MONDAY BASICS: sweeten naturally.

 

Ah yes, the month of October. The month the sweets show up EVERYWHERE. Let's do it. Let's talk all things sweet, and talk about ways to figure this thing out.

Sugar has gotten a bad rap, and with good reason. Our manufactured and refined versions of the sweet stuff has gone through so much processing and altering by the time it gets to our plate. Never mind, until about a hundred years ago, no one ate as much sugar in one sitting as we do now! Before the advent of fast food, grocery stores and pre-packaged foods, our number one place to get our sugar fix was if someone in our home baked some goods, stirred in a bit into a cup of tea, or we reached for fruit and grains in their whole food versions. Our ancestors' pantry staples weren't as refined as ours are now. We have drastically changed how we eat in the last 100 years; our genetics haven't changed fast enough in order to deal with this new influx of high sugar foods.

The reason we are so apt to reach for sweet tasting foods is a simple one: we have developed the taste buds to seek it out and ensure we consume the sweet tasting foods. See, before the advent of sugar-laden foods and packaged goods, we ate primarily what was grown in the garden, or what we were able to put up for the year at harvest time. You ate in season; you knew a food was in season because it tasted sweet right off the vine. This sweet taste was what made us reach for the fruit or veg; funny enough, this sweet taste developed right at peak freshness.

The sweet taste is what we evolved to reach for: when we ate those sweet fruit, we were eating them at their most nutrient dense.

Sweet tasting meant it was ripe, meant the nutrients found within (especially vitamins and minerals) were fully developed and at their highest peak. Did you know that Vitamin C is one of the last nutrients to develop on the vine? When a tomato tastes sweet and is allowed to ripen on the vine, this sweet taste means you are getting a brilliant hit of Vitamin C. Plucking that tomato off the vine when it's green in order to ship it across one or three nations in order to reach your dinner table means it's been taken off the plant before it's had a chance to develop that vitamin C; the sweet taste will never be at its peak if you pluck the fruit off too early.

So good work, humans: we developed this taste for sweetness in order to ensure we had maximum nutrient density! Oh wait. My sugar from sugar beets that is found in my super refined extra sweetened packaged baked good also tastes sweet. I must be getting so many nutrients. Nope. FOOLED. I'VE BEEN FOOLED.

Read your labels

Take a look at packaged foods. Sugar is often listed on the ingredient list either in obvious form or hidden form; if the end product tastes delicious, they will ensure repeat customers. Knowing that we developed over the millenia with the impulse to reach for sweet tasting things – this was how we knew the foods were at their peak freshness, which inherently meant they were also at their most nutrient-dense point – making our packaged foods taste sweeter is a good way to have repeat customers.

Too bad these super sweet tasting treats are now devoid of nutrients. Yes, in the refining process (turning whole wheat flour into white flour) we have stripped the most nutrient-dense part of the plant, the germ which now takes out most of the all important B vitamins, incidentally the vitamins we need in order to properly break down and digest carbohydrates. It's the same with sugars.

 
 

The GMO issue

Sugar in its shiny white refined form, or table sugar as we know it, is produced from genetically modified sugar beets. One of the compounds found in the pesticides used on GMO crops (and other non-organic crops) is called glyphosate. Studies show glyphosate changes and wipes out the beneficial microflora in the gut of animals.  When GMO foods were first introduced, there was little known about the impact of our micro biome on our health. Initial studies never included research into the impact these types of treatments would have on animal, never mind human microbiomes.

There are so many helpful articles out there that go over the ill effects sugar will have on your system. They have the content covered. If you'd like to read some, may I recommend this thorough look at sugar from Wellness Mama; if you're looking for a bit of a fear mongering tactic (but completely realistic!) way to look at sugar, may I suggest Authority Nutrition's article on the subject; Huffington Post does a solid round up of reasons why you might want to swear off the stuff here; the folks at Food Matters do a solid write up and include some good alternatives here.

 
 

What to avoid

There are clear cut ways to know whether or not the packaged food you have in your hand contains any added sugar. Of course, you may see 'sugar' or 'high fructose corn syrup' listed in the ingredients. Here are other words that may not be on your radar that you will want to avoid:

dextrose, fructose, maltose, anything with an -ose suffix; glucose solids, cane juice, dehydrated cane juice, evaporated cane juice, cane juice solids, cane juice crystals, dextrin, maltodextrin, dextran, barley malt, beet sugar, corn sweetener, invert sugar, crystalline fructose, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, caramel, buttered syrup, carob syrup, brown sugar, date sugar, malt syrup, diatase, diatastic malt, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, dehydrated fruit juice, fruit juice crystals, golden syrup, turbinado, sorghum syrup, refiner's syrup, ethyl maltol, yellow sugar.

Find a brilliant article here that outlines a more in-depth look at how sugar is utilized in the packaged food industry and the loopholes they get to jump through. Yikes!

