4/21/09 – my original article include agave nectar as a better choice. I have removed that reference.

The last couple of articles warned about the dangers of sugar and artificial sweeteners. I’ve presented lots of “bad news”; but the truth. There is another truth of course – we all live in the real world, sugar is a part of it, and most of us enjoy a treat. Part of my purpose is to educate and inform. So, given that sugar is part of everyone’s life, I’d like to share with you what I believe your best options are to satisfy the sweet tooth.

First, I’ll repeat, use as little as possible. Second, avoid artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame (and its derivatives) and sucralose. Here’s a list of natural sweeteners that are better choices: dehydrated cane juice crystals, maple syrup, honey, blackstrap molasses, date sugar, stevia, and fructooligosaccharides (FOS).

You can find dehydrated cane juice crystals in most grocery stores under the name Sucanat. It is made by evaporating the water from sugarcane juice. The crystals retain some of the nutrients from the original sugar cane, so at least it has some nutritional value. It can be used in about the same amounts as you would use white sugar.

Maple syrup and honey are also natural sweeteners best used in small amounts. Maple syrup comes from the sap of a maple tree and contains the minerals potassium and calcium. Honey is of course made by bees and contains enzymes and some minerals. Raw honey is best, however should not be given to children under two years old. For both of these sweeteners, organic is recommended.

Blackstrap molasses is what is left after sugar crystals are removed from beet juice or sugarcane. It still contains small amounts of calcium and iron, so again has some nutritional benefit. You’ll notice that all these natural sweeteners, despite the processing, do contain some nutrition via the minerals. Date sugar is made by pulverizing dates; therefore it retains the fiber and minerals.

One of the latest natural sweeteners to come on the scene is stevia. Stevia is a sweet herb, all natural. It has been used in South America (where it originates) for hundreds of years. It is very sweet so new users need to be extra careful. If you use it like sugar and dump in a whole packet you are likely to be surprised by a bitter taste. Too much sweet will become bitter to the palate. Stevia has also been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels and does not raise blood sugar as other sweeteners do.

One thing to be aware of with stevia – it has just received approval to be used in diet soft drinks. It will be marketed to the public as stevia, but it is not the same. The manufacturers will be extracting just the part that provides the sweet taste and not using the entire plant. I don’t believe this has been adequately tested and we all know that when we remove specific parts we don’t always get the same effect as the whole. Therefore, it is probably a good idea to stay away from stevia when used as a food additive.

Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) naturally occur in fruits, vegetables, and grains. They are an extra large sugar molecule so they are not digested by the body as sugar. Since it is not digested, it will not affect blood sugar levels. FOS has another great benefit – it encourages the growth of the good bacteria in our intestines and does not feed the bad bacteria and the yeast (Candida) as other sugars do.

So, there you have it – sugars you can use. But again, I caution, they are sugars, and we still should aim to reduce and limit the total sugar we consume.

Bernard Rosen, PhD is a Nutrition Consultant and Educator. He works with individuals, groups, and at corporations to create individualized nutrition and wellness programs. His office is in Thiensville. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, e-mail at bernie@brwellness.com, call (262) 389-9907 or go to www.brwellness.com.