01 Mar Sweets for my Sweet!
Its official: Americans love sugar! The average American consumes roughly half a pound of sugar a day! One 12oz can of coke contains approximately 10 teaspoons of sugar in it! Most of the carbohydrates consumed by people in the United States are in the form of highly processed sugars added to our foods. Our portion sizes and the processed, chemical nature of our foods are steadily increasing. From very early in childhood, our palates are being trained to prefer intensely sweet foods. The result is an alarming increase in adult and childhood obesity. But there’s more… Eating large amounts of refined sweeteners is linked with several health conditions including diabetes, hypoglycemia, poor immune function, osteoporosis, elevated blood lipids and heart disease, mood fluctuations, dental cavities, premenstrual syndrome and even some cancers.
Added sugar in the diet is often termed “empty calories”; calories in the absence of other important nutrients. Empty calories not only contribute to weight gain, they often replace healthier foods in the diet.
Knowing just what we’re ingesting is a very powerful motivator in helping us to change our unhealthy habits. This month’s newsletter explains a little about sugar and its alternatives.
What is sugar?
Sugar is derived from sugar cane or sugar beets. It is refined through a process of repeat boiling, drying, and decolorizing which strips away all of the vitamins, minerals, proteins, and enzymes naturally present in the sugar cane and beets. The unrefined portion of the sugar, which is replete in vitamins and minerals, is known as molasses. It is left behind during the refining of sugar. Brown sugar is simply white sugar with a small amount of molasses in it. It is virtually equivalent to white sugar in terms of its effects on health.
What about artificial sweeteners?
Much controversy surrounds artificial sweeteners. The research is mixed and confusing. Although the Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) has designated these sweeteners as safe, they have also developed a scale of acceptable daily intake (ADI) which refers to the amount of sweetener that individuals can safely consume each day without adverse effects… Obviously then, these artificial sweeteners can have adverse effects!
There are reports of aspartame (NutraSweet & Equal) causing cancer in rats (especially those exposed to aspartame over their entire lifespan). Many people subjectively report suffering adverse effects from aspartame. In fact, as recently as October 2007, a research article in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health called on the FDA to “reevaluate its position on aspartame as being safe under all conditions”.
Another common sweetener, saccharine (Sweet ‘N Low) has also been linked with bladder cancer in laboratory animals. Until 2000 it was listed in the National Toxicology Program’s list of cancer-causing substances.
In addition to these controversial reports of adverse health effects, there is also mixed research about the body’s response to artificial sweeteners. Some research suggests that, artificial sweeteners increase appetite for sweet foods, promote overeating, and may even lead to weight gain. More often than not, my overweight patients are those who rely heavily on artificial sweeteners. In science, we say that “correlation does not equal causation”. This means that finding that two things such as consumption of artificial sweeteners and obesity, occur together, does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. That being said, the link is there. I encourage my patients who are habitual users of artificial sweeteners to switch entirely to using natural sweeteners.
What can I use instead?
Before I list several natural sugar alternatives, I will say that simple carbohydrates, whether derived from honey or table sugar do elevate blood sugar and can contribute to obesity. That being said, we all deserve a little sweetness in our lives on occasion. Try the following:
Eat fruit when you crave something sweet: try a date instead of candy; try frozen banana instead of ice-cream; try a fruit smoothie instead of a coke. Fruits contain natural fructose (a simple carbohydrate which raises blood sugar slower than table sugar). Even more importantly, they contain essential nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
If you add sugar to your beverages, try to diminish the quantity very slowly and gradually (even ¼ of a teaspoon at a time). See if you can have your tea sans added sugar.
Substitute 100% fruit juice for carbonated beverages or try naturally flavored seltzer.
If you eat sweetened foods, try to gradually decrease the amounts, or add unsweetened foods to “cut” the sugar. For example, use half a package of your flavored oatmeal and add half a package of the original, unsweetened variety. Also, you can try diluting your sweet beverages with water.
Use fruit purees (date, fig, prune, apple, banana, pear) as a substitute for sugar and fat in baked recipes.
Finally, try some of the natural sweeteners listed in the table below. Remember that all foods, whether natural or not, should be consumed in moderation.
Some Natural Sweeteners:
Agave: Made from the Agave plant of Mexico, the nectar tastes slightly less sweet than maple syrup but is sweeter than table sugar. It has a relatively low glycemic index (it does not cause a sharp rise in blood glucose) and is considered suitable for diabetics in small amounts.
Brown rice syrup: Brown rice syrup is made by fermenting brown rice with water, and barley malt which is then cooked until it thickens. It contains soluble complex carbohydrates which make its effect on blood sugar steadier than simple table sugar. That being said, it still has a relatively high glycemic index and is not suitable for diabetics.
Stevia: Made from a plant native to South and Central America, stevia is 250-400 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia has a negligible effect on blood sugar and may even enhance glucose tolerance. It has shown some positive effect in patients with Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. It has a distinct taste which does not please everyone. It contains no calories and has a glycemic index of “0”. There are some health controversies associated with stevia and I recommend using it judiciously.
Sucanat: Sucanat is made from dehydrated sugar can juice. It retains the molasses content and has a flavor similar to molasses. It also contains some iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, and chromium.
Honey: Raw honey has many health benefits. It is sweeter than table sugar. It contains mostly simple carbohydrates but does contain some vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. Raw honey has antimicrobial effects. I recommend that patients add a little honey to their tea when they have a viral or bacterial infection. Honey has also been used in wound care. Honey should not be given to children under one year old since it contains botulism spores (these spores are destroyed by the digestive systems of older children and adults).
Detox from sugar:
I often challenge my patients to attempt a two week trial of no added sugar in the diet. Researchers have found that sugar can lead to both psychological and physiological dependence. This is why removing sugar from the diet can cause “withdrawal symptoms” like headache, fatigue, mood changes, and even “the shakes”. A healthy diet should not contain more than 10% sugar.
Challenge yourself to find the natural sweetness in life!
Please Note: This information is for educational purposes only. Consultation with a licensed health care practitioner is recommended for anyone suffering from a health ailment. You are free to use the information in this newsletter or pass it on to others, but please keep it intact and credit it to Dr. Leat Kuzniar, ND.