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Thursday, March 24, 2005 07:31 am

earth talk 3-24-05

Stevia is an herbal substitute for sugar that comes from the stevia leaf in Paraguay. Japanese drink manufacturers have been using stevia as a sweetener for more than 30 years.

Dear “Earth Talk”: Are there any healthy alternatives to sugar? — Andrew Young, New York City, N.Y.

Perhaps since the diet crazes of the 1970s, Americans have been looking to cut back on their intake of sugar. And doctors couldn’t be happier, for they consider the prevalence of sugar in our society the root cause of numerous health problems, including the recent trends in obesity and adult onset diabetes.

 By far the most commonly used sugar alternative today is aspartame. Most diet sodas contain aspartame, and it is the main ingredient in artificial sweeteners Equal and NutraSweet, among others. But aspartame itself has been linked to a host of health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, anxiety attacks, depression, and brain tumors. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services listed 90 documented symptoms associated with aspartame exposure. And aspartame accounts for 75 percent of reported adverse reactions to food additives, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

 Honey, another popular sugar substitute, contains vitamins C, D, E and B-complex, as well as traces of amino acids, enzymes, and minerals. As much as half of these nutrients, unfortunately, are lost when honey is commercially processed. Honey also is high in calories and is absorbed by the body in much the same way sugar is, so it’s not good a good choice if you are diabetic.

Luckily for those with cravings for sweets, several healthy alternatives to sugar do exist and can be found at most natural foods markets and even in mainstream supermarkets with natural-foods sections. For a taste similar to that of honey but with fewer calories, agave nectar — made from the Mexican agave plant — is a good choice. Agave nectar, a fruit sugar, is absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream and is suitable for diabetics. It has a light, mild flavor with a thinner consistency than that of honey. One organic brand is Colibree. Another, from Sweet Cactus Farms, may be ordered from the company’s Web site.

 For baking, date sugar is a good alternative to conventional sugar. Actually consisting of finely ground dates, it contains all of the fruit’s nutrients and minerals. Date sugar isn’t highly processed, and it may be used cup-for-cup as a replacement for white sugar. Also good for baking is xylitol, which sounds like a chemical but is actually birch sugar. Unlike conventional sugar, xylitol is actually reported to fight tooth decay, and it has fewer calories. Both date sugar and xylitol are suitable for diabetics and others who are sugar-sensitive.

Another sugar alternative — and one that has grown in popularity in recent years — is stevia, which comes from the stevia leaf in Paraguay. It is about 300 times as sweet as sugar but has no calories. The FDA considers stevia a dietary supplement because in its unprocessed form it is nutritious, containing such nutrients as magnesium, niacin, potassium, and vitamin C. But Japanese drink manufacturers have been using stevia as a sweetener for more than 30 years. Because stevia is so concentrated, it is best used as an additive to drinks, cereals, or yogurts but not for baking because it doesn’t have enough bulk.

For more information: U.S. Food and Drug Administration 888-INFO-FDA, www.fda.gov; Colibree, 866-635-8854, www.agavenectar.com; Sweet Cactus Farms, 310-733-4343, www.sweetcactusfarms.com.

Send questions to “Earth Talk” in care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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