A solid premise for deciding the healthiness of a food item is seeing how recognizable it is as a product of nature. We’re repeatedly shown that Mother Nature really does know what she’s doing. She’s able to orchestrate complex interactions in the natural world producing beauty, establishing equilibrium when things get out of balance and creating a perfect system of interdependence among flora and fauna, vegetable and mineral. Even when man messes things up nature is there to bail us out, to the best of its ability.

Analogous to nature’s wisdom is the wisdom of the human body. It knows what it needs, it’s not attracted to and rejects what’s harmful to it, and it’s able to repair itself if given the chance. Our bodies give us signs—in the form of “symptoms”—to let us know that some sort of input isn’t conducive to optimal functioning. Symptoms such as headaches, digestive turmoil, insomnia, pain, allergies and fatigue are the body’s way of telling us that there’s a factor or combination of factors, such as harmful foods, harmful emotional conditions or harmful environmental conditions, that are damaging the integrity of the body. The principles of Eastern medicine emphasize balance and harmony, not just within the body, but also in respect to nature to determine one’s physical and mental health. Therefore, being in tune with the natural world is key to well-being.

So, how does this relate to sweeteners?

Well, you know those little blue and pink paper packets of a completely unnatural but sweet-tasting powder? How can one classify this “food stuff” in the natural world? Animal, vegetable, mineral? Perhaps we have a new food kingdom: chemical.

Artificial sweeteners, along with processed foods, are in supermarkets to turn a profit for a corporation, not to nourish our bodies. Sweet ‘N Low, which is one of the first artificial sweeteners, generically called saccharin, is a derivative of coal tar. Splenda, or sucralose, named that to sound more like sugar, is one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners today. It’s a “chlorinated sugar” which means that it’s produced from sucrose with three chlorine atoms replacing three hydroxyl groups. It’s the chlorine that provides the sweet flavour, not the sucrose. So, despite the advertising campaigns trying to make Splenda sound very much like sugar (without the calories), it doesn’t resemble sugar in chemical structure any more than ozone (O3) resembles oxygen (O2). Saccharin has been suspected of being carcinogenic, and only 15 percent of sucralose is absorbed in the body while the rest passes through unchanged, which has a tendency to cause digestive disturbances such as bloating and diarrhea.

These sweeteners are chemicals, not foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves these sweeteners as safe but the FDA frequently acts, not in the best interest of the consumer, but in the best interest of the corporations that produce these products. So, who can you trust to determine what’s safe and healthy for your body if government and private corporations in charge of food safety are corrupted by self-interest? Nature and yourself!

Question the “experts”: Advertisers and research studies may not be right

In the second half of the 1900s, margarine was touted as a healthier alternative to butter, and infant formula was advertised as nutritionally superior to breast milk. It turned out that the beneficial health claims for these food substitutes were absolutely incorrect. Hydrogenated margarine turned out to be dangerous to our cardiovascular systems whereas butter, despite being a fat, contains vitamin A, trace minerals and essential fatty acids that actually benefit our cardiovascular systems. Infant formulas lack all the highly beneficial immunity-building constituents found in breast milk and are loaded with non-beneficial sugars contributing to infant obesity. In both of these instances, the natural food ended up being the healthier choice.

Supermarkets are being bombarded with new products daily that are “enriched,” “heart healthy,” “carb smart,” and “sugar-free” but these slogans don’t mean that the products are good for you. Why is it that carrots don’t have stickers on them that boast “high in beta-carotenes and fibre”? Foods that are the most nutritious lack stickers and slogans and nutritional claims because they’re “foods” not “products!” Too often we find out that these “food products” have some ironically negative effects on our bodies.

The irony of artificial sweeteners and sugar-free foods

Have you noticed that most consumers of diet products are actually overweight? All those low-fat, sugar-free foods aren’t helping to keep anyone slim; in fact, they’re causing people to eat more!

The body’s smarter than we think. It keeps track of what’s going into it and responds with appropriate physiological activities and sensations to metabolize, compensate and regulate as necessary.

In an interesting series of experiments at Purdue University, rats fed artificially (saccharin) sweetened yogourt for a two-week period, ended up eating more and gaining more weight than their counterparts being fed yogourt sweetened with sugar. Why would the yogurt with the non-caloric, artificial sweetener actually result in weight gain for the rats? Two biological mechanisms are responsible for this unexpected result:

1. Artificial sweeteners somehow disrupt the body’s ability to regulate incoming calories. When foods sweetened with natural or even refined calorie-laden sugars are consumed, the body registers this intake of calories and limits appetite appropriately. When artificially sweetened foods are consumed, the body continues to expect a caloric equivalent to the sweet taste that it senses. The empty, zero-calorie sweetness miscommunicates the caloric content of food. The body senses the sweet flavour but the metabolic system doesn’t, triggering the desire to eat more.

2. The consumption of natural or sugar-sweetened foods revs up the body’s metabolism and temperature in anticipation of burning off and utilizing the calories taken in. The rats in the study had no rise in body temperature after eating the artificially sweetened yogurt resulting in a sluggish metabolism that stores, rather than burns, incoming excess calories. These calories are tucked into storage as fat.

And so it follows that people drinking diet sodas, eating diet ice creams and other artificially sweetened, sugar-free products end up overeating and gaining even more weight than if they had eaten the sugar-sweetened versions of these foods.

Should we, therefore, just eat sugar?

