HOW SWEET IT IS
Let’s face it, a big part of being a kid is the sweet stuff. There are birthdays, holidays, bake sales, after-sports, after-school and after-dinner treats. The list goes on. It was certainly a part of my childhood, a ritual of sorts, and now that I have three children of my own, I enjoy this ritual with them. But as a parent who is very concerned with my children’s health and who wants to give them the best I can to set them up for a healthy life, it is very difficult to navigate the vast array of options in today’s market.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect sweet other than just eating whole fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains in their most unadulterated form. Realistically, in our world of celebrations and treats, those whole-food choices are replaced with an unlimited supply of sugary treats and beverages, as well as added hidden sugar in everything from toothpaste to vitamins. The added sugars typically come from sugar, evaporated cane juice and high-fructose corn syrup, but now the market is flooded with an array of “natural” alternative sweeteners.
Here is a look at what they are and, when used in moderation, which choices are better based on fructose levels and additional health benefits.
The sugar found naturally in fruit, is good when you get it from whole foods like apples, since it comes with added vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. But when it is commercially extracted from fruit, concentrated and made into a sweetener, the health benefits are gone. Research shows that it is the fructose part of sweeteners that is the most dangerous and that is linked to the many diseases we are seeing in our overly-sugary society. The better choice is a sweetener with a lower percentage of fructose and to consume those in moderation.
I must mention agave, not because it should be on the list of healthier sweeteners, but because, though it is often marketed as “healthy,” it is the worst (even worse than high-fructose corn syrup). Glycemic levels (GI) are measured on a scale of 0 to 100 that ranks how quickly certain foods cause a rise in blood glucose levels. The higher the GI number, the faster that food is digested, which causes a more rapid elevation of blood sugar levels and a large amount of insulin is released. That glucose is then more likely stored as fat instead of used as fuel. It also causes a rapid drop in blood sugar levels, which increases hunger. Agave is marketed as a “healthy” choice because it has a low-glycemic level, but it is highly processed and carries the highest level of fructose (at a whopping 70-100%, the average being 92%). Stay clear of this ingredient!
Organic Brown Rice Syrup
This sweetener has a high glycemic index of 98, which is higher than table sugar, so moderation is key, but it has no fructose. It has trace minerals such as magnesium, manganese and zinc. This is a sweetener used by people with fructose intolerance. Substitute 1 ¼ cups of brown rice syrup for 1 cup of sugar in recipes and ¼ cup less liquid than the recipe calls for. Try drizzling brown rice syrup on pancakes or waffles or add it to your oatmeal.
Organic Raw Honey
This sweetener has roughly a 48% fructose level, so moderation is key. It is best when it is truly raw and unprocessed yielding the lowest GI level. Its GI levels range from 30-58 depending on how raw or untreated the honey is. It has vitamins and trace minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, chromium, manganese and selenium. It is rich in antioxidants and natural enzymes. Make sure you buy “raw” honey otherwise all of the good stuff is processed out. Honey is sweeter tasting than sugar, so use ¾ cup plus 1 tbsp. for every cup of sugar in a recipe and reduce other liquids by 2 tbsp. Try it in oatmeal raisin cookies, drizzle it in yogurt with fresh fruit, or steep it with ginger in water to make a healthy warm tea.
Organic Maple Syrup
I recommend Grade B over Grade A Maple Syrup because, though there is no nutritional difference between Grade A and B Maple Syrup, because Grade A is lighter in color and flavor and Grade B is darker, richer in flavor and thicker, you tend to use less Grade B than Grade A Maple Syrup. This means consuming less sugar overall. This sweetener also has antioxidants and contains more trace minerals than honey does, but is practically equal in fructose levels as honey. It has a GI of 54 so it is best consumed in moderation. It is important to use the least processed form of maple syrup. Evaporation of the syrup gives you maple sugar, which is higher in sugars than the syrup. Maple syrup tastes less sweet than sugar but has a prized flavor in baked goods. You can modify your recipe by using ¾ cup of maple syrup for every cup of sugar and by reducing liquids by 3 tbsp. Try maple syrup in a pecan pie and get rid of that high-fructose corn syrup. You can also try it in maple-glazed brussels sprouts.
Organic Black Strap Molasses
Look for “unsulphured” black strap molasses. It is a very rich source of vitamins and minerals including iron, copper, manganese, potassium, magnesium and selenium. It has a fructose level of about 24% and a GI of 55. It is healthier than honey or maple syrup but is an acquired taste. Use 1 1/3 cups of molasses for every cup of sugar in your recipe and reduce other liquids by 5 tbsp. Add ½ tsp. of baking soda for each cup of molasses to reduce acidity and do not replace more than half of the sugar called for in a recipe. Try it in ginger cookies, gingerbread cake, baked beans or pulled pork.
Raw Organic Coconut Nectar
Raw organic coconut nectar is naturally sweet and carries a GI of 35 and a fructose level of 10-15%. It contains 4 different B-vitamins as well as other vitamins, minerals, 17 amino acids and enzymes, which makes it a very good choice as a sweetener. Substitute 1 ¼ cups of raw coconut nectar for 1 cup of sugar in your recipe and use ¼ cup less liquid. Try it in smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt or lemonade.
In summary, the safest bet is to stay away from processed foods and always read the labels. Start swapping out the bad for the good and certainly steer clear of artificial. Think as natural as possible. When choosing non-organic options, it is best to carefully read the labels. “Maple Syrup” can be high-fructose corn syrup with added maple flavor and color. A lot of sweeteners can have added high-fructose corn syrup as well as other hidden artificial ingredients. Look at the labels and try to buy only the one ingredient it should be. Even some organic labels can be deceptive and add other things. Try your best to find organic, raw and GMO-free, and let your kids enjoy the sweet stuff in moderation.
Shawn Brennan is the founder of Plenty Pops, a line of all-natural fresh fruit and veggie intense delicious, healthy, kid-friendly frozen pops. She is a French-trained pastry chef, mom to three sons and an SMMC member.