Naturally occurring, mostly unprocessed sweeteners are in wide use as sugar substitutes, but even so, they need to be regarded in the context of carbohydrate intake in total.
The pleasure of living in northern Laos at the turn of the century was that tourism had not yet stamped its footprint on the place, leaving that task to the grander Buddha statues. I had barely settled into my neighborhood when I noticed the (very slow) parade of women coming into Luang Pabang from the surrounding jungle villages—baskets balanced on either end of a bamboo pole, to the Western eye just like in the pix in National Geo—to sell their wares.
I’ll only briefly mention the chanterelles for $1/kilo. Among the wares were fresh raw honey, put up in all manner of repurposed bottles—whisky bottles and amber beer bottles prominent among them—sealed with wax that likely came from the same honeycombs. A whiff of jungle flowers wafted off the promisingly speckled, thick fluid.
I haven’t eaten honey since, in no small part because I have no hope of tasting such an elixir again. But my main reason now is my body’s inability to handle the sweetness, which in my metabolism is not significantly different from processed sucrose.
The day when one could overlook the carb count in “natural” substances and products is long past. That said, even more than is the case with artificial sweeteners, the natural ones are not created equal, offer different dietetic offsets, and are vey much worth taking a look into. Some of them—harder to find, of course—are truly sugar free, even if their sweetness is, let’s say, unorthodox.
The variations in honeys are such that they would take a book to discuss them properly. For practical purposes, in urban areas, your best bet is to buy the most raw and organic honey you can find. If there’s a list of ingredients on the bottle, the longer the list, the more you’re going into the red zone. In the U.S., USDA-approved organic honey is your best bet.
It generally takes less honey to reach a level of sweetness offered by processed sugar. That’s the good news and the bad news. Honey needs to be used more sparingly than processed sugar, and the fact that it is a thick, sticky liquid makes accurate measurement somewhat more complicated.
That said, a good-quality raw honey has nutrients processed sugars do not. But they’re as various as the individual honey type. One of the clearest, most level-headed commentaries is by Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, quoted verbatim here:
“Honey has been called the nectar of the gods, and used topically for centuries to heal wounds and fight infections. It also offers a number of other health benefits when ingested, as long as you don’t overdo it. This natural sweetener has been shown to possess small amounts of nutrients, antioxidants, and antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory compounds.
“A University of Illinois study that analyzed honey samples from 14 different floral sources found that honey from buckwheat flowers packed 20 times the antioxidant punch as the kind produced from sage. While clover honey (which is probably the most commonly available type) scored in the middle of the antioxidant rankings.
“Other research, from the University of California, Davis, found that daily consumption of buckwheat honey raised blood antioxidants levels. And a study from the University of Memphis found that athletes who ate honey had steadier blood sugar and insulin levels for a longer period of time, compared to consuming other carb sources.”
The studies she cites can be access through the link to her article, above and below. Her advice is straightforward: “Just don’t adopt a ‘honey is good for me, so I can drizzle it on everything’ mentality. One teaspoon provides about 20 calories and 5 to 6 grams of sugar.”
A by-product of sugar-cane processing, molasses is thick and typically so strong-tasting on its own that it is not a ready sugar substitute, in terms of flavor. It also has minerals and antioxidants, but, again, not in high concentrations. On the other hand, of all the natural sweeteners it offers the highest anti-oxidant levels.
Sass again: “While maple syrup does contain some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, the amounts in a typical serving are quite small. For example, one tablespoon provides about 1% of your daily needs for calcium, potassium, and iron. However, it does pack a solid amount of manganese—a mineral that helps produce collagen and promote skin and bone health—with 25% of your Daily Value.”
Generally speaking, the darker the syrup, the higher the mineral and vitamin antioxidant levels. For cooking, three-quarters of the amount of sugar suffices.
Date and coconut sugars
Sugars refined from the fruits of date palms and the flowers and sap of coconut trees also offer small amounts of added nutrients, but their ratio to processed sugar is pretty much 1:1. They are seldom used except in cooking.
