Nature's Sweet Tooth
Sweet is defined as a sensation of taste, described as something that is pleasant, sugary or honey-like. There are a number of ingredients that are used to sweeten food items. Table sugar sourced from sugar cane and sugar beets and corn syrup are the most commonly used sweeteners in the food industry. Although there has been so much debate on the effects of excessive consumption of sugar, what this article hopes to present is a better sense of awareness on alternative natural sweeteners available in the market, in response to arguments concerning the increased use of highly refined, highly processed sugars.
Monk fruit is a type of gourd native to southern China and northern Thailand. The juice extracted from the fruit contains sugars glucose, fructose, and mogroside (a type of glycoside, which is a molecule of sugar bound to another functional group). Mogroside is 300 times sweeter than sucrose, which makes this another promising player second to stevia as an alternative natural sweetener. Brand names of this sweetener are Purefruit, Nectresse and Norbu.
Production of this sweetener calls for slices of the fruit to be crushed and the juice pressed out. The juice is then mixed with water, then filtered. The natural sugars and the mogrosides are then spray dried and a sweet powder is collected and packed. The sweetener is 100% water soluble, stable in a wide range of pH (210), heat stable and generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
Date sugar is not really sugar in the true sense of the word. It is actually finely ground dried dates. In its fresh yellow form ( khalaal), dates contain not less than 70% total sugars based on dried weight. In its commercial form ( tamr), the sugar concentration can reach to almost 80%.
Date sugar is not suitable to be used to sweeten beverages, because it cannot completely dissolve due to the natural fibers still present. But it can be used to sweeten cakes, breads and other varieties of baked goods and breakfast cereals. An added benefit to using this sweetener is that it still contains the fruit’s inherent nutrients.
Yacon syrup is made by concentrating the liquid extracted from the yacon root vegetable ( tuber). Yacon in itself is sweet tasting, having long been a food crop grown in the Peruvian Andes since pre- Inca time. The sugar found in the root is fructooligosaccharide ( FOS), composed of one glucose molecule connected in between two to 10 fructose molecules. The bonds that bind these molecules can resist enzymatic action and not digested by the body. FOS is considered a soluble fiber and thus gives favorable effects during digestion.
The concentrated syrup contains about 50% FOS. The physical characteristics of this syrup are similar to honey, maple syrup, and molasses. The process of making the syrup entails that the roots be washed, peeled and sliced, then extracted using a machine similar to a juicer. The juice is then filtered to remove insoluble matter and precrystallized sugars that may affect the final product. The filtered juice is then moved to an evaporator. A few more steps of filtering and heating results in a thick dark syrup.
" Say to the farmer: There is your crop; here is mine. Mine is a sugar to sweeten sugar with. If you will listen to me, I will sweeten your whole load, --your whole life." -Henry David Thoreau
Agave nectar is concentrated sap of the agave plant. The Blue Agave is the specie preferred because it yields the highest percentage of the sugar fructose. The process begins by stripping the leaves off until the core ( piña) is exposed. The sap is expressed from the core and then heated to about 47°C. The warming of the sap encourages a portion of the inulin (an oligosaccharide) to break down and be converted to fructose. The warmed sap is then filtered and bottled. Some manufacturers heat the sap for an extended period, converting most of the inulin to fructose, increasing the sugar concentration. This also results in a richer colored syrup. The consistency of the syrup is thinner than that of honey and the flavor is described as rather mild.
Stevia is an herb that has been used as food by native Indians in Paraguay for centuries. The leaves of this plant contain steviosides (another type of glycoside) which is 100-300 times sweeter than sucrose. To use the plant as a sweetener, dried leaves can be simply immersed in water and used. It is also taken as a beverage in this form. Commercial processing requires that the water be clarified and the steviosides crystallized. Processing may involve decolorization and purification, using either ion-exchange resin, electrolysis or precipitation agents. Stevia is heat stable, and can be used for cooking and baking. In its raw form, however, it is described as having a liquorice and detectable bitter aftertaste. Proper dilution can reduce these flavors.
Coco sugar or coconut sugar is crystallized coconut sap. It is made from the sap collected from flower buds of the coconut tree. The sap is harvested by cutting across the inflorescence of the plant and allowing the nectar to drip into natural bamboo containers, much like the activity of collecting toddy for tuba making. However, instead of allowing the sweet liquid to ferment, the accumulated nectar is slowly brought to a boil until all its natural sugars have concentrated to the point that it crystallizes. Because sugar caramelizes when heated, the resulting sugar is brown in color. One unique characteristic of coco sugar is that depending on the season, growing area and growing conditions, the degree of browning is never consistent—it will vary even if the sap has been collected from the same tree. Coconut sugar is not clarified or refined, which is why it also contains other nutrients like minerals, vitamins and amino acids. It contains 85% sucrose and has a glycemic index (GI) of 35.