Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Sweet Life

This week's healthy habit tip is: avoiding refined sugar. We've all heard this one, right? I myself have tried many times to give it up with little success. So let me correct myself here, the tip for the day is reducing refined sugar. That's better. I think I can handle that one, how about you?

Failure to avoid or reduce refined sugar in our diets is usually predicated upon that fact that there are not too many great replacements out there and, let's face it, we do need to keep a little sweetness in our lives!

Cheer up, though, there is hope. Sugar substitutes are being more widely marketed. Just check out your local health food store or the organic aisle in your neighborhood grocery chain (they seem to be expanding continually!) No longer are we limited to the heavyweights of NutraSweet and Equal.

In fact I highly recommend staying away from those heavyweights as they have been known to cause cravings and much worse. If you are not aware of the controversies surrounding aspartame, then I suggest checking out Wikipedia. I found this to be the most objective, informative and helpful resource. My conclusion: consider aspartame (NutraSweet & Equal) dangerous to your health.

I no longer allow my children to drink or eat anything sweetened with aspartame (that includes gum!) A bit of pure sugar is better for them then processed chemical sweeteners.

In our household we have tried different types of sugar substitutes. Below is a list from least to favorite:

Stevia: I have this on hand for use in drinks, but I have found this the most difficult sweetener to incorporate. It tends to have a prominent after taste in beverages which makes it an acquired taste. I never quite figured out how to bake with it successfully.

Sucralose: When it comes to candy or gum I will allow the kids to have items sweetened with Splenda. As it is still a chemically altered sweetener, I do limit exposure and no longer use it for baking or sweetening. In addition to my concern with long term use, our family's constitutions seem to be quite sensitive to the product.

Xylitol: This is one of the many sugar alcohols you may see listed in ingredients (pretty much anything that ends with "ol".) Xylitol is also sold separately for use in baking, cooking and sweetening. I find this to be the best replacement for baking, but because the sugar alcohols have a laxative effect similar to Splenda, I advise using it in moderation. Typically, I will replace only part of the sugar called for in a recipe with Xylitol and use either date or maple sugars for the remaining part. I find that our family is able to digest Xylitol in baked goods with no adverse effects. The only problem seems to be when I make lemonade. So now I make the real thing as a treat, instead of the forced colon cleansing. (Please note that some people do not have any negative reaction to Xylitol in beverages. My friend's children drink their sweetened lemonade all summer with no problem!)

Xylitol also has great health benefits. It is low in calories and does not contribute to high blood sugar. Those suffering with diabetes, hypoglycemia or candida are most likely able to incorporate this sweetener into their diets safely. (Remember to check with your doctor first!) Additional benefits include increased health in teeth, ears and bone density. I've replaced our household chewing gum with only xylitol based products (available at local stores) because it is supposed to be very beneficial for protecting children's teeth.

The final three sweeteners are great for combined use in baked goods, but be warned they do contain calories!
Date Sugar: Works great as a substitute for brown sugar in baking recipes. I use it in combination with maple sugar for the topping in my apple crisp.

Pure Maple Sugar: Oooh! This one is especially yummy mixed in oatmeal or apple pie. My son has to avoid refined sugar due to candida, so I mix this with cinnamon for his cinnamon toast!

Agave: This is my ultimate favorite sweetener! Use it just like you would honey. The best thing about agave, is that it does not affect glucose levels, so it is typically safe for diabetics. (Remember to check with your doc first!) I use this in lots of stuff. It is great for sweetening beverages: iced tea (but for some reason, not lemonade), hot tea/coffee or homemade cocoa. It works well in baked goods, breads, and pies. For a tasty salad dressing just mix it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper.

I hope these tips will help give you some motivation to experiment with some of those less marketed sweeteners as well as provide you with informative links to guide you in making the best choices for you and your family! So, go! Enjoy the sweet life!

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