The Sweet Spot III: Natural Sweeteners

 
 
The Sweet Spot III

Welcome everyone to the 3rd part of the "Sweet Spot" series of blog posts, a series dedicated to exploring all the various sweeteners available to us, from the raw and basic to the various brand names and blends.

2 weeks ago, we began simply with an introduction and a bit of a history of sugar. Last week is when things really got cooking, as we jumped into the world of Sugar Alcohols; sweeteners whose chemical formations resemble both sugar and alcohol, but ... really aren't either! This week, we're going to discuss the various Natural Sweeteners that play a big role in our society at large, as well as how they impact us, now.

The Sweet Spot Series (so far):

Now, because we're going to discuss various natural sweeteners, including maple syrup, and also because we recently had "Pancake Day" ... I whipped up a quick batch of Spiced and Caramelized Apples Topped Pancakes for us to enjoy. So ... enjoy!

The funny part is, even though this article is about to cut deep into the maple tree, I'm actually going to suggest something like a xylitol based pancake syrup, rather than true maple. What a turn of events, huh?!

Natural Sweeteners

This is a strangely titled section, in that the processing of some stevia products is actually FAR more involved than the processing of erythritol or xylitol, which I would also consider natural products, potentially more so than many stevia based products. I can technically make erythritol in my home kitchen, whereas there are stevia products that I could never produce at home. The Coca-Cola company, in fact, has a patent on some super-duper 40-step mega-process for their stevia products. When it's done ... I'm not sure how close to "Stevia: The Green Sweet Leaf" it really is, any longer. I do suspect some variation of stevia was used, at some point in the process.

Stevia

Speaking of stevia, lets dig into "stevia rebaudiana", which is the species of stevia known for its sweet leaves. It's relatively easy to grow. The leaves can be dried and added to things like teas and other beverages, fruits, salads and various desserts. Stevia has been shown to lower blood sugar levels in research involving healthy adults by increasing the secretion of insulin making Stevia useful for diabetics. It also improves digestion and gastrointestinal function, and is useful for upset stomachs and to reduce gas and stomach acidity. Several recent studies have shown that it may improve the heart's muscle tone and promote the body's water loss. These properties are thought to contribute to lower blood pressure. Stevia also has antiviral, antimicrobial and antibacterial characteristics. It's used for relieving bleeding gums, sore throats and cold sores in South America and Japan. Stevia has been shown to inhibit plaque formation and bacterial growth causing gum disease and tooth decay, and will not cause cavities. It may even reduce cravings for sweets which coupled with its lack of calories may be helpful in weight loss. It's essentially got zero carbs and zero calories, but is also not really a direct replacement for sugar, as many of the characteristics and bulk are missing from the equation.

Much of mainstream stevia found on the market is highly refined, removing all the fiber and nutrients, isolating the steviol glycosides. Some extracts and tinctures from high quality, whole leaf stevia contains an array of these sweet compounds, as well as many antioxidants. There are also many products which go even further to isolate a single steviol glycoside called "Rebaudioside A" which is about 300 times sweeter than sugar. It is this highly refined compound that is often sold and promoted under the Stevia name.

Some people love stevia. There's a lot to love! At its heart, it's a plant. It's sweet tasting, non-caloric, and has no impact on blood sugars (in fact, it may improve them!). It's about as perfect a natural sweetener as there is. Used as a leaf, it's hard to fault. That said, it needs to be grown, harvested, maintained, used fresh and/or dried and still requires some level of processing to boost tastes. This can be done by steeping the leaves like tea, straining away the actual leaves and sweetening with the remaining liquid. Others make a tincture by steeping the leaves in a strong alcohol such as vodka for a few days. This is then heated for 30 minutes, allowing much of the alcohol to evaporate. It's then strained and the remaining liquid is used as a sweetener. Both methods create a nice sweetening option, but ... as with all things "stevia", less is often considered more. Amongst one of the best methods is sweet extraction in vegetable glycerin, resulting in Stevia Glycerite ... something that combines the sweet taste of the glycerin (something I'll cover in part 5), with the sweet taste of the stevia. This will minimize the bitter tastes often associated with stevia.

