Sugar is pervasive in the American diet. The average American consumes around 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day, amounting to an additional 350 calories (1). For some perspective, one teaspoon is equal to 4 grams of sugar, which means people consume, on average, 88 grams of sugar per day (1). This added sugar generally comes from processed and prepared foods, the most sugary being sugar-sweetened beverages and breakfast cereals (1).
In contrast, the American Heart Association recommends a limit of 100 calories per day of sugar for women and 150 calories for men, which is 6 teaspoons and 9 teaspoons, respectively (1). Excessive sugar consumption is a major factor in obesity and the development of diseases like diabetes, which are affecting a large portion of Americans. Sixty-eight percent of adults are considered to be overweight or obese and 9.3% of Americans have diabetes (2, 3).
For many, this reality motivates them to make lifestyle choices that will improve and lengthen their lives. According to Nielsen’s Global Health and Wellness Survey, of the 49% of global respondents who considered themselves overweight, 50% were actively trying to lose weight (4). In North America, 83% choose to do this by changing their diets, 59% of which consider reducing sugar intake a part of this effort (4).
The natural products industry makes this effort a little easier with a great variety of low-glycemic and low-caloric alternatives to conventional sugar that can be used at home and which more and more products have begun incorporating. Additionally, for those who want to responsibly enjoy the pleasures of good old-fashioned sugar, a good variety of products allow them to avoid artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrups, such as natural and less processed cane sugar.
Not All Sugars Are Created Equal
The reasons why shoppers pick one form of sugar over another is complicated, and much of it has to do with their thoughts on how “natural” a product is. “The popularity of raw [sugar] over refined is a testament to the increasing consumer savvy and demands for clean and clear labels,” says Thom King, president and CEO of Steviva Ingredients, Portland, OR. “Refined” is a term that many consumers who want to eat only natural, organic and non-GMO food actively avoid.
“Conventional sugarcane may be grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers,” explains Sarah Miller, director of marketing for Wholesome Sweeteners Inc., Sugar Land, TX. “Also, half of the refined sugar at local grocery stores comes from GMO sugar beets and not actual sugarcane.” Natural and organic varieties also undergo much less processing.
Organic Cane Sugar from Wholesome, for example, says Miller, is squeezed from fresh sugarcane, evaporated and crystallized. Their Organic Turbinado Raw Cane Sugar is juiced, evaporated and then spun in a turbine, creating large golden crystals. These processes allow them to retain more molasses, giving the sugar more flavor. Refined white sugar, on the other hand, undergoes a chemical process where it is stripped of molasses with sulfur and flocculants, explains Miller.
When it comes to alternative sweeteners, more and more stevia-derived products are gaining approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as demand drives more manufacturers to develop such products. The advantage that stevia provides is sweetness much greater than that of sugar, along with being practically non-caloric and having very little effect on blood sugar or insulin. This makes stevia an ideal alternative for those struggling with obesity or diabetes. It is worth noting, however, that some whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts have not achieved GRAS status. Therefore, these non-GRAS products are, instead, considered dietary supplements.
Alternative sweeteners made from stevia are typically more refined, isolating compounds in the plant that produce the sweetness. Some people believe this makes the herb more palatable, while others feel the processing affects the finished product in undesirable ways. “Stevia contains a number of steviosides and rebaudiosides, the natural compounds responsible for its sweetness,” explains Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, senior education manager, NOW Foods, Bloomingdale, IL. “Some stevia products only contain one of these compounds, rebaudioside A (Reb A).”
This compound, says Levin, is the sweetest of the stevia compounds, which is why it is often used by manufacturers, but the lack of other stevia compounds normally present with it in the whole leaf can create some off flavors and mouth feel. Many companies then add in sugar alcohols (like erythritol) and natural flavors to compensate. In addition to Reb A, says Levin, stevia also contains terpenes, which are the parent molecule of steviosides. Terpenes are also the parent molecule of sugar and phytochemical compounds found in licorice and monk fruit, which convey a bitter flavor. Therefore, the terpenes in stevia create the bitter, licorice-like aftertaste not uncommon in stevia products.
Food scientists, however, have developed and continue to develop solutions to this problem. NOW Foods, for example, uses an organic-compliant natural extraction process using plant-derived enzymes for its proprietary whole-leaf stevia line (BetterStevia).
Other manufacturers prefer combination products. “Blending Stevia with monk fruit and erythritol has been our biggest growth category,” explains King. “We have found the exact proportions monk fruit and stevia can cancel out each of the respective off-notes making for a perfect clean-label sweetening system that can reduce added sugars up to 95%.”
Some also combine stevia with sugar, reducing the glycemic index while still providing that familiar sugar flavor. Mark Thurston, president of AIDP, City of Industry, CA, provides another example, saying, “NutraEx is a modulated stevia product range that can be used on several carriers including sugar so that you can have a 2x or even 10x product…ideal for baking and beverage applications.”
Honey or Honey-Like?
Honey, besides adding sweetness to beverages and food, offers a great deal of nutritional value when harvested responsibly. Unfortunately, commercial beekeeping has had a very negative effect not only on the quality of honey, but also on the lives of bees, in the process jeopardizing our ecosystem. “It used to be that honey was considered seasonal and special; it was given as a gift,” says Katie Sanchez, founder, creator and co-owner of Bee Free Honee, Minneapolis, MN. “Now it is expected to be available all year long in unlimited quantities.”
The high demand for honey is driving commercial beekeepers to take measures that fill orders, but they are unsustainable. Sanchez explains that one thing beekeepers do to maintain supply is harvest all their honey, not leaving any reserves for the bees to eat, instead, feeding them sugar water and corn syrup, contributing to bees’ poor health.
