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Better Than Sugar? The Truth About 6 Alternative Natural Sweeteners

The global market for non-sugar sweeteners is expected to reach nearly $10 billion by 2016. But what's in this stuff, and is it worth the switch?

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5. Tagatose

You've probably never heard of tagatose, but it's a low-calorie, low-glycemic, aftertaste-free, probiotic ... sugar. FDA-approved for US food use since 2003 but still seldom seen, tagatose is over 90 percent as sweet as table sugar, yet contains far fewer than half as many calories. Molecularly speaking, tagatose is a form of sugar that occurs naturally in dairy products. But the body metabolizes tagatose differently than it metabolizes sucrose, aka table sugar, so as to produce different effects: Amazingly, some studies suggest that tagatose actually lowers blood sugar. Thus it is being studied for use in anti-diabetes drugs.

6. Barley-Malt Syrup

Barley-malt syrup is made by soaking and sprouting barley grains, then drying and cooking them until the mash becomes viscous, dark and earthily sweet -- but not quite as sweet as table sugar. Relatively low on the glycemic index, barley-malt syrup digests slowly, thus guarding against blood-sugar spikes and crashes. It's a leading sweetener in the macrobiotic diet, which credits whole grains with fighting disease. "Flavorwise, barley-malt syrup is reminiscent of molasses and brown sugar," explains Barbara Johnston-Brown, who bakes with it at her vegan-macrobiotic Green Earth Café in Berkeley, CA. "It can be a little bitter if you overuse it, but used judiciously it heightens the richness of whatever you're making."

Wellness expert Emmerich, who favors erythritol, doesn't try to persuade her clients -- even the most obese ones -- to stop eating sweets. Rather, she educates them about non-sugar alternatives and suggests that they bake their own treats to keep in the freezer.

"If a donut or Pop Tart is screaming in your face and you can't resist the idea of a donut or Pop Tart, then I would prefer that you have a healthier version on hand. If you just tell people no, no, no, and give them no other options, they tend to give up and not even try."

She denounces the marketing tactics used by the alternative-sweetener industry -- which is an industry, after all.

"They promote honey instead of sugar. Well, honey is the highest-caloric sweetener out there. Why do you think the only animal found in nature that has tooth decay is the honey bear? And agave is widely promoted as being '100-percent natural.' Just because things are natural doesn't mean they're good for us. Heroin's natural, too."


Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, most recently The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009). Read more of Anneli's writings on scavenging at

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