nter any natural food section of a health food store and you are bound to find row upon row of tasty, sweetening concoctions from a variety of natural sources are just waiting to join your pantry crowd. But how do you know what is available, what variety to buy it in, and which one is best for you? Let's look at a few natural sweeteners that commonly grace the shelves of health food stores to help you decide which one is best for you...
STEVIA: This fabulous green herb can be grown in most gardens and its leaves dried and crushed to be added to teas and other warm beverages. For more convenience and versatility, manufacturers have developed tinctures, tablets, powders and granules of stevia plant so that you're never without this handy, health-minded sweetener close at hand. One of the main reasons that people love stevia, and stevia extract, is that it has no rating on the glycemic index, which means that for those who are diabetic or insulin resistant, stevia can be a safe alternative to sugar and a much safer alternative to artifical sweeteners sold at the pharmacy. Stevia leaves contain two "glycoside" molecules, steioside and rebaudioside, which are 300 times sweeter than table sugar, so you really need very little to use in your food or drinks.
Stevia comes available in alcohol tincture drops or the glycerin variety (and just one or two is enough for most cups of coffee!),tablet form (occurring with chromium and other blood sugar balancers), powder (to use in baking and cooking recipes), and powder sachets (for convenience when out of the house). The only down-side to stevia for some people can be the aftertaste, which takes some getting use to. For most people though, after a little while without sugar, and a long while with this green friend, the aftertaste will be an afterthought!
XYLITOL: Another favourite for the diabetic or metabolic crowd (or those just wanted to watch their weight and sugar intake!) is xylitol.
What is Xylitol? Xylitol is actually a sugar alcohol that registers at a mere 7 on the glycemic index, also making it safe for the above-mentioned conditions. Xylitol usually comes in a granulated, sugar-like form which lends itself well to replacing the refined white stuff in all areas of food and beverage.
The other interesting thing about xylitol regarding your health is the burgeoning amount of research linking this sugar replacement to the adequate dental health! It is non-fermentable, making it “tooth friendly”, and not only that, it also rearranges calcium cations to remineralize tooth enamel before dental caries are able to form!
The only slight drawback of xylitol is that you really have to watch how much you are consuming because higher quantities will loosen the stools and can result in diarrhea. A lot of people have a diversity of natural sweeteners available at home to prevent the overconsumption of one kind over another.
HONEY: Ah, nature's sweet bee friend. Despite being quite high on the glycemic index, the health benefits of moderated amounts of organic honey are enough to fill a book in itself. You can usually find a variety of different honeys that have been created by bees that consume a specific crop of pollen, such as buckwheat, alfalfa, dandelion and manuka – each with its own unique medicinal properties.
The one I briefly want to focus on here is the last one: manuka honey. Particularly renowned for its antibacterial and antiviral properties, manuka comes in a dizzying spectrum of strengths - all of which seem not to be related to one another or are brand-specific.
First of all, manuka honey is produced by bees that visit the manuka bush (Leptospermum Scoparium) which is found in New Zealand and some areas of Australia. Most reputable manuka brands will carry labels that signify some level of “UMF” which has been called the “unique manuka factor”, but is actually a trademarked term for the compound methylglyoxal. Now, this is nature's paradox, because if you look up virtually anything about methylglyoxal, it will tell you that it is a simple compound produced in living cells as a byproduct of glucose metabolism. It can actually damage proteins and increase tissue levels of free radicals. The amazing thing is that it can also be highly antibacterial and has been clinically shown to inhibit the growth of several strains of MRSA, bacteria causing peptic ulcers, GERD, IBS, the flu, colitis and sinus infections. The higher the UMF number, the more methylglyoxal the honey contains, and hence, the higher its antibacterial properties.
The only issue with this is that those who suffer from chronic inflammatory conditions may not react well to higher-than-normal tissue levels of UMF or methylglyoxal caused from consuming manuka honey. In these cases, it is best to consult with your health care practitioner before you decide to incorporate that into your diet. Topical use, however, is generally considered to be safe.
This article was written by Nakita Valerio, B.A, CSN, BMSA Technician.
Nakita is a staff contributor for the Optimum Health Vitamins blog.