Recently NGI teachers met to consider the school’s evolving position on sweeteners and their role in our programs. For an institution that promotes the connection between food and healing, this is a challenging topic. By any definition, sweeteners are not health-supportive foods and certainly not whole. The best case scenario for any sweetener is that it’s less unhealthy than its alternatives.
Our discussion was initiated by controversies surrounding agave syrup, a sweetener we use on occasion in our public and professional classes. Recently, agave has been assailed on several fronts for its alleged method of production, adulteration of its purity, and whether – as agave producers claim – it’s really a low-glycemic sweetener.
Assessing a sweetener’s quality is problematic on so many levels. While information on how a sweetener is produced and its effect on metabolism are readily available from many sources, what a producer wants you to know about its product is not always in accord with “independent” findings. Research results don’t tell the whole story either. Studies on the effects of sweeteners are frequently inconclusive, conflicting, or only applicable under very specific and controlled circumstances.
So where did that leave us? Do we eliminate all “healthy” sweeteners that lack a spotless pedigree? Do we reduce the amount of desserts made in Chef’s Training and public classes? We agreed that these were not practical solutions. Our students have expressed keen interest in naturally sweetened desserts and want to be proficient in the use of all healthier sweeteners, including agave, maple syrup, maple crystals, Rapadura, date sugar, brown rice syrup, barley malt, raw honey, and Stevia, among others.
Natural Gourmet has never used white sugar, organic or otherwise in its recipes. The intensive processing of white sugar begins with juicing cane and involves boiling, repeated centrifuging, steaming, clarifying, and filtering. The result is a crystal that is 99.9% sucrose and devoid of nutrients. “Sugar in the Raw,” turbinado sugar, and Florida Crystals also fall within this range of hyper-refinement with their sucrose concentration of 95%.
NGI has instead chosen, over the years, organic sweeteners that emphasize minimal processing, the retention of vitamins and minerals found in their source, and lower concentrations of refined sucrose and fructose – the so-called healthier sweeteners.
Agave is not shaping up well, on the whole. While it is a low-glycemic sugar, Sally Fallon and Dr. Joseph Mercola cite its higher concentration of refined fructose as a contributing factor in insulin resistance. For these reasons and others, agave’s days at Natural Gourmet are probably numbered.
Another sweetener came under scrutiny in our meeting: maple syrup. The issue here was not health supportiveness but sustainability. We’ve used maple syrup for years because its sucrose concentration is around 70%, and maple provides vitamins and minerals not present in white sugar. However, maple syrup has now reached $47 a gallon– wholesale! These prices reflect the environmental difficulty of sustaining maple syrup production. 35-50 gallons of sap are needed to produce a gallon of syrup. Imagine then how much sap would be required to make a pound of maple crystals.
Natural Gourmet recently introduced coconut sugar to its programs. Coconut sugar is made from the nectar of the palmyra, date or coconut palms. The nectar is then boiled, reduced, and granulated. Like maple syrup, the resulting sugar retains significant amounts of mineral content found in its source. Coconut sugar is significantly less expensive and far more sustainable than maple syrup, and we are currently determining whether it is a suitable replacement.
One final issue: Throughout the years, NGI teachers and students have consistently noticed, in their own experience, that “natural” sweeteners, while a qualitative improvement on white sugar, produced essentially the same effects in the body. So the real issue is not of degree or kind; the issue is sugar itself. We agreed that we must, as we have always done, remind students that sugar in any form is best eaten occasionally, in small amounts. Ultimately, it’s more important for students to know what sugar does in the body and how to balance its effects than to micro-analyze concentrations of sucrose, fructose, or maltose in a particular sweetener. The takeaway: pick your favorite, and use it very sparingly to maintain your good health.