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Wholefoods That Happen to Be Sweet—Use These Instead of Sweeteners
From 2005 to 2009, I (as Debra Lynn Dadd) spent four years exploring the world of natural sweeteners in a blog called Sweet Savvy. I basically purchased every so-called “natural” sweetener I could find and then tried to cook with them, learning about their characteristics, how they could be used, and how they could be substituted in recipes. I tried to make every sweet recipe I could think of with a natural sweetener instead of refined sweeteners.
I had scheduled to write a post for this blog—Wholefood Cuisine—about sweeteners when I serendipitously found an email correspondence from 2009 in which I wrote to another food blogger about what I was thinking at the time.
Here’s what I said:
I’ve been researching and creating recipes with all the “natural” sweeteners for four years and have recently decided to explore how to eat with no sweeteners at all.
With the exception of raw honey, and stevia the herb, all the so-called natural sweeteners are natural only in the sense that they are not manmade from petroleum. They are not in their natural state as found in nature.
If we start looking at the natural source of all the sweeteners, we find that they are not anything like the sweetener we buy.
I’ve driven through the sugar cane fields in southern Florida and eaten raw sugar cane. It is very juicy and fiberous. You can cut it in chunks with a machete and chew on it to get the juice, but you can’t chew the fiber enough to swallow it. You need a big heavy press to crush the cane to extract the juice. In Nature, the sugar is mixed with a lot of water. Evaporated cane juice extracts the water and puts the sugar in a concentrated form not found in nature.
Likewise, maple syrup is the sap of the maple tree, cooked down to be concentrated.
Stevia powder and liquid is extremely refined (though you could brew the leaves of the stevia herb and make a stevia tea, which could then be used as a sweetener, but again, the stevia leaf in it’s natural state would be difficult to use to sweeten).
Agave is a nectar also cooked down to concentrate.
Most honey is cooked and adulterated with other sugars. Only raw honey from local sources that you know should be trusted.
So…from a nature viewpoint, none of the sweeteners occur in nature except honey, and that is protected by stinging insects.
After spending four years recreating our favorite desserts with natural sweeteners, I’ve come to the conclusion that what is best for our bodies is to rethink what we eat. At this point, I’m looking at how to use fruits creatively. But right at the moment, I am eating nothing sweet at all.
If you look at what you would have available to eat if you lived in a forest, for example, you would have meat and vegetables pretty much year round, fruits seasonally, and honey if you could find it and take it from the bees. That’s it. All other ideas we have about food are simply ideas.
I’m working on getting back to starting with basic foods and how can I prepare them in an appetizing way, rather than how can I make spaghetti and meatballs in a way that is more healthy.
And now here I am, eleven years later, finally living with wholefood and writing about it.
Today I don’t even think in terms of “sweeteners.” The dictionary defines sweetener as anything that sweetens, but sweetener is also an industrial food product category. According to Encylopedia Brittanica a sweetener is
any of various natural and artificial substances that provide a sweet taste in food and beverages. In addition to their sweetening power, they may be used for such processes as food preservation, fermentation (in brewing and wine making), baking (where they contribute to texture, tenderization, and leavening), and food browning and caramelization. Natural sweeteners may be both nutritive and flavorable and thus popular both as food and flavouring.
However, because common sugar and other nutritive sweeteners such as honey and corn syrup are associated with health problems (such as obesity and tooth decay) or are even a threat to life (for diabetics), there have been efforts since the 19th century to produce nonnutritive sweeteners that are not subject to metabolism and contain little or no caloric value. Nonnutritive sweeteners, which may be either artificial (synthetic) or derived from plants, include such compounds as saccharin, aspartame, cyclamates, and thaumatin.
Wow. There’s a lot of misinformation, written from an industrial viewpoint. The Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica apparently can’t tell the difference between honey and corn syrup, one being a wholefood as it exists in nature and the other a fractionated industrial ingredient. They seem to think that industrial chemicals made from crude oil that are made to be sweet are better for health. Amazing.
The point I want to make here is that I no longer think in terms of “sweeteners” but rather in terms of wholefoods that happen to be sweet.
Honey comes to mind immediately, as a food that is sweet and contributes to health and can be used straight as it comes from the hive, without further processing.
Dates are also a food that is sweet and can be easily made into a paste or syrup without further processing, making it easier to combine with other foods.
Various fruits can be pureed and added to other foods to sweeten, such as applesauce.
Dried fruits of various kinds, particularly raisins, can be added to almost any dish to make it sweeter.
Stevia is also a sweet wholefood if you use it as the whole leaf instead of processed into a liquid or powder. I have stevia growing in my garden. It’s great to add to a mix of other herbs to make iced tea.
I’ve also found that when I eat fruit throughout the day, my body does not crave sweetness from other sources. My dessert—more often than not—is ripe organic fruit. I might eat an occasional cookie or share an ice cream with Larry when I’m out and it’s really good quality, but I am no longer trying to find the best possible sweetener to use so I can make chocolate fudge and cake and ice cream (which is what I did for four years on my Sweet Savvy blog).
I will be discussing honey and dates and other sweet wholefoods in other individual posts to come. For today, I just wanted to orient you to sweet wholefoods as an alternative to sweeteners.