We’ve come a long way, baby. Gone are the days of stirring no-calorie chemical sweeteners into our morning coffee. Gone are the days when we aspire to be skinny and see the word “waif” as positive.
Now we want our food to come from natural sources that we recognize. Gustatory perception on our tongues can detect sweet, salty, sour, bitterness and umami. When it comes to cravings, how often do you say, “I am really craving some umami! Get me some vine-ripened tomatoes!”
Let’s get real: sweetness rules when it comes to a treat. Happily, we now have many choices beyond ordinary table sugar and corn syrup. It’s just a matter of choice.
We’ve broken down some of the popular options so you can get your sweet tooth on. Please note that these will never be true “health foods” as they all will spike your blood sugar and should always be enjoyed in moderation.
But you know that (just give the memo to your cravings).
What is it? A liquid regurgitation made from bees with nectar from flowers. You read right: Regurgitation.
Pros: Honey works well for baking, as well as sweetening coffee and tea, and can be used as a soothing treatment for coughs and colds. Some believe that local pasteurized honey alleviates pollen allergies (but more likely local bee pollen in small amounts can reduce an immune system response to pollen).
Cons: Honey is not vegan or diabetic friendly. It should not be given to infants under one year of age for the threat of botulism (a rare but fatal paralytic illness caused by a bacterium that can be found in honey). Although 2% of honey is vitamins and minerals, you would have to have a significant amount (one cup a day!) in order to make a dent in any of your recommended daily intake, which would significantly increase your blood sugar.
What is it? A herb native to South America, derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant.
Pros: Stevia is entirely non-caloric and safe for diabetics. In powdered form, it’s 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a very long way. It can also lower your blood pressure (although we wouldn’t depend on it as the only way to get those numbers down).
Cons: The debate of whether stevia is safe or not is strong. It has undergone a safety review to make it approved by Health Canada, but the fact that some stevia extracts are heavily processed puts this into question. Some small studies signify that stevia can convert into a mutagenic compound, which can cause cancer. Other studies suggest that it has a contraceptive effect on both men and women. Long-lasting negative side effects have not been studied, but bloating and nausea can be common short-term effects.
What is it? The by-product from processing sugar cane or beet into table sugar.
Pros: Blackstrap molasses has a low glycemic index. It also offers a high quantity of iron (one tablespoon has 20% of the RDA) and has high amounts of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. It’s safe for vegans and can be used to sweeten coffee or tea.
Cons: Molasses has a very distinctive flavour and colour that will affect most baked goods. It does not have Vitamin C, which helps with iron absorption, so it’s best to take the vitamin on the side.
What is it? Syrup made from the sap of maple trees. 40 parts of maple sap make 1 part of maple syrup, making it very deserving of the term “liquid gold.”
Pros: Pouring syrup is a source of Canadian pride (over 80% of the stuff is made here), as well as manganese and zinc. It’s a vegan food, and ¼ cup of maple syrup carries as many antioxidants as a raw tomato. Most maple syrup is more or less organic in the sense that fertilizers and pesticides are barely needed to tap maple trees.
Cons: As it’s mostly sucrose it is best to have in moderation. Although it has some vitamins and minerals, under no circumstances does this make the Maple Syrup Diet a healthy idea (what were you thinking, Beyonce?). There are also many imitations of maple syrup, so make sure you choose the real deal.
What is it? A fruit harvested from the date palm and dried. Medjool dates are prized for their meatiness and distinct sweetness.
Pros: A portable sweet snack (“nature’s candy”), Medjool dates are loaded with fiber. They contain more polyphenols than bananas or apples. They can be blended into smoothies or boiled and added to desserts. They’re a fabulous choice for people on the raw food diet.
Cons: With a significant amount of fruit sugar and a higher glycemic index, it’s best to keep the serving size at two or three. Pairing with a few almonds or nuts will help to lower the glycemic index. Since they’re sticky, they can dry out quickly and can attract insects and dust – make sure to store them properly.
RAW AGAVE NECTAR
What is it? Sap harvested from the blue agave plants that are found in the volcanic soils of Southern Mexico.
Pros: Agave is very easy to cook and bake with and is often touted as having a very low glycemic index (27 as opposed to honey at 83). It’s seen as the vegan alternative to honey. It’s sweeter than sugar, so it is easier to use less. Agave has a high quantity of inulin, short chains of fructose molecules with unusual nutritional characteristics such as increasing calcium absorption while encouraging beneficial probiotic flora.
Cons: Although it’s less processed than other sweeteners, it’s still processed. Tuja advisor Katherine Feeney advises “Don’t touch the caramel coloured stuff.” It’s very high in fructose, which is metabolized by the liver and can prove dangerous when concentrated amounts are eaten. It should not be seen as a health food.
How sweet it is to have so many options!