Sweeteners are a large category of highly used flavorings for foods. We speak of a “sweet tooth,” meaning a craving for sweets, but this is a strange term, since the eating of sugary foods is rather destructive to the tooth enamel because of its support for germ growth. All of these sweeteners other than the current chemical sweets are simple sugars or carbohydrate foods that provide quick energy. They are easily assimilated and converted into blood sugar, which is potential energy for the cells. However, a concern is that these sweeteners overstimulate the hormonal glands, the pancreas and adrenals, and cause problems in blood sugar, energy, and emotions. Most of these sweeteners are low in or devoid of nutrition.

White refined sugar, extracted from the sugar beet or sugarcane, is the prime example and the most used of these destructive sweeteners. Most things are tolerated in sensible quantities but the desire for sweet tastes has generated an excessive use by the food industry and by ourselves. There are literally tablespoonfuls of sugar in a can of soda pop. It is present in most of the aforementioned condiments, in baby foods, and in most pastries, candies, cookies, other baked goods, and syrups and jellies. The excessive use of sugar can deplete certain vitamins and minerals that are needed to metabolize it, and its use has been associated with dental caries, pyorrhea, diabetes, hypoglycemia, obesity, nervous system disorders, and mental illness. Obesity and diabetes are associated further with increases in atherosclerosis, heart disease, nerve disease, and cancer. More information on sugar is in Chapter 2,
Carbohydrates, and in many other books, particularly
Sugar Blues by William Dufty (Warner Books, 1976).

Natural fruit sugar, or fructose, can be used in place of sucrose (white sugar), but it still may overstimulate the hormonal system and irritate the teeth. Eating fruit is the best way to obtain this sweet, along with the bulk, fiber, and nutrients that probably even help digest and utilize the sugar as well.

Honey is a common sweetener that is considered by many to be a more healthful energy food. It may contain some B vitamins, vitamins C, D, and E, and traces of minerals. Honey is essentially a flower pollen extract digested and regurgitated by bees (sounds great), but it is clean, actually sterile. Germs do not really grow well in honey. Even this slightly more wholesome sweetener should be used in moderation. Overall, it is best to obtain our sweet flavor from foods. Most fruits, vegetables, and grains are considered sweet foods. This flavor is already overconsumed in our diet, so further sugar is best avoided.

Date sugar, an extract from dates, can be substituted for white sugar in baking or candies. Maple syrup is the partially refined sap of the maple tree. It has a unique flavor and is commonly used to top pancakes and waffles but can also be employed in baking, candies, and so on. The inexpensive, nonpure maple syrup is very high in white sugar water with a little maple flavor and often a few chemicals. It is best avoided.

Chocolate or cocoa by itself is more a bitter than a sweet, but it is often used in candy and as flavoring. Along with the added sweetness, “chocolate” has its own well-loved taste. The cocoa used to make chocolates comes from the cocoa bean, which has some caffeine-like substance, so it is a mild stimulant. Some people are sensitive, even allergic, to chocolate. It is one of the more common food cravings, and chocolate may even have antidepressant properties. Apparently it contains a substance, possibly betaphenethylamine, a neurotransmitter and mood elevator, that is similar in chemical structure to a hormone secreted by women when sexually aroused.

Carob, another bean, tastes similar to chocolate; it is more naturally sweet and contains some protein, though mainly a carbohydrate food, along with calcium, phosphorus, and some B vitamins. The carob bean is also known as St. John’s bread because of its biblical reference as an important food to John the Baptist’s survival in the wilderness. Carob is now commonly used to flavor sweets, in baking, and as a drink, mainly as a substitute for chocolate, though some people prefer the carob flavor.

Stevia, or “sweetleaf,” is an herb that is a fairly strong natural sweetener. It has no calories and can be used by people with diabetes, or hypoglycemia. This green leaf can be used straight or in cooking.

Artificial sweeteners, or chemical sweets, are not recommended. Cyclamate was popular for a while but has been since taken off the market because of cancer-producing tendencies. Saccharin has been around for a while and is still used, though there are long-range health concerns associated with its use. Aspartame, a new sweetener made from amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, is probably safer and more nutritious than saccharin, though aspartame is also under scrutiny. (See more about these sweeteners in
Environmental Aspects of Nutrition). Ideally, it is best to bring our cultural “sweet tooth” into balance.

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Written by Elson M. Haas MD

Explore Wellness in 2021