See, stevia has a tendency towards bitterness, or a strong "licorice" flavor. A little bit tends to give a faint and long lasting sweet taste, whereas anything approaching an actual, clear and immediately obvious sweet taste tends to be accompanied by a slightly less obvious bitter taste, which many struggle with (including myself). This makes stevia great in blends, as the better qualities of other sweeteners tend to downplay the bitter and bring the sweeter qualities of the stevia to the forefront. For my tastes, standard stevia extracts need something else to balance them out. Alone, they really just don't do it for me. I'm personally very sensitive to the bitter taste of stevia, but recognize many love it!

One quick note ... many "stevia" products are blends and mixes. Because of the wide variety of the blends, it's hard to describe the various behavioral quirks in various recipes. Some forms are liquid, others are highly concentrated powder and others are blends. Some bake well and others will caramelize (most won't). Some have bulk, others don't. Some are better than others. Read the labels to understand their potency. Most of the time they state how much to use to replace specific amounts of sugar. Then ... break out the calcutor!

In general, if you're buying a granular or powdered version of it and it comes in anything much larger than a salt shaker, it's likely a blend designed to work like sugar. There are pure bulk packages, but ... typically at the store ... it's likely to be a blend. These require a bit of reading to understand what they REALLY contain. I'm personally a fan of stevia blends bulked out with erythritol. However, beware any mixed with dextrose or maltodextrin. Those are both essentially glucose (sugar) and have an impact on blood sugars. Even if the product claims to have zero carbs, it's because the serving size is usually miniscule (I've seen serving sizes listed as low as 1/4 tsp.) Labeling laws allow carbs on a nutrition facts label to be set to zero if under .5 grams within the set serving size. This can mean that the total number of carbs can approach upwards of 100 carbs per cup, while still legally being able to state that it's zero carbs. Deception ...

Just because it's a stevia product doesn't mean it's not pumped full of sugar and isn't highly ... HIGHLY processed. Read the labels and understand the blends and the logic behind labeling laws. You may very well be ingesting a stevia product, but it's highly refined and tastes great because of all the sugar.

I don't want to leave this on a sour note. Millions love this sweet leaf and pick up tinctures or make their own blends. Stevia is a great thing, but it's been heavily tampered with. I just want to shed light on some of the darker aspects of this particular leaf. Know what's in the box.

Honey

Honey is the queen bee of natural sweeteners. We all obviously know about honey, but I should say that it's a sweet food made by honey bees, from the nectar of flowers. It's made when bees collect sugar rich nectar. The honey bees ingest it into their "honey stomachs" and then ingest and regurgitate (a nicer word for "vomit") and evaporate the honey over and over, collectively as a group of bees, until it reaches a desired quality, where it is stored in honeycomb cells. If you really think about what's happening here ... honey is some pretty weird stuff! It is finally left in the honey combs, unsealed, where the bees fan their wings creating draft over the exposed honey further reducing the water content, increasing the glucose/fructose concentration and reducing the chances of fermentation. Fanned by bee wings ... cool!

Honey is ... nature's sugar. Honey has been used and hunted by humans for at least 8,000 years. Honey has been in use for about as long as "writing" has been. In addition to being a food, it's also used as a medicine and has rich religious and philosophical significance. In terms of broad human evolution, it's relatively new, but it's been a part of our experience for thousands of years.

In terms of pure function, it's a bit sweeter than regular sugar, with approximately the same impact on our blood sugars. Honey will cause just as much of an insulin secretion as good ol' fashioned table sugar (raw honey has a much lower GI, though). While certainly a natural food, quite delicious and wonderful in our existing culture's sweet tasty treats, it's really got no immediate benefit for the human body, short of helping to store fat on our rears, for the potential times of famine and starvation. Beyond this, there are some benefits of honey over refined table sugar. Aside from water and various forms of sugar, the remaining 3% of honey is ash and various vitamins and minerals, but ... not in massively meaningful amounts. If I had to choose between the sugar and honey, I'd pick honey (and raw honey, at that), but ... it's not a landslide victory. It's really just sugar, as far as the body is concerned.

