the glycemic index, significantly better than sugar, and only slightly worse than glycemic “champs” like coconut sugar.  It has a low, but not insignificant, mineral content.  The Grade B has a higher mineral content than Grade A.

Miracle Fruit/Miracle Berry: This is a weird one!  Basically, miracle fruits are little berries from a shrub native to Asia, and for a half-hour to an hour after you eat one, everything tastes sweet.  Water tastes sweet, pizza tastes sweet, even lemons…

I don’t have any personal experience with miracle fruit.  But I remember reading about “Miracle Fruit Tasting Parties” in the New York Times a year or two ago, where people would eat a berry, and then nibble on assorted foodstuffs, just for kicks.  A former coworker of mine tried them once, and said they were pretty amazing.  Hopefully, by the middle of February, we’ll have some to sell…

[1] Of course this is when you consume equal amounts of honey and sugar.  Usually, in my experience, people don’t.  For example:

– 1 12-ounce can of Pepsi (technically 1.5 servings, but yeah, right): 42 g sugars.

– 1 12-ounce mug tea with a full tablespoon (3 teaspoons) honey: 16 g sugars

[2] Honey is only pasteurized to keep it from hardening.  Pasteurized or not, honey doesn’t spoil.  If it hardens happens (and it will, in a year or two), put the jar in warm water for a couple of hours.  It will soften up again for another few years.

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