Up front disclosure: I’m not against sugar. I just made delicious homemade traditional chocolate chip cookies. I probably will never be the kind of cook who makes homemade date syrup or who uses organic puréed raisins and black beans to make brownies. But I respect those bakers who do and I have tasted some delicious baked goods made with unusual healthy ingredients in place of the sugars. [And of course, people whose lives are affected by diabetes or other medical conditions need sugar substitutes and healthy eating habits under the guidance of doctors and qualified nutritionists, and this blog is not intended to address those issues.] This is about sugar and how to put it in its place.
Sugar can be delicious in ice cream, cupcakes, puddings, cookies, cakes, brownies, and – one of my personal favorites – homemade buttercream frosting. (My dad used to say that the only thing cake was good for was to hold up the frosting.)
BUT…THERE IS A BIG PROBLEM. AND IT INVOLVES SUGAR.
Here’s the problem. In general, most of us are eating too much sugar. It is cleverly disguised by genius marketing strategies and uses many different names like a criminal with multiple aliases. Sugar is in almost all of the processed, ready-made, savory, “convenience” foods and it doesn’t belong there. My daughter and I recently spent about an hour in a major grocery store, particularly in the convenience/pre-made food aisles, on a sugar-stakeout. We looked at seasoning packets for gravies and dips and sauces, jarred pasta sauces (tomato, meat-based, cheese and cream-types), salad dressings, boxed dinner mixes, dinner helpers, and canned soups. Sugar was in almost everything, and most of the products contained two or three different forms of sugar. For example, a national brand of a pasta product which is basically pasta with a cheese sauce (meat is added at home) has two kinds of sugars in it. Who starts to make a cheese sauce by first gathering two different kinds of sugar (and then FOUR different yellow food colors)? The first ingredient in a national brand of guacamole seasoning packet was sugar. Have you ever eaten in a Mexican restaurant and had fresh guacamole prepared tableside? What would you do if the server began by first dumping sugar into the preparation bowl, then added dry powdered milk, dried corn syrup (another sugar), dehydrated lemon juice (yes, those were all in the seasoning packet), and finally mashed an avocado into those things? I’d walk out (probably loudly). The first ingredient in a national spaghetti sauce seasoning packet was sugar, and then there was another form of sugar in the packet as well. There was sugar in the jar of Alfredo sauce and in the cheese dip. There was sugar in the salad dressings, and it was the first ingredient in the famous ranch dressing mix.
Then we looked at some foods whose labels said “sugar free”. Many of those contained sugar alcohols, or artificial sweeteners or other forms of sugar. We found a national brand of whipped cream in the can (you know, the stuff that’s fun to spray right into your mouth after you’ve covered that ice cream sundae with it) that said “sugar free” in bold letters on the front. The ingredients on the back included “sucralose”, which is an artificial sweetener commonly known as Splenda®. Splenda®’s website says it starts with sugar, and then converts it through a manufacturing process to make it calorie-free, etc. So the people buying that whipped cream thinking it’s sugar free are eating a chemically processed sugar product instead. How does that make sense? I guess most people wouldn’t buy the whipped cream if the label said “there’s no regular sugar in here but there is an artificial sugar that is made from sugar but has been chemically processed to render it zero calories”. Yeah, I see how that wouldn’t be a good marketing strategy.
So while we’re on the subject of artificial sweeteners, how about the popular brands of Stevia and Agave Nectars that fill the grocery shelves? My advice is to stay away – far, far away. The real stevia is a plant that can be grown in your garden or in a pot on your porch. The leaves are sweet, and can be dried, or steeped into an extract. It’s a beautiful plant and completely real and natural and well worth growing. However, the national brands are anything but natural. You’ll see the words Rebaudioside A or Reb A (which stands for Rebaudioside A), or Rebianna on packages of stevia, and sometimes Dextrose or Erythritol (sugars!). Rebaudioside A is a product made from an extract of the stevia leaves, not a pure stevia extract. This disclosure of the process is on the FDA’s website in a letter from the manufacturer disclosing the procedure by which Rebaudioside A is made.
