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Friday, January 20, 2012

Sugar / Sweetener Stupor

I have been spending all evening researching the relative merits of rapadura, coconut palm sugar, xylitol, and all-natural sweeteners such as raw organic honey, pure organic maple syrup, date sugar, and concentrated fruit juices.

I'm about ready to throw in the towel and declare our home a completely sweetener-free zone, focusing only on fruits to satisfy our family's sweet teeth. BUT, that doesn't work when you have kids that are old enough to remember the allure of the frozen yogurt, jelly beans, candy bars, and Halloween candy they ate just weeks ago.

Thus, a healthier option is called for and so far it seems as though there is much debate in the wide world of health as to which option is healthiest.

You see, rapadura, though practically UNprocessed and still in possession of all its vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, is nevertheless derived from the sugar cane plant. Therefore, it is sugar. Period.  BUT, because it is unprocessed, it retains a natural balance of fructose, sucrose, and glucose.  And apparently balance between these different sugar elements is something to be highly sought after.  Plus, part of me wonders if I just have lingering prejudice against sugar cane because of the completely awful, horrible, documented effects of white, refined table sugar.  It is our nation's current drug/poison of choice.  Maybe I need to give the plant, when approached as a whole food, another (sparing) chance.  Oh the indecision!  Woe is me.

Coconut palm sugar comes from tapping the flowery buds of the coconut palm, and we've all heard the endless praise for all things coconut. However, coconut palm sugar is boiled at high heats to evaporate the water and extract the sugars. More processing than rapadura, even. Also, though claims have been made that coconut palm sugar is low carb and has a low Glycemic Index number, it has conversely been found to contain mostly sucrose: quick, habit-forming, nutritionally devoid, caloric energy.  Soooo . . . still a question mark next to this one.

I have been recently using xylitol, a plant-derived sugar alcohol. It has a low Glycemic Index rating. It subs for sugar one to one. It doesn't have the gross aftertaste that stevia does. But there is controversy over it, nonetheless.  First, it is highly processed to finally arrive at its crystalline/granulated state.  Any amount of processing = loss of whatever nutrients may have populated the whole food.  Second, many people complain of digestive issues such as IBS-like symptoms after consuming xylitol. We've never had that problem in our family. And supposedly the issue resolves itself if you start eating it in small amounts and increase your intake slowly. Just gotta get ye ol' digestive track acclimated, I suppose. A word to the wise about xylitol, though, is that most xylitol is corn derived which means - dun, dun, dun - hello lovely genetic modification. Boo. Luckily, we found Emerald Forest Xylitol, which is made right here in the USofA from birch trees rather than corn.  Yay! On the downside (again), I don't think birch trees are considered a "whole food" for human consumption, so anything derived from them (especially in such a processed manner), already has one strike against it from the get go.  Boo.  So, I'm definitely still conflicted as to whether this is THE sweetener we should be substituting for sugar.  I'm leaning toward "no".

Raw organic honey has phenomenal health benefits, but can't be heated at high temps or those health benefits are zapped. So, we use it primarily for slow-melting in hot breakfast cereals and a nutritional, sweet boost in smoothies. No good for baking, though. I mean, it'll still sweeten your baked goods, but what you're left with after your bread is baked is a higher calorie sweetener than sugar even rather than a propolis-infused super food.

Pure organic maple syrup is supposed to have many nutrients as well, but you have to really research which brand you'll purchase to make sure that it's absolutely 100% pure (rather than maple syrup + corn syrup or table sugar) and that formaldehyde tablets have not been used to keep taps open longer during the seasonal flow. It's also pricey since it takes an astronomical quantity of sap to end up with just a small amount of syrup.

Dried dates can be finely ground in a blender and used in baking, but the resulting imitation sugar won't dissolve and burns easily, so bakers beware.

I have no idea how to make, store, and incorporate my own fruit juice concentrate. I'm too tired to look right now. My eyes hurt and I feel like I need divine intervention in my search for the most perfect, most healthy sweetener for my family.  Maybe I just need to embrace a quote I saw on one of the trillion websites I visited in the course of this lovely Friday night: "Does anyone really eat sugar for health benefits?"  Ha! Right then.  Perhaps my approach should be to find the least harmful rather than the most healthful.  Annnnnd then use that ever-so-sparingly whilst throwing fresh fruits and veggies at my kids all day long.  :)  Wish me luck . . . and a good night's sleep.  :)

Update: about sucanat, demerara, muscovado, and turbinado.  All are various derivatives of the sugar cane plant.  I did not include them in my searches because it became clear early on that none is as UNprocessed as rapadura and all more closely resemble white, refined table sugar than rapadura (except maybe sucanat).  Likewise, erythritol and maltitol are sugar alcohols like xylitol and are even more processed.

