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Know your sweeteners

Rohini Diniz

This article enlightens readers about the various natural sweetening agents that are used in foods.

Jaggery: Known as gudor godd, it is a traditional Indian sweetener that has been used for centuries. Jaggery is prepared by evaporating the water from sugar cane juice or from the sap of palm trees like coconut, date, palmyra or tad or sago and is sold as blocks, liquid or granules. Jaggery consists of 65 per cent to 85 per cent sucrose, 10 per cent to 15 per cent isolated glucose and fructose and 2.5 per cent minerals particularly iron, copper and zinc. Coconut palm jaggery or madachem godd is rich in calcium. Unlike sugar which is refined, jaggery is unrefined. The consumption of jaggery is believed to help support immune, liver and digestive health, as well as help prevent anaemia. However, there is no scientific evidence available to substantiate these claims.

Honey: Honey is a natural unrefined sweetener that is produced by honey bees from the nectar of flowers. Honey is considered to have great medicinal value and has been used in home remedies and alternative medical systems in the treatment of various ailments. The medicinal properties of honey vary depending on the flowers from which the nectar is obtained. Honey contains 38 per cent fructose, 31 per cent glucose, 2 per cent sucrose and 17 per cent water along with small amounts of B vitamins, vitamin C and organic acids. It also contains small amounts of many minerals including potassium, magnesium, iron, sodium, calcium, sulphur and phosphorus. Honey also has antimicrobial properties and contains antioxidants.

Coconut sugar: This is a natural sugar that is prepared by evaporating the sap of the coconut palm. This sugar is unrefined, has a granulated texture and is brown in colour. Like table sugar, coconut sugar also contains 70 per cent to 80 per cent sucrose. But unlike regular table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup which supply empty calories, coconut sugar in addition to sugar contains small amounts of minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium and antioxidant polyphenols. It also contains a type of dietary fibre called inulin which may slow down glucose absorption, and this explains why coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index as compared to table sugar. For cooking purposes, coconut sugar has a very low melt temperature and an extremely high burn temperature so it can be used in baking instead of sugar.

Although jaggery, honey or coconut sugar provide small amounts of vitamins and minerals as compared to table sugar, they are still high in sugars and hence calories. These can be used to replace refined white sugar in foods and drinks, but in moderation.

Maple syrup: This sweetener is obtained from the sap of the maple trees found in USA and Canada. It is a sweet syrup that is had with pancakes, waffles, French toast or porridge. Maple syrup contains about 67 per cent sugar. It also contains small amounts of minerals especially manganese and zinc.

High fructose corn syrup: High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener prepared from corn starch and contains 55 per cent fructose and 45 per cent glucose. HFCS is a liquid that is used to sweeten numerous products such as yoghurts, baked goods, canned and packaged foods, candies, jams, condiments, many beverages, and other sweetened foods. HFCS is more stable than sugar and provides the same intensity of sweetness as sugar and blends with other ingredients and mixes easily with beverages. It has many functional properties that increase the shelf life and improve the texture of foods and beverages.

Polyols or sugar alcohols: Are carbohydrates that occur naturally in berries, apples, plums, and other foods. They also are produced commercially from carbohydrates such as sucrose, glucose, and starch and are used in the preparation of low calorie foods. Polyols are incompletely absorbed and metabolised in the body and contribute fewer calories than sugar. They do raise blood glucose levels after a meal but not as high as table sugar does.

The polyols commonly used in foods include sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, erythritol, isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Most polyols are approximately half as sweet as sucrose; maltitol and xylitol are about as sweet as sucrose. Polyols are used in the preparation of chewing gums, candies, ice cream, baked goods, fruit spreads, fillings and frostings, canned fruits, beverages, yoghurt and tabletop sweeteners. They are also used in toothpastes, mouthwashes, and pharmaceutical products such as cough syrups and throat lozenges. Along with adding sweetness, polyols perform a variety of functions such as adding bulk and texture, preventing the browning that occurs during heating, and retaining the moisture in foods. When consumed in excess polyols may produce abdominal gas, discomfort or diarrhoea in some individuals. Hence the labels of foods containing polyols must contain the warning ‘Excess consumption may have a laxative effect’.

(Writer is a consultant nutritionist with 19 years of experience, practicing at Panaji and can be contacted on rohinidiniz@gmail.com)

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