Friday, November 9, 2012

Sweeten your life a new way

My blood test has again revealed that I have a slightly elevated blood sugar level. This stinks. I thought I was doing a fine job watching my sugar and carb intake since the last blood test but I guess it hasn't been good enough. Time to get serious about it. I do NOT want to become a diabetic. I once heard a health expert say that the healthiest way to eat is to eat like a diabetic. She might be right.

Why? So what do diabetics do to stay healthy? They have to avoid sugar or things that turn into sugar once metabolized by the body. This means potatoes, rice, bread, sweets, even fruit, have to be monitored closely or else overloading will cause an unhealthy rise in blood sugar. If you're like me and like sweets, it would be easy to turn to artificial sweeteners, as many diabetics do. But artificial sweeteners are just that: artificial, and most definitely not healthy, and I avoid them like the plague.

The two most common ones on the market today are:

Saccharin (Sweet'n Low) came on the scene in 1879 but has gone back and forth being linked to cancer in lab animals. Many think it's safety is still questionable. I frankly hate the taste.

Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal) was approved by the FDA in 1981. (Let's start by saying that NutraSweet's parent company was the pharmaceutical giant, Searle, which was later purchased by Monsanto. They make Roundup, which kills things. What does that tell you?). Let's take a closer look at what makes up aspartame. It is comprised of phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol or wood alcohol, which, when ingested, breaks down into formaldehyde, none of which sounds very healthy or natural. Worse still, aspartame has been the prime suspect in numerous symptoms chronicled in thousands of consumer complaints to the FDA including gastrointestinal symptoms, headaches, rashes, depression, seizures, memory loss, blurred vision, slurred speech, and other neurological disorders. There is also evidence that in the last 3 decades since aspartame has been on the scene, the incidence of malignant brain tumors has been steadily on the rise in industrialized countries. Animal testing has indentified an exceedingly high incidence of brain tumors in aspartame-fed rats. What a bummer, because it tastes pretty darn good! But I’d like to keep my brain, thank you very much.

stevia rebaudiana
There are a few other sweeteners, but none as popular as these. Since I believe that anything artificial should be avoided by those of us who care about our health, what is a sweet tooth to do? There's maple syrup, honey, dates, agave, and molasses, but they all have high sugar content as well, and as far as the body is concerned, sugar is sugar.

Stevia might be the answer.

Known by the official taxonomy name of Stevia Rebaudiana, stevia is a plant of the daisy family that grows naturally in South America. At its full maturity, the plant reaches a height of close to 3', and its green leaves contain large amounts of stevioside - a sweetener estimated to be 300 times as sweet as table sugar. At least 150 species of stevia are believed to exist in North and South America but stevia rebaudiana was found to be the sweetest.

Certain Indian tribes in South America have used stevia for hundreds of years, possibly even before Columbus landed there. Since the natural habitat of this plant is northeastern Paraguay near the Brazilian border, the Indians of that region, called the Guarani, were the first to take advantage of its sweet properties. They commonly used the leaves to enhance the taste of their bitter mate, a tea-like beverage. Eventually the Spaniards caught on to this "sweet herb". Over time crops were being grown all over the world. Because stevia was found to have no known toxicity or adverse health effects, it began being seen as the new sweetener and quickly gained popularity. People loved that it was natural, calorie-free and safe, and that it could literally be cultivated and sold by anyone. Unfortunately, the artificial sweetener industry began to take notice. The FDA launched an aggressive campaign to nip it in the bud. In 1987, they began notifying companies selling herbal products that they could no longer market stevia because it was not an approved food additive. Fortunately some brave souls from the American Herbal Products Association got together and started the fight. Eventually the FDA backed down and was agreeable to make herbal product manufacturers not call it a sweetener, but instead a supplement, and so therefore it is again a legal substance in the US.

I have never tried to bake with stevia though there are a few cookbooks that claim it's possible. So far I've only used it to sweeten tea, my breakfast cereal, or some fruit with yogurt. Some brands are better than others, so you have to experiment to find one you like the taste of. The sweetener can be found as a white powder, either purchased in bulk or in small white packets similar to "the pink stuff" (Sweet 'N Low) or "the blue stuff" (Equal). It can also be found in liquid concentrate form, sold in a little bottle with an eye dropper. I like the liquid best for mixing with cold drinks. The white packets are fine for hot tea. They distribute better in heat than in cold. With some brands, you'll notice a bitter aftertaste. This is normal and it can be remedied by blending stevia with a little honey.

Like I said, I've never cooked with stevia, but the substitutions go something like this:

Sugar                  Stevia powder               Stevia liquid concentrate
1 cup                  1 tsp.                             1 tsp.
1 Tbps.               1/4 tsp.                          6-9 drops
1 tsp.                  a pinch                          2-4 drops

the cookbook
If you're baking, you have to keep in mind that sugar is usually there for a reason. It causes foods to brown, breads to rise, provides texture to baked goods, creams better with butter, and carmelizes, all of which you won't get with stevia. I say, if you're not diabetic and you want dessert, go with sugar. Just don't eat it every day. But for day-to-day stuff like sweetening coffee or tea or cereal or your yogurt, use stevia. You'll save a lot of calories and keep your blood sugar at a normal level, which is all good.

Have you ever cooked or baked with stevia?

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