Honey does have some medicinal properties, but being that this blog is about tasty goodness and blood sugars ... I'm going to acknowledge they exist ... and promptly move on.

*crosses arms, makes a wish and briskly nods head*
Probably the most important aspect to "us" in regards to honey is how it compares to sugar, from a functional standpoint. I do have Paleo and Primal readers who love this stuff. I actually love it as well. It's delicious and it's nice and sticky, when I need things to stick together. For example, I make granola and add a touch to it. I'll also add it to nut based pie crusts, simply to serve as a nicely sticky "glue" ... something the other sugar alcohols don't do quite right.

Honey is sweeter and denser than sugar (meaning less needs to be used), higher in calories, more acidic, and contains about 20% water. It's also got a sugar profile closer to high fructose corn syrup (about 40% fructose and 30% glucose ... plus some water and a few other things). Processed honey has a glycemic index of about 75 to 85 (higher than table sugar). Interestingly, raw honey clocks in closer to 30, which is actually worth noting. In any event, these differences all suggest it's going to behave somewhat differently in a recipe than sugar. It's going to have an impact on leaveners (both yeast, as well as sodium bicarbonate). It's going to add moisture and boost sweetness above that of standard table sugar. It's also going to brown foods more quickly. Most of these things aren't a huge issue for small baking tasks, but as the amounts grow, suddenly things can get wonky pretty quick.

Substitute Tip: In general, use about 3/4 of a cup, for every cup of sugar being replaced. Also, reduce other liquids by about 1/4 cup for every cup of honey being used. Finally, lower the oven temperature by about 25 F (4 C) to prevent over browning.

Ultimately, this is probably the best overall sweetener to replace sugar in a recipe, in terms of function. It really IS sugar, for the most part. With the tweaks listed above, just about any recipe can be converted (err on the side of less additional liquid, and add a bit more, as it needs it). As long as you're not concerned about blood sugars, honey is behaviorally and ethically probably your best bet (unless you're bothered by irritating and offending honey bees, which some people are! This is why honey isn't classified as "vegan").

However, if you're paying attention to blood sugars and carbs ... stay away. I personally only use honey when I need a tiny blast of actual sugar for yeast leavened recipes or, as mentioned before, if I need a twinge of something "sticky" to glue things like nuts together. Mostly ... it takes up space in my pantry, but I am glad it's there when I need it. Honey does a great job of staying stable for years on my shelf.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup, like honey, is another form of natural sugar. Maple trees convert starch into sugar around Spring. The trees are tapped by drilling holes into them. The sap is drained and heated. Water is evaporated, leaving behind a thick and sweet syrup.

Maple syrup originated in North America, but no one knows how long ago. The first written accounts date back about 500 years, but the indigenous people had been using the sap prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The two groups seem to have barrowed techniques from one another, arriving at a simmering and evaporation process which resulted in maple sugar; a granular solid block of maple, which had a long shelf life and could be transported, easily. It was not until the civil war and the introduction of tin cans and spouts that "syrup" was heavily used.

Most of the world's Maple Syrup comes from Quebec, in Canada. Today's process involves drilling a hole in the tree and "tapping" it. Plastic tubes carry the sap to an "evaporator house", where various processes are employed to remove water, including reverse-osmosis and boiling. It is then filtered, to remove any crystals. The end result is packaged while still hot and sold as Maple Syrup. Boom. Pancakes!

