Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sugar. Oooohhhh Honey Honey.

I don't exactly have the credentials to warrant people coming to me for dietary advice. That's part of what A Peaceful Plate is about: giving unsolicited food guidance to the masses (40 or so people). I imagine if I was the sort of blogger who received questions, a really popular one would be:

Dear Peaceful Plate,
What types of sweeteners should I use? It seems like they are all bad.

Or maybe:

Dear Peaceful Plate,
I loooooooove diet soda. I have four every day. Is that okay?

To answer those completely fake, but likely popular questions, I would like to discuss the various options people have when it comes to sweeteners. Here's the caveat: if you have too much of ANY of them, ANY of them can be bad for you. Even the ones that aren't so bad in moderate amounts. Most of your sugar intake should come from whole foods like fruit - not soda, not energy drinks, not prepackaged candy or cookies, not cocktails or juices. Some added sweetness is fine in an occasional treat like dessert or a tasty morsel that you've made from scratch (nope, not cutting up and baking a log of cookie dough).

Sugar (sucrose, common table sugar): White sugar is made by refining raw sugar, which comes from the sugarcane plant. There's a good explanation of the process on Sucropedia that I do not need to reproduce here. It's complex and involves heating, spinning, clarifying, adding things to separate crystals from syrup and making the sugar white (bone char, anyone?), more spinning, and drying.

Brown Sugar: Brown sugar used to be a slightly less processed version of white sugar, but these days they just add molasses back into the white stuff. Seriously, read the label.

Turbinado, Demerera, and Muscovado Sugar: These are all examples of less refined cane sugars, muscovado being the least refined of all. You can often substitute turbinado or demerera when white sugar is called for; muscovado is an awesome brown sugar sub, and unlike refined brown sugar, it gets it's deep color and rich taste naturally from the sugarcane. When made under regulated conditions, it evenpacks in more nutrients and minerals than other refined sugars. Muscovado is in the midst of making a comeback, and can currently be found in specialty food stores and online. It's my topping of choice for a bowl of old fashioned oatmeal or baked apples, and here are 8 other ways to use it.

Agave: This one surprised me - agave nectar is not a good choice as labels would have you believe. It's highly refined, and it has more concentrated fructose than high fructose corn syrup. Even if it says "raw". Even if it says "natural". These terms are barely regulated by the food industry. FoodRenegade's blog has a great write-up that goes into more detail.

Honey: Honey, on the other hand, is a delicious natural sweetener. It's great for adding to hot beverages. You can stir it into Greek yogurt. You can ferment it to make mead and impress your friends. Bears love it. Honey can be purchased both pasteurized (what you regularly find in stores) and raw - I prefer the taste or raw honey, but both types are good. If you can find local honey (think orchards or farmer's markets), eating it may even help to temper seasonal allergies. Just be sure not to do your honey-shopping from any drugstores. A recent study found that honey from Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and CVS is guaranteed to be lacking pollen (there goes the allergy help) and is also pretty likely to be laced with harmful heavy metals.

Splenda, Equal, Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin, etc: Get outta here! Yes, the FDA says they are safe to eat, but I have my doubts. Once, before my Peaceful Plate days, I accidentally ate some sugar-free Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and had a stomachache and headache for several hours afterwards. You will definitely find artificial sweeteners in products labeled "sugar free", but you have to read labels because manufacturers may sneak them in elsewhere. Yogurt is a great example as many brands contain aspartame. Even if there is nothing in these chemical sweeteners that will cause cancer or diabetes or some new disease, they are still bad. Human taste buds are malleable - about three weeks of eating a given diet and our tastebuds will adjust to it. If we cut out salt, something Americans consume far too much of, food might taste a bit bland for a month but then we'll learn to taste a smaller amount of salt which naturally occurs in foods; cheese is a good example. What if we turn that principle around? Consuming Splenda, which is 600 times sweeter than sugar, can dull our threshold for sweetness to the point that sugar is no longer sweet enough. So we dump more Splenda packets into our coffee, and we are apt to indulge in more cookies, more cake, and more candy to satiate our sweet tooth. All of which can lead to weight gain, diabetes, and cancer.

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