"Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table." -William Shakespeare

Friday, October 28, 2011

Baby Step #5: Choose Your Poison Wisely

Honey, raw honey, Really Raw Honey, agave nectar, maple syrup grade A, maple syrup grade B, Yacon syrup, xylitol, stevia, evaporated cane juice, raw sugar, natural beet sugar, coconut sugar, organic pure cane sugar, demarara, rapadura, brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup, organic corn syrup, old-fashioned molasses, black-strap molasses:

Ummmmmm- where am I?

If you guessed the "sweetener" aisle at any given health food store, you've got it!

Confusing. To put it mildly, eh?

Now, let me say it: I'm biased. Yup, me. Biased. Not shocking, I know, as I do enjoy shoving things down people's throats (more than I usually allow myself to do). But hey, the great thing about a blog is you can just click 'x' if it makes you mad.

But I hope no one will get mad over a little bit of sugar, and for the record, I hope I'm not shoving anything down your throat. Although if you were here, I'd shove a whole wheat cinammon roll down your throat because I just made some- and MAN are they good.

But I digress.

Sugars. They all have one thing in common, on every diet, ever- they are NOT free foods. Carrots and celery= free foods. Sugars? No.

Sugar makes you fat.

Sugar messes with your mood.

Sugar is delicious.

That's the crux of the matter, right?

The question is, when you are going to indulge, how are you going to do it?

I'm not going to go into WHY I think you should ditch the white sugar, even the organic stuff. It's a highly refined, often genetically modified, chemicalized food which you can read about a zillion places. (Try Sugar Blues or Suicide By Sugar.)

I have a bias towards the more natural sweeteners: raw honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, and stevia. Barley malt is a good choice, but I'm going to leave it out because it is outside my area of expertise. I'd love comments from someone who cooks regularly with barley malt!

Honey is great because the good stuff is raw. Unfortunately, once honey is cooked, it's main benefit- enzymes- are destroyed, and as such, I try to only drizzle honey on top of things, or add it to teas that have cooled. The main thing to look for in honey is raw and unfiltered. (Raw honey shouldn't be fed to babies under 12 months old.) It does make a great, safe cough suppressant. Even real doctors grudgingly admit this.

Maple syrup is definitely a whole food. Just tree sap, cooked down. Formaldehyde is NO LONGER USED to produce Grade A maple syrup. But Grade B is still much yummier. This was the 'cheap sweet' of America before white sugar production became a chemical, cheap, industrial process (read Farmer Boy- mmmm). Back before America got fat, we ate maple sugar. (Maple sugar is crystalized/ evaporated maple syrup.)

Agave is pretty new to the American health scene. It is produced just the same way maple syrup is, but is much cheaper. I will say that RAW agave nectar is sorta a fuzzy thing, because it is made by fermenting agave juice with mold spores, and the process is proprietary (i.e. they don't have to tell us jack about how it's really made). I'm not big into mold spores. And raw agave gives me a splitting headache, while regular agave does not. Regular agave nectar/ syrup is my sweetener of choice for special occasion baked goods.

Brown rice syrup is made by cooking brown rice with enzymes. It is a traditional food in Asian countries. But it's not very tasty. My kids love it on toast, but I keep it on hand for sweet emergency use only. It is good for baking, since it is already cooked, but produces a dense texture.

And now, my baby, my favorite, my sweetener of choice:

Stevia leaves are green and they come off a plant. They are like a bazillion times sweeter than sugar. They are amazingly good added to loose-leaf tea or to ground coffe, right in the filter. They can be dried and powdered and added directly to foods. BUT stevia doesn not contribute bulk or texture to foods which makes it quite tricky to bake with.

Stevia extract can be obtained by a chemical or a natural process. That white powder stuff is not a whole food. It is a purified, isolated element from the stevia plant. It is sold as 'stevia extract', and in brands like TruVia and Rebiana, it may be called Rebaudioside A. Whole food extracts are available, too, and are my sweetener of choice. A natural stevia extract is liquid, either with grain alcohol as the extractive, or else water and vegetable glycerine.

These are produced by soaking the leaves in the liquid medium- a tincture! Yep! And you know how to make tinctures now, right?

Unlike honey, agave, or any other sweetener (including most artificial sweeteners), stevia has been proven to have a negligible effect on blood sugar. Also, unlike other natural sweeteners, it is calorie-free. Add all you want to your tea or coffee or quick bread, but beware! Too much stevia gets very, very bitter. I think many people who don't like stevia simply tried too much and found it bitter.

So remember, this Baby Step means don't indulge too often, and when you sweet, sweet responsibly!

Tomorrow: Baby Step #6: Read Yourself Healthy

"In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest."
~Henry Miller, The Books in My Life


  1. Stevia and Agave may not actually be what you think. Agave has been proven to be far from natural, and depending on how you are using your stevia, it may also be very chemically altered. Stevia also has shown adverse health effects.

  2. Agave is not a superfood, I agree. If you have a link to more information on the evils of agave, please share. I agree that raw agave is not a natural food, but blue/ amber agave appears to be a natural preparation of the juices/ sap of the agave plant?

    As I pointed out, sugar shouldn't be an everyday food. An indulgence isn't an indulgence if you're resorting to it all the time!

    As I pointed out also, refined stevia is not a whole food and I don't recommend it. But the green leaf and crude extractions of it have been in use for thousands of years, and have been in constant use in Japan for nearly 50 years. In fact, 40% of all sweetener use in Japan consists of stevis.

    In my not-so-humble-opinion, the less sweetener in the diet, the better.

    My concern here is to point out the "least bad" options I've come across so that people can make informed decisions aboout what to use in special foods- birthday cakes, feast day desserts, and such.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Great post, Maureen. We used honey for several years, and now I also sometimes use agave and stevia. Grade A syrup is what I use the most often.