Maple syrup, like honey, is also just sugar. Sure, it's nature's sugar, but ... it'll impact blood sugars just as much as sugar or honey. Actually ... that's not "entirely" true. A cup of honey has 280 carbs, sugar has 200 and maple has 208. While maple has more than sugar, that's because it's more dense and less is needed for the sweetening power. Additionally, while sugar has a GI of about 60 to 65, honey is 85 and maple syrup is between 60 and 65. So, I COULD make the argument that honey is even worse for humans (higher fructose content, higher GI, and higher calorie content) than refined sugar, but ... I won't. I don't want to start a war with Grok.

* Ahem * ... maple syrup has a better profile for low-carbers than does honey. If I had to choose ... maple syrup for me, please! Again, for those of you (like me) watching your blood sugars, though ... stay away.

Substitute Tip: In general, use about 3/4 of a cup, for every cup of sugar being replaced. Also, reduce other liquids by about 1/4 cup for every cup of maple syrup being used. Finally, lower the oven temperature by about 25 F (4 C) to prevent over browning.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar (AKA coconut palm sugar), like it sounds ... is sugar made from coconuts. Actually ... that's not totally true. It is sugar made from the sap of the flower buds of the coconut palm. It's made from coconut flower buds, rather than the actual COCONUTS.

Coconut sugar is actually very much like maple (which can also be purchased as a brown granular sugar). It's a sap, it's collected and water is removed by heating it. As the water evaporates, it's turned into a syrup, then a paste, crystal and/or block. Each of these are possible end points, with the primary difference being the water content.

Coconut sugar gets a lot of praise in a variety of circles. It's got a far lower Glycemic Index than honey (85), sugar (60 to 65) or maple syrup (60 to 65), at 35, closer to raw honey. It's substantially lower, much lower than even some sugar alcohols frequently used in sugar free candies. In addition to the various nutrients and minerals, coconut sugar also contains a sweet fiber called "Inulin", which is something I'll get into later. This soluable fiber helps to slow the absorption of the sugars. Because of this, it's often marketed towards diabetics. It's also suitable for Paleo people. With all the goodness ... it is still relatively high in fructose, which is definitely not good for us.

I should clarify that the glycemic testing of coconut sugar wasn't extensive. The low glycemic rating of coconut sugar is often questioned. If you're a diabetic, don't trust a label. Trust your body and your blood tests.

Substitute Tip:Coconut sugar can be used 1 for 1 in a recipe asking for sugar. The taste is similar to that of brown sugar. It also makes a good substitution for brown sugar, and has a healthier profile than brown sugar.

If I had to choose between honey, maple syrup/sugar or coconut sugar? I'll take coconut sugar, but ... honestly, I'd still much rather have an erythritol blend!

Yacon Syrup

Yacon syrup is truly fantastic stuff, but is one that I don't see mentioned very often. It's expensive and hard to find, but ... it's a sweetener with a very low glycemic index. I've seen ratings of "0" and "1" for this sweetener. It's similar to coconut sugar, in that it's got inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides in it (similar to inulin). This helps slow the absorption of sugars in the blood. Yacon Syrup is made from a Peruvian yam. It's made in a manner similar to maple syrup, through evaporation. It looks and tastes a lot like molasses. It's dark, thick and ... well ... syrupy! It's not something I'd put in my coffee, but if I were looking to make a brown sugar blend, this would be my pick I'd mix this into a mixture of erythritol, inulin and a bit of stevia for ... essentially a non-caloric, zero carb, zero GI brown sugar! Sweet, huh?! More on homemade blends, later ...

Because of its strong flavor, I wouldn't really consider this as a direct replacement for sugar. It's more a complement to other sweeteners, but isn't a great sweetener on its own. I'd bet it would be a WONDERFUL addition to something like a BBQ sauce, or in a glaze for a piece of grilled gingery salmon! I've tried it and ... it is definitely quite tasty! I'd take this over coconut sugar or molasses. It should be perfect for diabetics, as well as low-carbers. Even Paleo people should agree this is an acceptable sweetener.

It baffles me why this isn't discussed more often. There isn't a lot of info on it and ... again, it's hard to find and is expensive.