No. Artificial sweeteners are a lose-lose (or perhaps gain-gain) situation, but refined sugars are consumed in enormous quantities in the U.S. (a whopping 135 pounds of sugar per person per year!) and are a primary cause of obesity and disease. Though white sugar either comes from sugar cane or sugar beets (at least we can identify its plant source) it’s too refined a substance for the body to assimilate properly. When we eat a beet in its entirety, we’re taking in dietary fibre, a bit of fat, protein, water, vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, folate (vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and B9), vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc in addition to the carbohydrates. Pure sucrose, which is refined out of the sugar beet, is stripped of all of those vitamins, minerals, fibre, protein and water. Because it’s missing these natural constituents, the body’s unable to digest it properly. The sucrose speeds right into the bloodstream prompting a fatty liver, an overworked pancreas, blood sugar instability, fat storage and contributing to a huge array of chronic and debilitating illnesses and premature aging.

What is all the fuss about HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup)?

HFCS isn’t very different from white sugar. In the 1980s it started replacing sugar in many sodas and prepared foods because it’s considerably cheaper, making use of our subsidized cheap corn overproduction. It keeps prepared foods moist, is easy to transport in tanker trucks and has a long shelf life. The problem component in both sugar and HFCS is the fructose. It’s found in combination with glucose in both sweeteners. It’s the fructose component that goes directly to the liver, where it gets converted into fat, leading to health problems like heart disease and diabetes. HFCS has a slightly higher percentage of fructose to glucose than sugar, making it slightly worse in comparison. The real problem with HFCS is its preponderance in such a huge percentage of prepared foods. It’s cheap, it’s a big industry, and it’s weaseled into too many foods that are making people fat!

Alternatives to white sugar

Brown sugar and raw sugar – Coming back to our rule of thumb that the foods in their most natural states are the healthiest, we can get a pretty good idea of which sweeteners are bad, better and best. Brown sugar is either slightly less bleached and refined than white sugar or is white sugar with some molasses added back into it. Brown sugar, along with raw sugar, has traces of nutrients but not enough to redeem them as healthy and non-harmful.

Agave nectar – Agave nectar has recently become a popular “health-food” sweetener. A sweetener deriving from a cactus sounds very natural indeed. What we find here is a highly processed product, which is technically a hydrolyzed high-fructose inulin syrup. The percentage of fructose to glucose seems to vary with the different types of agave nectar, but overall the fructose component is far greater than that of HFCS. Some agave nectars contain a whopping 92 percent fructose compared to roughly 55 percent in HFCS. Some manufacturers mix it with high-fructose corn syrup or produce it from the nectar of a species of agave that contains saponins that are actually toxic to humans.

Maple syrup – Maple syrup comes from the sap of a maple tree and nothing artificial is added to it. That’s good, but it’s important to consider that the stuff that drips out of the tree is only faintly sweet. To achieve the dense sweetness of store-bought maple syrup, one must boil down 32 gallons of sap to achieve 1 gallon of syrup. Nutritionally, maple syrup does contain some trace minerals, a significant amount of manganese and zinc.

Brown rice syrup – Brown rice syrup contains several of the B vitamins and trace minerals. It contains both maltose and glucose and is usually produced from organic rice. These factors give brown rice syrup some beneficial properties but, once again, to create a sweet syrup out of brown rice requires a lot of processing. Can you imagine how much brown rice is needed to produce even a tablespoon of syrup? Brown rice syrup has a rather intense cloying flavour that will make baked goods taste like…brown rice syrup.

Sorghum syrup and molasses – Both of these sweeteners have a considerable fan base for nostalgic reasons and molasses, also, for therapeutic reasons. Both sweeteners are endowed with considerable amounts of iron, potassium, calcium, vitamin B6 and magnesium. Black strap molasses, the darkest and most nutritious variety, is less sweet and has a particularly high iron and potassium content. Just one tablespoon contains 20 percent of a person’s calcium and iron requirements. It’s used effectively for anemia and acne. Because of molasses’ intense flavour, one isn’t likely to consume it in large quantities. Therefore, as a sweetener in coffee, tea and milk or used to bake some gingerbread, molasses makes a healthy sweetener.

Fruit and raw honey – The only sweeteners that aren’t altered, refined and compromised are fruit and raw honey. Honey is a versatile sweetener that can be used to sweeten tea, spread on toast, and to bake with. It has the wonderful quality of varying in flavour and colour depending on the type(s) of flowers that the bees feasted on. It’s loaded with immune-enhancing properties. It’s best to obtain honey that’s produced locally as it will be created from local flora. Environmental allergy sufferers will benefit from consuming local honey as it will produce a homeopathic effect of acclimating one’s immune system towards tolerating the pollens and natural plant stuffs floating in the air. I give honey  two thumbs-up as the best sweetener. Besides eating it, one can use it as a face wash (with the comb if you desire an exfoliating effect) for luscious feeling skin. Honey is touted to have antibacterial, anti-fungal and antioxidant properties. It can be used to dress a wound and helps with the healing and the formation of healthy tissue regrowth.

There are a few precautions to be aware of though: don’t feed honey to children less than one year of age as a young digestive system lacks the enzymes to tolerate it. When cooking and baking, be aware that baked goods with honey incorporated in the batter or dough will brown and even burn more quickly. And if you happen to be heating honey up on the stove (as when making baklava) and you have screenless windows open—your kitchen will fill with bees!

It takes some getting used to the distinctive flavours that more natural sweeteners impart to baked goods, granola, beverages, etc. but the tastes take on a satisfying quality. It’s almost impossible to find ready-made cookies and pastries that are completely honey or molasses sweetened, so one must experiment and bake at home. Replacing artificial and refined sweeteners with more healthful alternatives has the benefits of improved health, more beautiful skin, and realigns us with the natural world.

Livia Hall practices acupuncture and herbology in Boulder, Colorado. Formerly she was a health-oriented private chef in Los Angeles. Combining her devotion to good food and natural health her aim is to reacquaint people with how to take command of their kitchens, their families, their health and their happiness. Reprinted with kind permission from http://www.realitysandwich.com.
image: sugar via Shutterstock