Let’s Talk Sugar & Sweeteners

It is February so of course, the month is all about sweets for your sweetie, but it’s still the New Year and every magazine I receive or glance at in the store these days is talking about eating and living healthier this year. As a natural foods chef I’m completely on board with this line of thinking. In all honesty, I believe Americans need to relearn how to eat. We are a nation of abundance and this has translated onto our plates and into our stomachs. And it is a big reason why we are seeing pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes rates rise astronomically.
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Diabetes Sidebar:
I am going to digress here and throw out a few facts and figures about diabetes that I think are mandatory to get into the general American population. (At another time I will devote an entire blog to pre-diabetes.)

According to the Centers for Disease Control 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet, 25.8 million Americans have diabetes, but only 18.8 million of them have been diagnosed. The same fact sheet states that another estimated 79 million Americans aged 20 years and older have pre-diabetes, and most of them don’t even know it. If those people with pre-diabetes were to be diagnosed it would give them the chance to change their eating and living habits in order to get their glucose levels under control making it less likely their condition will progress to a firm diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. This is an important fact to take into consideration because the majority of people who are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes will never be able to reverse the diagnosis
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So, onto sweeteners. What gets my goat lately is how food fads are making their way into the so-called healthier eating and living regimes that are being touted in mainstream as well as health conscious magazines and newspapers. Some of the information is misleading and some it is just wrong.

We all know the brew-haha about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and many of us now try to steer clear of products that contain it. Same goes for the fake sweeteners like Nutra-Sweet, aspartame, Splenda, etc. The newest problem, at least in my mind, is the hoopla surrounding agave nectar. Everywhere I look recipes now call for agave nectar and people are being told it is a healthy alternative sweetener. This might be true if: 1. you eat it very infrequently, once every couple of weeks; 2. you don’t already have diabetes; or, 3. you are eating the nectar directly from the agave plant.

In our world of highly-processed foods, it turns out that agave nectar is one them. Plus, it is being added to everything, just like HFCS has been. New studies are showing that the agave nectar we are eating is actually higher in fructose than HFCS. HFCS is somewhere around 50-55% fructose, while agave comes in anywhere between 55-95% fructose. The lighter the agave nectar the more highly processed it is and typically the higher the fructose content. This is not good for you.

In just the past two days I have found four recipes in two well-respected magazines that call for the use of agave nectar as the sweetener. Why does this matter? Because fructose is a simple carbohydrate and when any sweetener, like agave or HFCS or sugar, is processed it enters the body’s blood stream very quickly and raises the body’s blood sugar level super fast as well. This can cause insulin to spike and over time this cycle can cause pre-diabetes, or, if left unchecked, eventually Type 2 diabetes.

In America today nearly every food item that is canned, jarred, packaged, or frozen tends to include some sort of simple carbohydrate sugar in its ingredient list. Don’t’ believe me? Next time you’re in the grocery store start reading labels. I did this for the first time 14 years ago when I was beginning an elimination diet to help treat my Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and I was amazed and horrified to see that nearly everything had sugar added to it.

The problem with sweeteners like HFCS or agave or sugar isn’t necessarily the sweetener, but rather HOW MUCH processed sweetener we ingest every day in our pre-made, pre-packaged foods. The body can only process so many simple carbohydrates and sugar until it goes into sugar overload, spikes insulin, turns into fat, and eventually makes us chronically sick.

If you were to keep a food journal and enter everything that you ate into a nutrition calculator at a web site such as www.nutritiondata.com or www.myfitnesspal.com the average person would be astounded and horrified to see how much sugar they are consuming every single day.

So, what’s a person to do? In my opinion the best thing to do is to make your food from fresh ingredients that you can see in their original state: eggs, vegetables, grains, fruit, nuts, seeds, meat protein, and fish. It may seem hard or daunting at first but once you get the hang of it there are many delicious, satisfying, and healthy meals that can be prepared in 30 minutes. (I’ll focus another blog in the future on how to make this easy on yourself.)

For now, know that if you must have sugar, and at some point we all want a little sweetness in our food, even me, then know what better sweetener alternatives are out there. Also learn to use sweeteners in moderation. Will this be easy? Perhaps not at first. Going cold-turkey on sugar is a little like removing caffeine from your diet, it can give you headaches, make you feel lethargic or shaky, and may even give you binge cravings for sugar. But if you go slow, cutting out one sweetened food from your diet every day or so, then in a matter of a couple of weeks your body will actually get used to having less sugar and you won’t crave it. In fact, over time if you do eat a sugary food chances are it will taste far too sweet to you. This happened to me when I had to remove chocolate from my diet.

Truly Healthier Sweetener Alternatives
In my opinion, raw honey, coconut crystals, brown rice syrup, dates or date sugar, and stevia are all good alternatives to sugar, HFCS, agave, or artificial sweeteners. This doesn’t mean you can go hog-wild and put these alternative sweeteners into all of your meals. Like I said, moderation. Have a little honey in your morning cup of tea or coffee. Or if you make oatmeal for breakfast and want something a little sweetener than a blueberry or strawberry try a few chopped dates. Even adding spices to your food can take away that hankering for something sweet. Cinnamon and nutmeg are great spices to add to a cup of tea or coffee, or make some fresh almond milk and heat it with some cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric for a tasty and super healthy morning drink.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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