By Tibby Plasse
Sweet. Sour. Salty. Astringent. Bitter. Pungent. These six sensations of taste have been recognized for over five thousand years in traditional Chinese medicine. For most of us though, our taste axis of choice leans disproportionately in one direction: straight across the horizon toward sweet.
The American Heart Association recommends that we eat no more than nine tablespoons (about 150 calories) of sugar a day, but a typical American consumes twenty-eight teaspoons (450 calories). According to Mary Ryan, a Registered Dietitian with a Master of Science in Foods and Nutrition—and founder of Beyond Broccoli Nutrition Counseling, formerly based in Jackson—“The crux of the problem with any kind of sugar is [that] we just eat too much of it in all of its forms.” A sweet tooth is a hard habit to break—but exploring, experimenting, and understanding sugar alternatives allows for less rule-breaking and more healthy satiety.
Not All Sugars are the Same “Sugar” is a class of edible crystalline carbohydrates with a sweet flavor. The most basic sugars associated with food are glucose, sucrose, lactose, and fructose. Glucose, our main source of energy, is the simple sugar made when our bodies break down starches. In food it’s sometimes called dextrose. Sucrose is highly refined from sugar cane or sugar beets—your classic table sugar devoid of any nutrients. Lactose comes from milk. Fructose is a sugar found naturally in fruits. Sugars known by their common name, like maple syrup and honey, contain varying percentages of these and other basic sugar compounds.
Naturally occurring fructose comes along with fiber, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, whereas processed fructose sweeteners have no nutritional value at all. The primary culprit in the obesity epidemic is high-fructose corn syrup. The body metabolizes glucose and fructose differently, and one study comparing the two showed that we convert fructose to body fat with “surprising speed.” Fructose can only be broken down by the liver; thus, like alcohol, it strains the organ. Unfortunately, in the United States it’s our sugar of choice, whether we know it or not. Found in most processed foods, fructose is especially abundant in long-term, shelf-stable products like those found in the frozen food section and in processed tomato-based products.
Deciphering how a sugar is processed requires evaluating individual products. Acids, charcoal, inulin enzymes, and a handful of other chemicals used in processing and filtration can be found across the board, unless you are only consuming a whole product. Agave syrup is currently the most notorious for being touted as an organic and raw, healthier choice. However, agave nectar is not from the juice of the agave plant—it is derived from starch of the agave root, and is fractionated and processed (much like high-fructose corn syrup), losing any nutrient contained in the whole plant. Some brands are up to 80 percent fructose. However, agave does have low glycemic index (it doesn’t spike blood sugar, making it an alternative for diabetes sufferers), and its sweeter taste allows for an overall reduction of the total sugar in a recipe—just be cautious in its use.
Honey powder, frequently found in yogurts, nut butters, and cereals, is also a surprising offender when judged by its degree of processing. Honey powder often carries inulin, a naturally occurring plant-based carbohydrate that’s processed into a sweetener. Inulin in its natural state (for instance, in a raw carrot) feeds good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Processed inulin, according to emerging studies, can feed bad bacteria, too, and enable bacteria like Klebsiella to move out of the colon, where it can cause serious infection. Many species of yeast adore inulin, and Candida albicans, the fungus responsible for a variety of common maladies including vaginal yeast infections, thrush, skin infections, and diaper rash, can readily develop with overconsumption.
So, What to Do? “Ayurveda recommends that we eat the ‘sweet’ taste first,” explains Wahneta Trotter, a certified ayurvedic specialist from Ketchum, Idaho. “The brain requires glucose to function. The ‘sweet’ foods with glucose are digested first.” Trotter makes it clear, though, that “sweet” foods are not just sugar-based foods. There are grains, dairy, legumes, and even meats that are inherently sweet and can help assuage cravings. (She believes that sweet cravings can arise from an emotional state of emptiness, loss, or sadness, or a feeling of being unsatisfied. A craving for sweet foods can also indicate undernourishment or lack of protein.)
