The search for healthy, natural sweeteners sometimes seems to involve a whirlwind of information.
Stevia goes back to 1997, when the FDA was actually seizing stevia products and threatening to arrest the owners of stevia companies. But today, as mentioned in Part 1, stevia is widely accepted as a safe, natural sweetener. That doesn’t make it super popular however. People complain about the aftertaste of stevia, and it doesn’t melt or cook like natural sugar does.
So the search goes on. For several years, people in the natural health community have been turning to:
Agave nectar or syrup
Is an organic sweetener commercially produced in South Africa and Mexico from several species of agave. Agave nectar is sweeter than honey though less viscous. The blue Weber agave plant is native to Jalisco, Mexico, where it has been used by ancient civilizations for millennia.
Only recently agave nectar has been “discovered” by chefs for its culinary properties and adaptability.
Agave nectar is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar. Agave nectar is often substituted for sugar or honey in recipes, and can be used as a vegan alternative in cooking. Because it dissolves quickly, it can be used as a sweetener for cold beverages as well. Occasionally it is added to breakfast cereals as a binding agent.
Agave nectars are sold in light, amber, dark, and raw varieties. Light agave nectar has a mild, almost neutral flavor, and is therefore sometimes used in delicate-tasting dishes and beverages. Amber agave nectar has a medium-intensity caramel flavor, and is therefore used in dishes and drinks with stronger flavors. Dark agave nectar has stronger caramel notes, and imparts a distinct flavor to dishes, such as some desserts, poultry, meat, and seafood dishes. Both amber and dark agave nectar are sometimes used as a topping for pancakes and waffles.
On the flavor front, it tastes similar to honey. While agave has the same number as calories as sugar, it has an unexpected upside. Because it’s seriously sweeter than sucrose (aka table sugar) you don’t need nearly as much of it, resulting in a big calorie savings. How much? You can use one-quarter to one-eighth the amount of agave nectar to deliver the same sweetening power you’d get from sugar. Agave fans also like it for its low glycemic index (Translation: It doesn’t raise your blood sugar as quickly or as much as sugar). But that hardly makes it diet food. In the end, agave still delivers a spoonful of empty calories, so don’t think you can load up on it and expect to squeeze into your favorite jeans.
One of the earliest uses of mastic was in chewing gum; mastic-flavored chewing gum is sold in Lebanon. It is also used in ice creams, jams, and soups throughout the Mediterranean, and in the preparation of smoked foods. Its sweetness and minty notes can pair well with citrus, in dessert and savory sauces, chocolate, pastry creams, ice cream, biscotti, nut recipes, and in meat and poultry dishes.
Mastic is widely used in desserts such as Turkish delight, puddings, and soft drinks, and also in the preparation of Turkish coffee on the Aegean Coast.
In Greece it is used to prepare mastic liqueurs, like Mastichato, beverages, chewing gum, cakes, pastries, sweets, desserts, breads, and in cheese production. It is also a binding material or material preparation stabilizer for oriental sweets like Turkish delight and pudding. In desserts, as an ingredient of jam or cakes, mastic is used to replace gelatin and corn starch. It lends a unique flavor—not just sweetness, and can also be used to stabilize ice creams.
Although the tree grows in numerous Mediterranean countries, the mastiha from Chios, Greece, is one of the finest, purest, and most unique examples of the sweet stuff. Growers there use a sharp, pointed tool to incise the trunk and branches of the tree, causing a thick, clear liquid to ooze from beneath the bark. Within a couple of weeks, the liquid hardens into crystalline “tears” and drops to the ground where it is collected and processed into various forms.
Commercially packaged mastiha crystals, also known as “mastic,” are available in the United States and Europe.
Palm sugar – the next big thing in natural sweeteners?
It is a nutrient-rich, low-glycemic crystalline sweetener that looks, tastes, dissolves and melts almost exactly like sugar, but it’s completely natural and unrefined.
Palm sugar is made by making several slits into the bud of a coconut tree and collecting the sap. Then, the sap is boiled until it thickens, after which, in the traditional way, it is poured into bamboo tubes, and left to solidify to form cylindrical cake blocks that’s naturally brown in color and naturally rich in a number of key vitamins and minerals, including potassium, zinc, and iron.
Remarkably, even though palm sugar cooks, dissolves and melts just like regular sugar, it has a far superior taste with a hint of caramel and butterscotch. Its primary use in Asian cuisine is in sweets and desserts, as well as curries and sauces.
It is never refined or bleached so the natural nutrients are still there. That’s rare for sweeteners, most of which are highly refined. Even stevia (an herb) is highly refined in its white powder form.
When it comes to any sweetener, remember that “all natural” doesn’t always mean “better.”
The best way to enjoy sugar is still in its truly natural forms, and you can retrain your taste buds by weaning yourself off sugary foods.
Fresh dandelions were used in Europe to create syrup. Be careful when picking dandelions and avoid dandelions that could have been sprayed with any chemicals. When in doubt, do not use the flowers.
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Until the next time.