Oh, How Sweet It Is
Welcome to The Natural Suite, a home for all things naturally sweet. As a new addition to the editorial staff of Natural Solutions and Alternative Medicine, I’ve created The Natural Suite to provide readers of the magazines with supplementary information. Using this direct connection to readers, The Natural Suite will be an informative and entertaining space filled with everything from innovative recipes to personal health endeavors to fun and fit facts.
How appropriate, then, to begin with a discussion of popular natural sweeteners. Whether they are trying to lose weight, prevent disease, or just generally make healthier choices, many people are swapping their processed table sugar for sweet alternatives found naturally in nature.
>>Agave Nectar: Extracted from the core of the blue agave plant, agave nectar has a low glycemic index, making it a favorable alternative to refined sugars. High-glycemic foods raise blood sugar and cause quick release of the hormone insulin, which, in excess, is linked to diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure, and other health disorders.
But be aware: Agave nectar contains more calories and is sweeter than refined sugar, so use less when cooking or baking. Read labels when shopping and look for organic, GMO-free products for the healthiest agave option.
>>Stevia: This calorie-free, carb-free sweetener is derived from the leaves of the stevia bush. Available first as a dietary supplement, stevia is becoming more popular among those monitoring their carbohydrate intake, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.
But be aware: The FDA has not approved the use of whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts as food additives because of concerns regarding the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems. Stevia supplements could interfere with other medications such as anti-inflammatories, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and fertility agents, so be sure to talk with your doctor about any concerns.
>>Honey: Rich in antioxidants, honey provides numerous health benefits and is naturally made by bees using flower nectar. Honey can help fight infections and irritations, prevent chronic diseases, and even increase athletic performance.
But be aware: Honey has high concentrations of glucose and fructose, so those who are overweight or diabetic should probably avoid this sticky nectar. Although it contains nearly the same basic sugar units as table sugar, honey is far less processed and is great for people who already lead healthy, active lifestyles.
>>Blackstrap Molasses: Loaded with minerals and nutrients, molasses is produced when the sugar cane plant is processed to make the refined sugar we commonly find on our dinner tables. This thick syrup contains few calories and is high in calcium, magnesium, and iron. Various minerals make it great for our nerves, muscles, skin, hair, and brain.
But be aware: Molasses doesn’t rank particularly low on the glycemic index, so it shouldn’t be used excessively. But, because most of the sugar has been extracted from blackstrap molasses during the boiling stage of the sugar extraction process, it tends to taste less sweet than other sugars and sugar substitutes and is thus prone to overuse. Look for organic and unsulfured molasses and remember to use sparingly.
Although these natural sweeteners are markedly healthier than conventional processed table sugar, before hitting the grocery store it’s important for shoppers to consider their own unique needs when deciding which sugar substitute is right for them. Diet, exercise, and pre-existing conditions all factor into the effect sugar and sugar substitutes will have on a person’s body. Still unsure? Talk to your doc!
**Erica Tasto is the author of The Natural Suite blog and an editor for Natural Solutions and Alternative Medicine. In addition to her creative duties, she enjoys spending time outdoors, staying fit at her local gym, and reading.**