Need another good reason not to throw everything out just yet? “Intense activity and extremes of hot or cold increase various nutritional needs, and carbohydrates are the most easily converted sources for energy,” says Ryan, adding that energy bars and gels like GU are “simply convenient ways to boost blood sugar during intense exercise when digesting food is impractical.”
Your first guideline for changing up your diet—“it’s not an all-or-nothing venture,” says Ryan, who has found that radical changes like going “cold turkey” sets an individual up for sugar binges after periods of severe restriction. “Be aware of the ‘hidden sugars’ in everyday foods like flavored yogurt and packaged foods” Ryan warns. “Eating more whole, minimally or un-processed foods automatically helps you decrease sugar and salt to healthier levels. Know how your body responds to too much sugar of any kind and how much is too much for you.”
Similar principles are shared by ayurvedic practitioner Cate Stillman, founder of the Yogahealer in Driggs. “If you are craving sweet and not bitter (dark leafy greens and green vegetables), then your taste buds are not connected to what your body actually needs,” she says. “The best thing to do is cleanse or detoxify to reset your taste buds into an intelligent alignment with the rest of your body’s needs.”
Good sugars are found naturally in whole foods. Purists seek sweetness in grains, legumes, and vegetables, and it’s a proven fact that chewing them for longer produces a sweeter taste. Sprouting converts starch to sugar, so sprouted nuts and vegetables are also an option.
Doesn’t sound like enough? Thankfully, there are other options for replacing refined sugars; turbinado sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruit juices, rice syrup, barley malt, coconut, stevia, and amazake top the list of better choices.
Produced locally by a handful of companies, honey is one of the most attractive substitutes for processed sugar. Considered a superfood by many, raw, unprocessed honey provides antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, carbohydrates, and phytonutrients, and is believed to be a remedy for many health ailments. However, like agave, there is nothing much beneficial about a lot of processed honey.
The crystals, nectar, and water of coconut are about as over-marketed as agave lately, but are they safe? Coconut’s health benefits are endless; it is highly nutritious, and rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The oil is composed predominately of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). MCFA is easier for our bodies to absorb than sugars void of minerals and nutrients. Coconut’s rich composition makes it one of the healthier options—it’s a sweetener that gives back.
What about Sugar Substitutes? Six intensely sweet, calorie-free sugar substitutes have been approved for use in the United States, including plant-based stevia (also known as rebaudioside A, Truvia, and PureVia), and the artificial compounds aspartame (brand names include Equal and NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium (Sweet One), and neotame (also made by NutraSweet). There is ongoing debate over whether or not artificial sweetener usage poses health risks. Perhaps it’s better to ask: How do your personal risks associated with diabetes and obesity stack up against the use of some of the highly processed artificial compounds? (And do you entirely trust the Food and Drug Administration and food corporations with their approvals?)
Stillman’s preferred sweetener for smoothies is stevia, which adds a sweet taste without spiking the blood sugar. An herb native to Latin America and found in parts of the American Southwest, its sweet leaves and flowers are used to make a powder that is approximately thirty times sweeter than table sugar—so, only a few drops are necessary for one cup of liquid. Stevia is not affected by heat, making it a great sugar replacement for teas, baking, canning fruits, and other recipes.
Concerns about stevia include decreased carbohydrate absorption during digestion, which can lead to low blood sugar. While this might benefit weight watchers and diabetics, it is not clear how much stevia is too much, contributing to malnutrition, hypoglycemia, or dangerously low blood sugar. There is also concern that diabetics’ insulin requirements and dosages may be altered in unpredictable ways by switching from sugar to stevia.
The Whole Truth Whole foods and living foods remain our cleanest sources for a healthier diet. So yes, sprouting does create sweet flavors. Barley malt is made by soaking and sprouting barley to make malt that is combined with more barley and cooked until the starch is converted to sugar. The mash is then strained and cooked down to syrup or dried into powder, and is one of the healthier options on the market. Amazake is an ancient Oriental whole grain sweetener made from cultured brown rice with a thick, pudding-like consistency. (Often hard to find, Amazake is available at Barrels and Bins in Driggs.)
