The recent news that the sugar industry paid scientists to minimize the connection between sugar and heart disease, exposes another layer of truth behind this sweet carbohydrate. It’s so common in today’s diet, that many don’t question its presence or its numerous health risks. Holidays and birthdays are connected with sweets and even supermarkets are designed to place sugary foods within easy reach of their customers.
Is it any wonder that it’s so challenging to eliminate sugar from our diets? It seems to sneak into everything and goes by many aliases on food labels. And just because something is “naturally sweetened” does not necessarily mean it is any better for you. While sweet foods in moderation can make life a little more fun, there are alternatives to refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
In Chinese Medicine, the sweet flavor is associated with the Spleen energy. The Spleen energy benefits from a small amount of the sweet flavor, as found in whole grains and vegetables. In large quantities, sweet foods weaken the Spleen, impeding the digestive function and causing dampness to accumulate in the body. As a general rule: the less sweet, the better. When we read labels on natural food products we see a variety of different sweeteners. Here are a few:
Grain Malts like rice syrup, barley malt, and amasake are mildly sweet and do not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. These sweeteners are considered to be among the healthiest sweeteners in the natural food industry.
Stevia is an all-natural substance derived from the leaves of a South American shrub. It has virtually no calories, doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, and does not appear to have the same dampness-producing quality of other sweeteners when used in moderation. But it is considered to be 300 times sweeter than sugar so a little goes a long way.
Molasses is a thick syrup by-product from the processing of the sugarcane or sugar beet. Blackstrap molasses contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals and is the least sweet of the varieties. It is considered a blood tonic because of its high iron content.
Honey is as sweet as sugar. Research has found that honey enhances growth of specific strains of Bifidobacteria, beneficial bacteria in the colon. In Chinese medicine, honey neutralizes toxins, activates the Lung and Spleen energies, and nourishes yin. It is a good choice when dealing with a dry cough especially those annoying lingering coughs left after an illness.
Agave Nectar is fairly new on the sweetener scene and it is argued that many of the health benefits are lost in the commercial processing. Due to the amount of processing it takes to make this product, it is not really a “natural” sweetener (although probably more “natural” than refined sugar). One advantage is that it doesn’t cause as big a rise in blood sugar since it mostly contains sugars in the form of fructose.
Sugar Alcohols (Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol) are low-calorie sweeteners derived from plant fibers. Xylitol has shown up lately in chewing gum and dental products due to the fact that it helps keep a neutral pH level in the mouth and prevents bacteria from sticking to the teeth. Careful though – excess consumption of these sweeteners can have a laxative effect and cause bloating and gas.
With all the options readily available to us, it is easy to go for more natural, less sweet foods. Read labels carefully and choose wisely.