So last time I posted about fructose, we all got out our nerd glasses (lest the blind lead the blind) and cruised through some thick material about why and how fructose is rough and confusing to our bodies. Here’s a summary in case you missed it:
• Fructose evades normal caloric intake feedback systems involving ghrelin, leptin and insulin.
• It is converted to toxic advanced glycation products (AGEs) more rapidly than glucose.
• In the liver, it is converted to forms of fat that are associated with cardiovascular disease.
• It depletes the liver’s energy stores and can lead to liver damage.
Ok, so the over-simplified takeaway is that fructose is “bad”. But let’s try to hold a little complexity in our hot little hands and avoid demonizing food. Once we do that, it’s a slippery slope straight to fruit hatin’!
Instead, please join me in recognizing that we need, desperately, to love our food, to love ourselves and to have a positive relationship with the process of choosing, preparing and becoming what we eat.
I still love sweet, the flavor, and I’m not ready to demonize sugars, so I’ve made my own personal hierarchy of sweeteners.* This list may change as I learn more, but here they are, from least- to most-preferred:
7. High fructose corn syrup - Also called HFCS, is an ingredient in many processed foods.
6. Manufactured sweeteners like aspartame - It turns out there is a sweet reflex that up regulates sugar transporters in the small intestine when we taste sweet. So tasting sweet, whether the sweet is triggered by absorbable sugars or not, will increase simple carbohydrate absorption in the gut. More influentially though, chemicals manufactured in a lab give me the heeby-jeebies.
5. Agave syrup - Surprise! Agave is considerably higher in fructose than glucose, like high fructose corn syrup.
4. Table sugar - Also called sucrose, table sugar has a 1:1 ratio of glucose to fructose.
3 & 2. Maple syrup and honey - A toss up! Honey is probably environmentally preferable because it doesn’t need to be boiled for hours and hours, and because when it’s produced locally, is a boon to local ecosystems and has the potential to counteract the effects of declining bee populations. On the nutrition front, there are books written about honey’s healing properties, while maple syrup seems to have a handful of nutritionally beneficial constituents, and a slightly more favorable fructose to glucose ratio. For me this one is entirely situational, and comes down to flavor alone.
1. Fruit and vegetables - Whole foods that happen to be sweet come with lots of phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, fiber and who knows what other minute essentials; they also come with the opportunity to support local food production systems.
And viola! The sweet vegetable (and, okay, fruit) epiphany** happened. I started adding sweet whole foods to my sauces, soups and currys instead of my standard tablespoon or two of agave. It offers a more interesting flavor profile and delivers more of a nutritional punch. Bring it!
Some of my favorite sweeteners are:
• peaches, frozen at the time of peach season
• winter squash, such as butternut and kabocha
• onions, super sweet when caramelized
• citrus fruits
• red peppers and sweet peppers
Maybe one day I’ll feel compelled to loose the simple carbohydrates too. But for now, I think this is a pretty good step.
* Stevia is absent from this discussion, but only because I don’t know enough about the plant to know where it fits here. I look forward to learning more about it through my herbalism studies, and I’d welcome your thoughts, dearest readers.
** I of course have to ask, why is it an epiphany to cook with whole foods? What other culinary crutches do I use unwittingly? Perhaps lots. Habit is a powerful force. But for now, onward!