Another negative practice she describes is the transporting of bees throughout the country to pollinate fields and groves, exposing them to different climates, pesticides, parasites and other bees who could transfer mites and disease. “The normal life of a bee is to be in a hive, pollinate a two to three-mile radius and make honey for themselves,” Sanchez explains. These are just some of the factors contributing to Colony Collapse Disorder.
Bee Free Honee is a plant-based honey substitute made from organic apples, lemon juice and cane sugar. It mimics the texture of honey as well as providing a similar flavor profile. “We are able to offer a product that allows the bees a break in production demand, allow them to regain in health, strength, and in numbers by giving incentive to keep their natural, nutritive food in their hives so they can survive,” says Sanchez.
If you still want to enjoy honey, local and organic varieties are ideal choices because their methods are likely to be much more sustainable, though doing independent research is always valuable to verify. Independent natural products retailers are in a particularly good position to have relationships with local beekeepers, giving them a platform to sell their wares and offering consumers responsibly sourced, nutritionally rich honey from their own backyards.
Given the seasonal nature of local honey, however, many environmentally conscious consumers will still be looking for low-glycemic and sustainable alternatives to the conventional honey sitting on supermarket shelves. Bee Free Honee provides a novel and interesting option for curious consumers, though there are also a variety of standbys that will also do the trick.
Agave nectar or syrup is minimally processed using low temperatures, with a low glycemic index, says Levin. His firm offers it in both organic light and amber varieties, which offer differing flavor profiles, one mild, the other fuller bodied, comparable to honey and maple syrup respectively. Miller also recommends organic coconut palm syrup, made from coconut palm tree flowers that offer a honey-like texture but with a warm caramel flavor.
Beyond Your Morning Coffee
These products come in a variety of formats for consumers, including granulated, powders and liquids, giving them greater functionality. This is important for manufacturers of products, but also very important for consumers looking reduce their sugar intakes in multiple facets.
In products. A great deal of the added sugar content that should concern consumers exists in the products they purchase. You may already carry goods aimed at customers who seek low-caloric and -glycemic food or beverages, but what manufacturers use to achieve these parameters, while also maintaining the integrity of the product, inform how similar sweeteners can be used by consumers.
One unique sweetener ingredient is made from sweet potatoes (Carolina Sweet by Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients) and can be used to replace high fructose corn syrup, while also providing with greater depth of flavor. “Carolina Sweet can contribute flavor in multiple ways, from a straightforward, high-intensity sweetness, much like cane sugar, to a warmer, toasted sweet potato flavor,” explains Barry Horne, vice president of juice sales at Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients, Nashville, NC. “Additionally, sweet potato ingredients are high in nutrients, giving applications a boost of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, while enhancing their all-around perception as a healthy food.”
Particularly ideal for baking, Horne says that prototype applications for these ingredients have included sweet potato raisin cookie, superfood nutrition bar and whole-wheat raisin bread.
At home. While manufacturers put all their energy into developing products that meet the standards of nutrition, texture and flavor, people at home may have more trouble truly incorporating sugar alternatives into their lives, particularly if they are avid bakers, of which sugar is a staple ingredient. Carol May, president of Wisdom Natural Brands, Gilbert, AZ, recommends her firm’s stevia and inulin blend (SweetLeaf) for cooking and baking applications for those seeking no calories and low glycemic index. However, similar to AIDP’s, Wisdom also has a blend of stevia and cane sugar (SugarLeaf), “for those looking to reduce rather than eliminate sugars in their diet,” says May. It has two-thirds the calories or carbs of sugar but bakes and browns similarly.
King recommends a blend of inulin, non-GMO crystalline fructose and stevia, which he says “can replace sucrose 100% while maintaining all of the functionality that bakers are looking for such as browning, caramelization and participation in Maillard.” Non-GMO crystalline fructose, in general, says Levin, is highly functional in a variety of cooking applications.
“Since fructose doesn’t recrystallize easily once it’s incorporated into foods, it’s ideal as a sugar substitute in recipes intended to yield soft, chewy foods, such as cookies,” he explains. “Fructose is the sweetest of all nutritive sweeteners, subjectively ranging from 1.2 to 1.75 times sweeter than table sugar.” Derived from non-GMO corn, it should not be confused with high-fructose corn syrup, adds Levin, which contains varying amounts of glucose and fructose.
While these ingredients provide familiar functionality, the difficulty lies with transposing recipes that demand sugar for use with sugar alternatives. Given that sweetness is usually more intense with the sugar alternatives, less would probably be best though it may take a few tries to really find the correct balance. There are also sure to be very helpful online resources your customers can use. However, some products seek to solve this issue as well. NOW Foods, for example, has a one-to-one sugar replacement (Sugarless Sugar) made from its proprietary stevia as well as erythritol and inulin. This allows users to exactly match the sugar in a given recipe with the substitute. WF
1. “Added Sugar in the Diet.” https://www.hsph.
harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/added-sugar-in-the-diet/, accessed 10/2/2016.
2. “Overweight and Obesity Statistics.” https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/
health-statistics/Pages/overweight-obesity-statistics.aspx, accessed 10/2/2016.
3. “2014 National Diabetes Statistics Report.” http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/data/statistics/2014statisticsreport.html, accessed 10/2/2016.
4. “We Are What We Eat: Healthy Eating Trends Around the World.” https://www.nielsen.
com/content/dam/nielsenglobal/eu/nielseninsights/pdfs/Nielsen%20Global%20Health%20and%20Wellness%20Report%20-%20January%202015.pdf, accessed 10/2/2016.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine November 2016