Opting for whole food sweeteners is easier on our bodies, and they are usually available with the season’s bounty. “Sweet is an important part of our diet, especially during summer, autumn, and early winter,” says Stillman. “Nature provides sweet taste in abundance … with sweet peas, berries, juicy fruits, root vegetables, and winter squashes. Simply eating in season keeps our taste buds ‘intelligent.’”
asked Stillman to suggest a good “craving recipe” to lean on while one is trying to reduce sugar in the diet. She recommended the raw truffles she prepares in her food processor, using dates, raisins, coconut butter, and raw cacao. Though it doesn’t sound nearly as indulgent as a milk shake or a chocolate bar, she promises, “Once you start eating real nutrients, you stop craving non-nutrient sweet food. It just starts to taste artificial and lacking nature’s intrinsic intelligence. Literally, the tissue of your body stops craving the junk [to eat]. You will want real food.”
Sugar From Sap: If you ask a Vermonter, she may try to convince you that maple syrup is a condiment, not just a sweetener. Though that is up for debate, maple syrup does have some real benefits. Maple syrup, sap drained from trees and then processed, is ultimately less refined than most processed sweeteners and therefore maintains a composition of minerals and antioxidants. Besides its great taste, one of maple syrup’s best attributes is that it’s an easy, one-to-one substitute for sugar (though you have to lessen liquid in an overall recipe). “I love pure maple syrup mixed in with yogurt and fruit or hot cereal, and raw honey drizzled on toast with nut butter and a sprinkle of cinnamon,” says nutritionist Mary Ryan. “Both of these ‘natural’ sweeteners have at least trace amounts of minerals, and it only takes a small amount to sweeten something, thereby encouraging its use in moderation.”
Due to its antiseptic and antifungal properties, honey has been used internally and externally for over 2,000 years, to soothe irritated skin and aid in the healing of wounds and infections. Medieval seducers plied their partners with mead, a fermented drink made from honey. Lovers on their “honeymoon” drank mead to “sweeten” the marriage.
Local Honey Producers: Wyoming Wonderful Wyoming Honey Wyoming Honey Company Idaho Browning’s Honey Cox Honey Farms
Raw Cacao Truffles 1/2 cup of raisins 1 cup of dates 1/2 cup of raw cacao nibs 3 Tablespoons of cacao (coco) butter or coconut butter* 1/2 cup cocoa powder Toppings: cocoa powder, crushed almond flakes, or unsweetened coconut flakes
Soak the raisins and dates overnight in water. In the morning, drain them, saving the sweet liquid. In a food processor put the raisins, dates, cacao nibs, and softened cacoa butter or coconut butter. Blend into a puree. Add a few spoonfuls of soaking water if it’s too thick to blend. Once it’s a puree, add cocoa powder and stir to make into a thick paste. Put toppings of choice on a small plate. Roll the paste into 1 1/2-inch balls and roll in one of the toppings; truffles rolled in coconut are shown above. Store in the refrigerator. *Cacao butter is available at the Jackson Whole Grocer. Buy coconut butter at rawfoodworld.com.
Beverages One of the best times to experiment is at happy hour, be it with tea, cocktail, or smoothie. Working with beverages constrains portions, so if something doesn’t qualify for a James Beard award, you have not invested too much time or ingredients into a bad batch. Explore the consistencies of different syrups, and tastes and properties of alternative sweeteners, before attempting to substitute ingredients in a working recipe.
For kids on a cold day, try experimenting with hot milk combinations using your favorite milk (cow, goat, unflavored almond, soy, or coconut), a sweetener (honey, maple syrup, agave, or stevia), and a dash of flavoring (vanilla, almond, cinnamon, unsweetened cocoa power—even a dash of cayenne for an adult Mexican hot chocolate).
Tibby Plasse dropped out of her Ph.D. program after falling in love with Idaho. She splits her time among writing poetry, snowboarding, and improving her proficiency as a calf mama for Paradise Springs Farm, a biodynamic raw-milk dairy located at the base of the Big Holes.