Know that sugar has been shown to contribute to obesity, inflammation, heart disease, cancer, nervous system imbalances, they are hard for the liver to work through. I'm just scratching at the surface here.

Don't think that by opting to nix all of the sugars in your diet and welcome in those fake sweeteners will get you out of trouble. Au contraire, mon frere. Those artificial sweeteners are made in a lab, they are artificial. Mother Nature never intended you to consume this chemical. Consuming these types of sweet tasting things confuses your gut and negatively impacts your ability to digest.

This also wreaks havoc on your hormones, throwing things like your insulin out of balance. These artificial sweeteners contribute to blood sugar fluctuations, which sets the stage for chronic inflammation. If you know me, you will have heard me on this topic and know that keeping inflammation at bay is key to optimal health.

The jury is still out on whether or not these artificial sweeteners affect the brain; there are studies to support it and equal number of studies to refute it. I must say though, I will err on the side of history and reach for those foods that have been successfully consumed then by those generations that came before me. I'd much rather rely on foods made in nature than foods made in a lab. I don't want to wait for those scientific experiments to tell me whether or not it's ok to eat a chemical, I'd much rather trust evolution, Mother Nature and the history of those that came before me instead.

 
 It's the most wonderful time of the year!

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

 

What to reach for

Now that I have successfully scared you into a corner, I'd like to lure you out of said corner with talk of good sweeteners to use in your kitchen. I'd rather focus on positive things and ideas to reach for as opposed to bashing something and spreading negativity. (Sorry I kinda had to at first there. Let's leave this on a high note, shall we?) 

Let's get practical, and look at some good sources for the sweet stuff.

Of course, the best natural way to eat something sweet is to eat it as Mother Nature intended.

There is nothing as delicious as super ripe raspberries in the heat of summer. Am I right? Apples in season are a delight, as are the different flavours of apples especially at this time of year. Same thing with pears. Tomatoes taste absolutely delightful when you can pick them off the vine in the back yard! Nothing as sweet and as flavour-packed as a locally grown tomato.

That's another way to get something sweeter, with the sole (original!) intention of signalling that it is nutrient dense: EAT LOCAL. Eating locally sourced food allows the fruit or veggie to be picked closest to when it is ripe, as the traveling distance is never far. Local producers are pretty keen on offering flavour-packed foods and ingredients for your kitchen; search through your local small grocery store or health food store for good options. Make a trip to the farmer's market nearest you this weekend.

You may also want to connect with local producers through a wonderful portal that was recently launched in Alberta: seek out Freshly Grown at freshlygrown.ca. This portal serves as a fabulous connector of local smaller producers and local food loving eaters.

For the baker and dessert maker in your home

If you look back in our fairly recent human history, say more than a hundred years ago, there is good evidence that a moderate amount of natural sweeteners were used. I'll tell you though, the sugar consumption was much much lower than it is now, and those sugary sweet treats weren't a daily occurrence. The products most people used to sweeten their home made treats were things like raw honey and maple syrup, rapadura in some places, date sugar in other spots (really just dehydrated dates), and molasses for some folks, especially we French Canadians. In other parts of the world, people consumed malted grain syrups as well, usually from barley grains or sorghum. I'd say these are a good place to start.

When it comes to making those home baked delicious things for dessert and lunch boxes, I recommend you swap the sugar called for in the recipe, and use a natural sweetener instead. Know that natural sweet things like honey, molasses and maple syrup actually taste sweeter, so you won't need as much of the natural sweetener as the amount of sugar they call for in the recipe. Play with your food; make notes in your cookbooks with your experiments. Those cookbooks were never meant to remain in pristine shape; a marked up cookbook is a sign of a busy and delicious kitchen. And hopefully full and happy bellies.

You can swap out sugars in your recipes for mashed fruit like apple sauce, or mashed bananas. You will get the sugar hit from those naturally occurring in the fruit (especially bananas!), but you will be having much less sugar than what the recipe calls for.

These natural sweeteners made by Mother Nature come with those nutrients found within that help digest the sweets. My top picks are raw honey, maple syrup and molasses. You can seek out other alternatives that offer a sweet taste without packing a sugar punch like lucuma powder (it has a naturally sweet taste) or stevia powder. The closer to its natural state, the better. Simmer a few dates in a bit of water until softened, and puree. You can use this to sweeten things, but do so in moderation. In fact, whenever you are consuming sweet things, do so in moderation.

 
 My favourite French Canadian sweet tradition from when I was a kid: la tire! (Maple taffy on snow)

My favourite French Canadian sweet tradition from when I was a kid: la tire! (Maple taffy on snow)

 

A note on agave: sure, this comes from a plant. Yes, they sell it at health food stores. It is not a sweetener I would recommend you keep in your pantry however; it has been shown to be extremely hard on your liver.  It is a natural sweetener sure, but it's extremely high in fructose; fructose has been linked to insulin resistance.

Ideas to kick the sugar habit

Want to kick sugar?