Her summary counsel about using these sugar substitutes is the following (verbatim):
“While all of the sweeteners above are natural, and less processed and more nutritious than white table sugar, it's important to note they still count as added sugar. So you should consume them within the recommended limits for added sugar. That's no more than six teaspoons (or about 25 grams) per day for women, and nine teaspoons (or about 37.5 grams) for men.
“But be sure to moderate your total sugar intake from every source, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that better-for-you means it's okay to eat an unlimited amount.”
A still relatively unknown natural sweetener, stevia is extracted from the leaves of the South American plant Stevia rebaudiana. It has been used both as a sweetener and medicinally for centuries. There are several sugar compounds in the stevia leaf, and together they are hundreds of times sweeter than processed sugar—and it has virtually no calories.
It’s health benefits are summarized in healthline.com here:
“There are some studies in humans showing Stevia to have health benefits:
“If you need to sweeten something, Stevia may be the healthiest choice.”
However, in the U.S., stevia leaves and their compounds do not have FDA approval as food additives, because some studies found them to be potentially carcinogenic. However, high-purity stevia glycoside extracts are generally recognized as safe and often found in products such as those made by the Coca-Cola Company.
Stevia remains arguably the most controversial of the additives particularly since it is known as the “miracle sweetener” because of its potency. Strong and often convincing claims have ben made that it is not “natural” and in fact heavily processed. “Health-food" specialists have been trenchant in their warnings about its negative (even putatively “poisonous” qualities).
Perhaps the most balanced consideration of the matter is by Natalie Digate Muth, M.D., M.P.H., R.D., in an article entitled “The Truth about Stevia—The So-Called ‘Healthy’ Alternative Sweetener,” in acefitness.org. Her summary conclusion is as follows (verbatim):
“All in all, stevia’s sweet taste and all-natural origins make it a popular sugar substitute. With little long-term outcomes data available on the plant extract, it is possible that stevia in large quantities could have harmful effects. However, it seems safe to say that when consumed in reasonable amounts, stevia may be an exceptional natural plant-based sugar substitute. Check the label next time you eat a favorite low-calorie sweet. You’re likely to find stevia near the top of the ingredient list.”
The biggest inhibitor to stevia’s wide use is its strong taste, which is not sweet in a conventional way. Most natural sweeteners are used in combination for similar reasons.
Chinese natural sweeteners
If you live in an area where there are Chinese pharmacies—that is stores that sell Chinese herbs used as medicines—there are several herbs and herbal substances sold as “for diabetics” who still want sweet-tasting liquids. Some are leafy, others cork-screw shaped, still others globular dried “fruits” with hard shells and fiberous-nutty filling.
Siraitia grosvenorii, a vine-like plant in the gourd family native to China and northern Thailand, also known as luo han guo and monk fruit, is dried and sold in its hard shell, which must be removed before its contents are boiled. The Wikipedia article notes that “The sweet taste of the fruit comes mainly from mogrosides, a group of triterpene glycosides that make up about 1% of the flesh of the fresh fruit.”
It goes on to say that some of the other contents are of “astringent” and even “sulphorous” taste, limiting its use as a sugar substitute. The FDA has given it the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) designation, and “no side effects have been reported.”
Speaking as a consumer, and something of a regular one, I would say that if you’re not put off by strong, sometimes bitter, and sometimes “medicinal” tastes, you might find the (non-alcoholic) liquor made from boiling it to your taste—especially over ice on hot days. My wholly non-specialist, personal nickname for it is “Chinese root beer,” and I recommend it without reservation.
So, is “natural” sugar healthy or not?
None of the naturally-occurring sugar substitutes discussed here are harmful in and of themselves. But neither are they “free” food that can be use safely in any quantity. The important things to remember are:
But this is not the last word on “artificial” and “natural” sweeteners. In our next post, we’ll take on what we consider the more important, over-arching matter: getting on top of the sweet tooth. It’s entirely doable and makes carbo counting vastly easier and eating, therefore, vastly safer, no matter your underlying health.