“Rebaudioside A is obtained from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant in a multistep separation and purification process. The principal steps of manufacturing include extraction of steviol glycosides from the leaves using an aqueous or aqueous alcoholic (ethanol or methanol) solvent, and purification of rebaudioside A from the resulting mixture of steviol glycosides by resin absorption followed by recrystallization from an aqueous or aqueous alcoholic (ethanol or methanol) solvent.”
The national brands of stevia manufacture their product through many complicated chemical steps and the end product is not natural and highly processed. There are a couple of sources online for pure stevia that is only the extract of the pure leaves, without the processing, but they’re not the brands commonly found on the supermarket shelves or that are advertised so heavily. But those big-name brands say “natural” on the front of the box, so they must be natural, right? Wrong. This is also directly from the FDA’s website:
“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
So if you want to use stevia, grow it and pick the leaves and enjoy it!
Agave “nectars” are a fabulously successful marketing idea, but they’re neither natural nor nectars. While it is true that in certain tropical areas, there is a pure liquid in the agave plant called (in English) “honey water”, that is NOT what is in those bottles on the grocery store shelves. Those bottles contain a syrup that is just as processed as high fructose corn syrup, and can be up to 90% pure fructose. So, if you were in the tropics with access to an agave plant and knew how to extract the original “honey water”, that would be wonderful. But what is on our shelves is a highly chemically-processed, completely different, unnatural substance, made from a liquid extracted from leaves and then heated, filtered and cooked again. Support your local source of raw, unrefined honey or use pure maple syrup instead.
It’s often difficult to detect “sugar” on labels, due to the wide range of names used for the various types of sugars. Sometimes a label will simply say “sugar”, but then there are labels that look more like things you needed for a chemistry lab in high school. Here are some of the tricky ways sugar can be listed on food labels:
Most ingredients ending in “ose”:
sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, glucose, galactose, lactose, high fructose corn syrup, glucose solids, pentose, and zylose
Most ingredients with the words “juice”, “crystals” or “syrup”:
cane juice, dehydrated cane juice, cane juice solids or crystals, brown rice syrup, corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, carob syrup, malt or malted syrup, fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate, dehydrated fruit juice or crystals, golden syrup, sorghum syrup, refiner’s syrup, raisin or date syrup, maple syrup
And the words ending in “itol”:
erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, hexitol, glucitol
Other ways that sugar can be listed:
dextrin, maltodextrin, dextran, malt barley or barley malt, beet or beetroot sugar, caramel, brown sugar, date sugar, diatase, diastatic malt, sorghum , molasses, turbinado, sucanat, fructooligosaccharies, glucoamine
Consuming excess sugars contribute to weight gain and diabetes, and can cause problems for people with poor immunity or chronic diseases. I’m not going to list all the problems that sugar can cause – I just want us to be more aware of the staggering amounts of sugars in our processed foods. Sugar has its place, and that’s not in the macaroni and cheese, or on a healthy salad in an herb dressing, or in a vegetable soup or in the guacamole.
So what are the options? The refined sugars – the ones that have been cooked and processed and manufactured – are the ones to avoid. Organic maple syrup and raw local honey are great for sweetening oatmeal, smoothies, coffee, tea and sweet drinks. Try to cut out other sugars as much as possible. Use sugar that is less refined and less processed, like Turbinado or Sucanat (not quite raw, but minimally refined) whenever possible. (I do use regular brown sugar and white sugar in things like chocolate chip cookies, because I like that traditional taste and texture.) By making homemade seasonings, homemade sauces, real soups, simple salad dressings and homemade peanut butter, and by using real foods in basic recipes, we can take back control of the ingredients in our foods and we can reduce the amount of sugar we consume. Skip the supermarket aisle with all the boxes and convenience foods and cans and jars. Keep the sugars out of the main dishes and salads and soups and crackers and enjoy dessert in moderation. Refuse to use artificial, chemically-processed sweeteners. Learn how sugar is snuck into our foods and how clever marketing tricks us. Say no to processed foods (or at least “not as often”), and then we can enjoy sugar in balanced, limited amounts where it’s supposed to be – in that buttercream frosting.