Update #2: I can't believe I forgot to address the controversy surrounding agave syrup/nectar, too!  So, after a lot of reading, it seems as though the latest studies are proving that despite agave's natural origins, to get it to its final health-food-store version requires TONS of processing and refinement.  Also, while it may be relatively low on the Glycemic Index, it conversely has "more concentrated fructose in it than high fructose corn syrup."  For a more in-depth look at agave's diabolical diabolical-ness (:D), check out this article from Food Renegade.  It's pretty thorough.

Conclusion: I'm sticking with raw, organic honey; pure, organic maple syrup; and organic rapadura . . . until I hear otherwise.  :D

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Shonda said...

Interesting! During this time that I have been sugar free I have sweetened very sparingly. My sweeteners of choice have been raw honey and maple syrup. I bought coconut palm sugar and sucanat, but only used the coconut sugar once and haven't used the sucanat yet. Oh, and I have agave syrup that I have tried in my green smoothies, but while it was fine, it wasn't sweet enough to make much of a difference, so why bother! I hate hate hate stevia,too. Blech! Thanks for all of your research! It's all very confusing, isn't it??!

LeAnn said...

xylitol makes me SICK! sick sick.. One stick of gum with xylitol bothers me for days. HATE the stuff. Good luck to you.

Shonda said...

So what brand rapadura do you like? I saw the Rapunzel brand on amazon but they don't call it rapadura anymore (I'm sure you read the same thing as I did about that). I am looking into doing the amazon auto ship for the savings.

Liz said...

Shonda, I actually haven't used rapadura yet . . . ever. So maybe we can swap rapadura stories after we both get some (unless we get the same kind, of course). :) I've seen Rapunzel's also. And we were thinking the same thing about Amazon. We get a lot of our bulk grains from Amazon. I wish I could find organic rapadura straight out of Brazil, though, since Rapunzel is a German-based company. Keep me posted on what you find!

LeAnn, I am SO SORRY! I was actually really hesitant to use xylitol in the beginning for that very reason. I had read a lot of horror stories about frequent visits to the loo. :) I wonder if it makes a difference if it's in baked goods or not, because we mostly use it for baking? I don't know. All I know is that I don't want to use it anymore because it just seems downright unhealthy.

Emily S. said...

We've been trying to kick the sugar habit too. I have rapadura for baking, but I'm doing less of that. We make "cookie dough balls" from dates, cashews, almonds, dark chocolate chips, vanilla, and salt. They are DELICIOUS! And it kicks the cookie craving.
What bugs me the most is the sugar given to my kids at sports, scouts, church, etc. What can I do about that? Do you have a problem where you guys are?

Liz said...

Emily, can you share your recipe for your "cookie dough balls?" I would LOVE to make those! They sound so good.

I don't have a problem with outside food yet because my kids are homeschooled and my oldest is only seven (so no scouts yet). Teachers at church only pass out candy occasionally, so I'm trying to just let it slide right now. I can only imagine how hard it's going to be to keep them eating healthy even when everyone else around them is filling up on nasty stuff. I've been trying really hard to teach them the importance of feeding their whole bodies and not just their mouths (taste buds). Hopefully I have enough time left for the message to sink in before they get bombarded. :) We're also shifting our homeschool focus onto health and physiology and organic gardening and emergency preparedness, etc. I figure if knowledge is power, then maybe all this knowledge will give them power over their own "natural man" instincts as well. There are so many addictive foods out there!

Emily S. said...

We homeschool but that doesn't stop it unfortunately. My oldest is 9 and he gets fed junk after all his sports games, scouts, and EVERY WEEK at primary. It drives me insane. I'm thinking I'm going to have to say something, but I hate to do that. But it is driving me crazy.
The cookie dough balls are 1 cup cashews and 1 cup almonds blended into small crumbs in the food processor. Process 1 cup dark chocolate chips until smaller pieces. Then process 12 dates until smooth. Mix in a bowl with your hands the nuts, chocolate chips, dates, plus add 1 tsp vanilla and 1 tsp salt. You have to mix good and hard to press it all together. Form into small balls and refrigerate. They are SOOOOO good. I always double this. We eat them up too fast.

Liz said...

Emily, I get what you're saying about outside sugar now. Today my kids were bragging about how many pieces of candy they got in Primary. *Sigh* Have you ended up doing anything about it?

Brooke said...

Lol emily and liz... Say something to the presidency!!!!!! We had that problem two years ago, I ended up being in the presidency and was so mad. So the pres talked to all the teachers and it stopped, thankfully.
Is there a good doc to watch about sugar? Gotta get the hubbie to see how bad it is. And so glad you posted this. Was just wondering which was the 'best'.

Christa Jeanne said...

I'm finally doing the clean eating thing - three days in, and I feel great but am DYING for a brownie!!! Great to read your take on everything. I'm sticking to stevia and xylitol because of their low glycemic ratings - here's hoping they don't make me sick. I'm also intrigued to bake with coconut flour and almond flour. Here's to adventures in the kitchen!