Natural Sweeteners You Should Know About

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If you like the idea of scaling back on refined white sugar, you will be glad to know that these days, fresh and interesting alternatives abound. In fact, in recent years we have learned about a whole bouquet of “new” sweeteners–many with long histories in other cultures.

Perhaps one of the most talked about sweeteners appearing in recent years is stevia, derived from the stevia plant, which is native to Paraguay. When people try it, they are often amazed that something so intensely sweet could be naturally calorie-free. This is due to the unique structure of the glycoside molecules. In fact, stevia extracts are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, without causing the health issues many Americans experience with excessive sugar consumption.

Stay tuned, stevia may soon be appearing in a wide range of products, since in December 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed to allow rebiana-based sweeteners to be included as food additives. Rebiana is the trade name for a calorie-free sweetener comprised of a steviol glycoside.

Another intriguing newcomer is yacón syrup, extracted from the jicama-like root of the yacón plant. Indigenous to the Andes Mountains in South America, this mineral-rich, natural sweetener contains just half the calories of honey─30 per tablespoon compared with 60. And like stevia, it’s glucose-free, so it has a minimal effect on blood sugar levels. While stevia has a slightly licorice-like flavor, yacón syrup tastes more like honey. It’s extremely sweet, so a little goes a long way.

The Mexican agave plant─familiar to many tequila lovers─also yields a luscious, natural sweetener. Agave nectar─which is sweeter than honey, with a thinner consistency─is showing up in a host of natural products. Though agave has the same number of calories as honey, it contains a complex form of fructose, resulting in a lower glycemic index. The glycemic index is a means of measuring the way foods impact blood sugar levels. Foods with a high glycemic index quickly convert to sugar, which can rapidly elevate blood sugar. Conversely, low glycemic foods change to sugar gradually, for a more sustained effect on blood sugar levels.

You may also be hearing about erythritol, a sugar alcohol which is about 70% as sweet as white sugar. Erythritol is far better on the waistline though, with only .2 calories per gram compared with 4 calories per gram for sugar. And erythritol is less likely to increase blood sugar levels than other sugar alcohols like sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol─making it potentially safer for diabetics.

Each of these new sweeteners has a much lower glycemic index than table sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, or honey. This is not only helpful for diabetes prevention, but can also make it easier to reach and maintain a healthy weight, since low glycemic foods are thought to be less likely to trigger the body’s fat storage mechanisms. With all these fresh options to explore, you can look forward to a world that’s not only sweeter, but healthier as well.

This article is from the Spring 2009 Whole Value Newsletter for Whole Foods Market Download PDF

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