Natural Foods Education  Jennette Turner

Healthy Food and Nutrition Publications

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How Sweet It Is

By Jennette Turner

Of all the different flavors, sweetness is usually the one that has the strongest lure for most people. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average American consumes between 125 and 150 lbs. of sugar each year. That’s over 30 teaspoons per person per day! We’re drawn to the sweet flavor for a variety of reasons. From an evolutionary perspective, our sweet tooths were an advantage – they led us to nutritious vegetables and fruits and kept us away from poisonous plants, which are usually bitter (no sweet foods are known to exist in nature that are poisonous). And to the sensitive taste buds of an infant, mother’s milk is very sweet – another reason for our preference.

But though our desire for sweetness is natural and instinctual, there is no physiological need for refined sugars in our diets. Refined sugars (and all refined carbohydrates, actually, including white flour and white rice) deplete the body of important nutrients (including minerals like calcium, and it is interesting to note that osteoporosis only occurs in countries where refined carbohydrates are consumed), promote tooth decay and weight gain, and are implicated in a host of diseases including diabetes and heart disease.

The most commonly used refined sweetener today is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is even more harmful to the body than regular white sugar. HFCS was developed in the 70’s by Japanese scientists, and it has been a boon to the food processing industry because it is significantly cheaper than sugar and extends the shelf life of commercial products. Consequently, it’s use has skyrocketed, and now accounts for around 10% of the average adult American’s daily caloric intake and a whopping 20% of the average child’s.

HFCS is not processed by our bodies in the same way regular sugars are – it bypasses the usual breakdown process and arrives in the liver intact (called “metabolic shunting”) and there it becomes a building block for triglycerides – the fats that can damage artery walls. HFCS can also lead to insulin resistance when muscle tissue is flooded with these fatty acids, a major factor in both diabetes and obesity. (There is a great section about HFCS in Greg Critser’s book Fat Land, if you’d like more information).

In order to avoid the calories from refined sweeteners like sugar and HFCS, many people use artificial sweeteners. Unfortunately, these can also be damaging to our health. Aspartame, the one most widely used, is made from a combination of 2 naturally occurring amino acids – phenylalanine (PHE) and aspartic acid. However, just because they occur naturally doesn’t mean that the concentrated synthetic combination of them is somehow “natural”. It’s not.

Elevated PHE concentrations in the blood and brain can affect the way our neurotransmitters function, which in turn affects our mood and behaviors. And aspartic acid has excitatory effects – artificially stimulating the brain at the same time. A large percentage of the adverse reactions from aspartame that are reported to the FDA each year involve abnormal brain function: dizziness, retinal hemorrhaging and blurred vision, memory loss, anxiety and panic attacks, depression, fatigue and seizures, among other conditions. (For more information, you can contact the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network at www. aspartamesafety.com)

Another, newer, artificial sweetener that’s becoming more commonly used is sucralose, marketed as Splenda. Like aspartame, it is categorized by the FDA as a “non-nutritive” sweetener, and though its manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, claims that after consumption it passes through the body without being absorbed, the FDA has found that 11-27% of sucralose is absorbed by the human body. Sucralose is a chlorinated molecule (chlorinated molecules are also used as the basis for some pesticides, like DDT) and thus can accumulate in body tissues.

Research done on mice, rats and rabbits has linked sucralose consumption with glandular and organ disturbances such as shrinking of the thymus gland and enlargement of the liver. But there aren’t any independent long term studies on sucralose consumption in humans, and fewer independent tests of its health effects than on any other sweetener on the market. So consumers themselves are the real lab rats.

Fortunately, there are many natural sweeteners available that do not have such deleterious effects on our health! Natural sweeteners are concentrated through boiling or dehydration, not refining, and contain nutrients that assist with their metabolism. Health-wise, it’s best to consume them in moderation. Too much can cause blood sugar swings that effect mood and energy levels (the way that refined sugars do), as well as adding extra calories. But they are wholesome foods that are perfectly healthy to include in your diet!

Try some of these sweeteners, all of which are available in bulk or packaged at the Wedge:

  • Sucanat is dehydrated unrefined sugar cane juice. You can use it in place of regular sugar in any recipe, though it will darken the color of your final product.
  • Maple syrup is also good for baking, and is wonderful on pancakes. It’s a rich source of minerals – especially calcium.
  • Raw honey contains amylases and enzymes that aid digestion, as well as many nutrients found in plant pollens. It’s delicious on toast, hot cereal and in tea. (Note: raw honey should not be given to infants under one year of age. Also note: infants under one year of age don’t need sweeteners anyway!)
  • Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar refining process. It has all the vitamins and minerals (like B vitamins, potassium and iron) that were refined out of white sugar. It has a strong flavor, and goes very well in baked goods.
  • Stevia powder is a made from a South American herb. The green kind is from the whole leaf, the white kind is refined. It has no calories and doesn’t effect blood sugar levels, which means that it is safe for diabetics.

Of course, another natural way to satisfy our sweet cravings is to enjoy ripe fruit! Fruits provide us with plenty of nutrients and fiber, and now certainly is the season for them. Fruits can be eaten raw or cooked; they can be part of a nutritious meal and also make a great snack on their own. We’re fortunate here at the Wedge to have such a wide variety of delicious fruits – try a new one! The Wedge produce staff will be happy to give you a sample.

Dried fruits are another way to appease the sweet tooth – they’re so naturally sweet and chewy, it’s almost like eating candy. The Wedge carries several different kinds of dried fruit – raisins, dates, apples, pineapple, mangoes…. Try some in hot cereal, muffins, pancakes, or in trail mix for a snack.

Wanting sweets is natural. When we satisfy our desires naturally, our taste buds as well as our bodies are happy. Using healthy sweeteners instead of refined sugars, avoiding products made with high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners, and savoring the delights of fresh and dried fruits is exactly the kind of sweetness we need.

My favorite summer treat:

Fresh Local Honeydew with Honey-Lime Sauce

Ingredients:
1 honeydew melon
1/4 c. raw honey
1/4 c. fresh lime juice
OPTIONS: fresh raspberries or blueberries, fresh mint

Directions:
1. Scoop melon into balls. Put in a bowl. Add optional berries or mint, if using.
2. Mix honey and lime juice until smooth. Pour over fruit and gently stir.

Serve room temp or chilled.

References available on request

Jennette turner is a Natural Foods Educator in Minneapolis. She Teaches public and private classes, and offers individual nutrition consultations. Jennette launced Dinner with Jennette (www.jennette-turner.com/dinner), to make it easier for people to incorporate natural foods into their diets. she can be reached at jennette-turner.com / 612-374-6039

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