Maybe that's why. ;)

For those of you with an extra buck or two in your pockets, I suggest picking some up and playing with it. I can think of a million tasty uses for it.

Monk Fruit

I've never used Monk Fruit or any Monk Fruit products ... and don't know much about it or them. It's only recently appeared on my radar. The company that produces Splenda has recently released a product based on this Asian gourd, called Nectresse. This new monk fruit product definitely takes advantage of labeling laws. It claims to be zero carb and zero calories, but two of the 4 ingredients are listed as sugar and molasses. In my opinion, this is a flat out abuse of labeling laws.

In any event, I said at the beginning of this series that this wouldn't be an exhaustive detailing of sweeteners. It's more just a large account of what I've learned in my 4 years as a low-carber. If I ever do a fully exhaustive project on sweeteners, I'll be sure to include this one in more depth. A bit of research suggests that the "Luo Han Guo" we see in sweeteners marketed as "Monk Fruit" is highly processed. The idea is to isolate the compound "Mogroside V", much in the same way "Rebaudioside A" is isolated in stevia. Proctor and Gamble have the patent on a Monk Fruit extract which involves various solvents and resins, resulting in a monk fruit extract with less of the interfering aromas of the more naturally attained extracts.

Honestly, nothing I read about this stuff makes me want to run out and find some. It's just a bit of "spin" to steal some of the eyeballs buying Stevia products.

Or not. I don't know. I haven't tried it. So far ... I'm not impressed with the literature and am not scrambling to track some down. I did do a bit of snooping and have come across this highly rated blend of Monk Fruit and Inulin. I'm a big fan of inulin, and the ratings are encouraging. I might give that a shot in the future!

Agave Nectar

This stuff is basically high fructose corn syrup, but ... with better marketing and actually an even higher fructose content than HFCS! Stay away ...

Ok, that's all I've got with the various natural sweeteners. There are a few others that "somewhat" belong here, such as inulin and molasses, but the 5th part of the series is called "Odds and Ends" which is where the hard to classify stuff will go. More on that later. Next week we'll be focusing on the synthetic sweeteners. Stay tuned for info on sucralose, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame and saccharin. Should be fun!

Are we learning anything, yet? YAY!!

~ DJ

Updated 11/2/2017

Comments

I've never heard of that one, Anneke. I'll have to look it up. Thanks for sharing! :)

 DJ  5/23/2014

 Reply

This is great, DJ. Thanks for doing the time for all the research and putting this together. Too bad that there isn't a perfect sugar replacement, but that would make life too easy. Looking forward to next week's installment.

 Eric  3/18/2014

 Reply

Eric, my pleasure! I have no doubt that A LOT of money is being spent to figure out a replacement for sugar that acts like sugar across all uses. Whoever cracks that particular code immediately wins the universe. Until then ... it's mix and match for the occasion!

 DJ  3/24/2014

 Reply

Thanks so much for your research on sugar substitutes...I tried Erythritol yesterday in a low carb cheesecake, and today I have the worse migraine!! I couldn't find anything on the side effects prior to using it. Today I see a couple of people mention headaches. If you are prone to migraines like me, don't use it!

 Kathy Hartzler  3/26/2014

 Reply

Hi Kathy, I've heard a million things about just about everything. There's anecdotal evidence to support just about every side effect there is. Different people react to different things ... differently. The overwhelming majority experience no issues with erythritol, but some do experience headaches, or gastric distress or blood sugar issues. I hazard to put out an actual number of people that use it successfully, but I feel quite confident saying "almost" everyone. I am sorry it doesn't work for you, though! Perhaps you can build a tolerance to it. I know that tolerance is something that can be built up against some of the negative effects of the sugar alcohols. Food for thought, anyway ... Thanks for the comment! :)

 DJ  3/26/2014

 Reply

My favourite sweetener is one with monk pear, the brand that I use is Norbu, a mix of erythritol and monk pear and it doesn't have any aftertaste and doesn't give me any tummy trouble. I love it!

 Anneke Squibb  5/21/2014

 Reply