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Plant Based Sweeteners: What Are Your Options?

March 23rd, 2009

If you are concerned about the health effects of artificial sweeteners, this article by Kristie Leong provides some information about natural plant based sweeteners that may be used as viable alternatives. This has always been a tricky area for me in terms of nutrition vs. taste when it comes to sweetening beverages. Although I like the taste of iced tea and cola drinks, most of the “diet” versions of these have never really appealed to me, and there are also health concerns with some of the chemicals used in these types of beverages. I usually wind up going back to the regular colas (fortunately, I can make a good iced tea myself), but these can be problematic as well, especially since they started replacing the natural sugar with that high fructose corn syrup stuff, which is pretty hard on the kidneys and can even promote diabetes.

Frankly, I wish that the soda manufacturers could just go back to using good old cane sugar but reduce the amount slightly so that we’re not consuming too many calories. But until the political winds shift enough to allow for this, I might look into some of these alternative sweeteners and see if I can manage to make a decent tasting homemade soda.

Few aspects of health and nutrition have garnered more controversy than the issue of sweeteners. As many people search for an alternative to sugar with its high calorie content, their focus naturally turns to plant sweeteners. Although a variety of artificial sweeteners have been approved by the FDA, they are still mired in controversy. Many people believe these sweeteners have a sour side to them and eagerly seek natural alternatives, particularly sweeteners derived from plant-based sources. What plant sweeteners are currently available and what does the future hold in terms of using plants as sweetening agents?

One of the most popular plant sweeteners currently available are those derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant which contain the sweet glycosides known as stevioside and rebaudioside A. Although until recently, these components haven’t been approved for use as sweeteners by the FDA, but the FDA has allowed them to be promoted as “nutritional supplements” rather than sweeteners. Often marketed under the name of Stevia, these plant sweeteners have gained popularity among the health food crowd as an all-natural way to sweeten food and drink.

Although approval of Stevia by the FDA has been slow due to conflicting study results in rats suggesting the potential for mutagenicity, approval was granted for two forms of sweetener from the Stevia plant in December 2008 to be used in products manufactured by Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Most data suggests that plant sweeteners from the Stevia plant are safe. They have been used in Japan and Brazil for many years without apparent harmful effects.

Another plant sweetener that’s growing in popularity is agave syrup. The thick, sweet syrup is produced by squeezing the juice from the Agave tequilana plant. The juice is then heated to turn the carbohydrates into sweet sugars which are then concentrated. The predominant form of sugar in agave syrup is fructose, which has aroused some controversy due to some studies showing negative health effects from consuming too much of this particular substance. It does appear to have a lower glycemic index than most natural sweeteners including honey and sugar. Agave syrup can be found at most natural food markets.

Although the selection of natural plant sweeteners currently available is rather limited, there are a variety of sweet tasting plants being studied for use as sweetening agents. The components of these plants known as terpenoids and phenols have the potential to serve as sweeteners although it may be years before they’re approved for use in this country. Meanwhile, plant sweeteners may have taken a step forward with the FDA approving the Stevia-based sweeteners for use in beverage products.

2 Responses to “Plant Based Sweeteners: What Are Your Options?”

  1. comment number 1 by: Steve

    I, personally, have been very excited about Stevia based sweeteners, and we have been using them in our household for the last couple of months. After reading about some of the drawbacks of Splenda, this has become our #1 sweetener of choice at our home. Of course, regular honey is also a great choice.

  2. comment number 2 by: Annie

    Some real ‘food-for-thought’ here. (No pun intended).

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