Ancient romans used lead acetate as a sweetener, and died of lead poisoning as a result. It’s a good thing we’re too smart to do something like that. Heh.
Actually, one way to avoid death by eating is to eat food. That is, plants instead of stuff produced by technology. And a plant that offers lovely sweetness without the problems associated with sugar is Stevia Rebaudiana. You can even grow it in your own garden. (That’s the plant shown to the right.)
What’s wrong with sugar?
Industrial food, with its highly refined flours and sugars, puts a real strain on our ability to process glucose. (Starches turn to sugar in our bodies, and white flour turns to sugar very quickly.) Diabetes is epidemic, and there are zillions of people, like me, who don’t have diabetes yet, but show signs of being in line for a diagnosis. There are plenty of us who also just notice that we feel much better if we don’t eat sugar.And, as the Adkins craze demonstrated not long ago, eating sugar makes a big difference in how many of us respond to food. That is, when I eat a diet like my husband’s, including white flour and occasional sugar, I gain weight. When I eat the same or even more calories, but leave out simple carbohydrates, I lose weight.
I figure it would be best to eat foods in their whole state. We should just quit eating things like ice cream and cheesecake and flan and chocolate and cinnamon rolls and Mom’s peanut butter fudge and…. Sorry. Got carried away.
But who wants to do that? Well, I do, and I’ve gone pretty far in that direction. But sometimes, I just want something yummy.
Honey, Maple Syrup, Cane juice, etc.
Some of these are real food, in that they’re edible as you find them in the environment, and they’d be recognized by your grandmother. And I wish that were enough. If you are perfectly healthy, it might be ok for you to eat them. Especially raw honey. But for me, there’s a big problem. Glucose.
If you have insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, or any number of other problems, you might find that eating sugar of any kind really brings you down. In that case, you’ll want to look for alternatives, at least until you can train your body to love a garden-of-eden diet. (Oooh! “Garden-of-eden diet.” Just googled that, out of curiousity. It doesn’t appear to be trademarked, but it is a phrase that people use. Darn. Too late, as always. ^_^ )
Agave nectar is kind of like honey only thinner, and it comes from the agave plant (famous for giving us tequila). It tastes fine, and is said to have a low glycemic index, meaning that it doesn’t affect blood sugar as much as sugar does. But in my case, it clearly does affect my blood sugar, so I don’t use it. Again, if you’re healthy, go for it. If you think it’s really important to cut out sugars, though, I’d be careful.
Aspertame, or Equal
Aspertame changes when exposed to heat, so it’s not good for cooking. I once drank pop sweetened with aspertame that had gone past it’s expiration date, and it tasted like it had never been sweetened. Weird!
Aspertame is also dangerous to people with a rare disease called PKU. It’s also been linked with problems in the brain, and that’s scary. I don’t trust it. Again, since I’m terrified of sugar, I sometimes eat this instead. Not happy about it, though. It’s on my short list of things to change. If you want to know more about the controversy over Aspertame, try the Wikipedia article, or google aspertame. (That will get you tons of stuff.)
Sucralose, or Splenda
Splenda is made of chlorinated sugar. I don’t know too much about the chemistry, but it seems the chlorine helps disguise it from the body so it isn’t processed as sugar, and doesn’t affect your insulin levels. Some folks say it’s dangerous, mentioning that it is made with chlorine. I am not convinced that it’s safe, but I will point out that salt also contains chlorine, and it seems to be ok. Not all chlorine compounds are dangerous.
I’ll admit that sometimes I do eat it. To wean myself from diet soda, I sometimes drink Diet Rite, because it’s sweetened with Splenda instead of aspertame.
Xylitol is a “natural” sweetener, a sugar alcohol. It occurs naturally in various fruits, but the stuff we buy is made in a lab, because it’s cheaper that way. Sugar alcohols go through your body without affecting your insulin levels, but have an annoying laxative effect.
There are lots of other sugar alcohols that also have the advantage of not affecting blood sugar and insulin, and the disadvantage of giving you gas or… nevermind. Look for anything that ends in “tol” (maltitol, sorbitol, etc.)
Stevia is a plant that has sweet-tasting leaves, though it doesn’t contain sugar. In many countries, it’s used freely as a sweetener. I’m told that Japanese diet drinks are made with it.
In the U.S. it’s allowed as a “dietary supplement,” but can’t be listed or used in products as a sweetener. It seems like there’s a lot of politics in the sugar and sweetener industries. That doesn’t stop lots and lots of people from using it, though. Of course, you’ll want to investigate for yourself, and decide whether, and how, you want to use Stevia.
- Wikipedia article on Stevia
- Read about the banning of Stevia here (scroll down to the Stevia section)
- Not enough data, says CSPI here
Stevia comes in several forms, ranging from fresh leaves picked five minutes ago to liquid or powered extract that is so strong that 1 teaspoon is the equivalent of 1 cup of sugar. I like to use the leaves in things where I might put a pinch of sugar, like curry or tomato sauce. I’m hoping to learn more ways to use the dried leaves, because I have this idea that the closer a food is to its whole, natural state, the better it is for us. The extract is too much like industrial food for me.
I’m pretty convinced that Stevia is the sweetener to use, when I am having trouble resisting my sweet urges.
Coming soon: Stevia lemonade, and other recipes
Also coming soon: My sugar-free chocolate bar secret