Q I'm trying to cut back on my sugar intake. What are some good chemical-free options?
A Remember those catchy Nancy Reagan-inspired slogans designed to keep kids away from street drugs? You know, "Just say no" and "This is your brain on drugs." Meanwhile, young 'uns like me were running around tweaked out on the biggest upper of all - sugar. But beyond the clear health implications of eating 40 to 150 pounds of the white stuff a year (as the average American does), what are the eco ramifications of this addiction?
Canadians get about 90 per cent of our sugar from tropical sugar cane. (The rest comes from beets.) The World Wildlife Fund actually fingers this colonial crop as the world's most destructive, historically felling more forests, clearing more wetlands and squashing more biodiversity and habitat than any other. Yikes. Plus, the burning of unwanted foliage from cane stalks to make harvesting easier releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Not to mention all the pesticide use and deplorable working conditions associated with cane fields.
Vegans will be freaked out to learn that, according to the Canadian Sugar Institute, all cane sugar is run through a bone char filter made of, gulp, dried cattle bones. They say no animal residues can be found in the final product, but still.
So now that we've reiterated why sugar is bad, let's move on to the alternatives. In the "just as sweet and fattening" category is high-fructose corn syrup. It's made from cornstarch (corn is a largely genetically modified, pesticide-sprayed crop), but all the lab processing it goes through makes it super-synthetic. (Some also suggest that it makes people fatter than sugar.)
Among the diet substitutes, aspartame is definitely the most popular. One large American study recently concluded that there is no link between cancer and the popular chemical sweetener, but another respected European study concluded just the opposite for heavy diet cola drinkers. Health Canada says it's safe, but those little packets aren't in the clear ecologically. NutraSweet's aspartame factory was the source of 500,000 pounds of methanol pollution in Georgia's wastewater in 2002.
Marketers might tell you Splenda (sucralose cut with maltodextrin) is made from sugar so it tastes like sugar, but it's still a lab creation. Animal rights groups have attacked the company for having its product tested by Huntington Life Sciences on thousands of rabbits, beagles and primates. (HLS has been the subject of intense criticism in the UK.) As well, American activists are concerned about rising cyclohexane emissions from the Splenda factory in McIntosh, Alabama.
What about the health food store types? You're pretty safe if you're buying things like organic date sugar or organic crystallized maple sugar or even wild unpasteurized honey. But if you're looking to avoid anything that spikes your blood sugar or triggers candida, you'll need something low on the glycemic index. Stevia (a native South and Central American family of herbs and shrubs) is great because it's got zero calories, does not affect blood sugar levels and won't rot your teeth. The American FDA isn't convinced it's safe and has been giving the herbal sugar a hard time, but the plant-based sweetener has been used safely around the world for ages. You can buy it freely in Canada. Okay, so it does taste a little weird at first, but you do get used to it (though I could never convince anyone around me that it tasted good in my cookies).
Organic agave syrup (tapped from a cactus plant) is more of a honey substitute and is considered lower on the glycemic index than sugar or honey.
The latest alt sweetener to hit health store shelves (and mainstream sugarless gum) is called xylitol. Also known as wood sugar or birch sugar, this sweetener can be extracted from all kinds of produce (i.e. berries, mushrooms, corn), but traditionally comes from birch bark. It's huge with the Finns, low-cal and like stevia, won't piss off your dentist. In fact, it might even help repair minor cavities and can be consumed safely by diabetics. Cup for cup, it's also the best damn substitute for use in baking that you've ever tried, trust me.
But how ecological is chopping down birch forests just to sweeten your banana bread? Well, it isn't. Which is why the makers of Emerald Forest and Diabetic Delight brand xylitol say they turn to renewable GMO-free and pesticide-free corn cobs as their source of the sweetener. The Russians have devised a xylitol from waste grains left over from the booze industry but it's yet to hit Canadian stores.
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