Monday, May 3, 2010

Eating Cake and Having Your Health Too

The phrase "You can't have your cake and eat it too" has always been a bit of a brain-twister to me. I like comedian George Carlin's take on it: "When people say, 'Oh you just want to have your cake and eat it too.' What good is a cake you can't eat? What should I eat, someone else's cake instead?"

For me, as one who is very nutrition-conscious, the phrase brings up the health aspect: you can't eat your cake (which is almost always made with refined sugar and flour) and have your health too, certainly not if you make this a regular habit. See:

These days, my refined sugar intake is close to zero, although I grew up sugar-addicted and still have a major sweet tooth, which I satisfy with healthful alternatives.

"Hidden sugars" are omnipresent in many processed foods, so it's important to read
labels. Aside from sucrose (white sugar), there's glucose, fructose, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose or maltodextrin, barley malt, and rice syrup. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharine, and sucralose (Splenda) aren't the answer--many studies have confirmed their toxicity.
Agave syrup, which has been sold as a healthy, natural low-glycemic sweetener, is in actuality a highly refined product, no better than high fructose corn syrup.

But take heart, there are indeed healthful sweeteners available: organic, unheated honey, the herb stevia, blackstrap molasses, dried unrefined cane juice, organic maple syrup, fresh fruit juices, and xylitol. Any of these are fine when used in moderation as part of a balanced whole foods diet and a health style that includes exercise and stress management, but the two that in my opinion offer the most health benefits are blackstrap molasses and xylitol.

The high iron, mineral and vitamin B content of blackstrap molasses puts it up there in the category of superfoods. Take a look at all the testimonials here:
From the beauty angle, blackstrap is one of the best foods for hair health, and some have found that when taken regularly, gray hair returns to its natural color.

Blackstrap complements coffee rather nicely. It can be taken on its own by the spoonful, or mixed in water, milk or yogurt. In Adelle Davis' classic book Let's Cook It Right, there are a number of recipes calling for "dark molasses," such as the one for butterscotch brownies (a winner!) where blackstrap could be used.

But in general, I suspect that most would find blackstrap difficult to use
as a sweetener because of its strong taste.  Xylitol, on the other hand,  is something else--it looks and tastes so much like the white stuff we are so in the habit of using, it's been called refined sugar's "mirror image":

Although xylitol tastes and looks exactly like sugar, that is where the similarities end. Xylitol is really sugar's mirror image. While sugar wreaks havoc on the body, xylitol heals and repairs. It also builds immunity, protects against chronic degenerative disease, and has anti-aging benefits. Xylitol is considered a five-carbon sugar, which means it is an antimicrobial, preventing the growth of bacteria. While sugar is acid-forming, xylitol is alkaline enhancing. All other forms of sugar, including sorbitol, another popular alternative sweetener, are six-carbon sugars, which feed dangerous bacteria and fungi.
And here's a summary of benefits from another article on xylitol:
Summary of Benefits
Xylitol is a sweet-tasting sugar substitute that has been approved for use in more than 35 countries. Consumption of xylitol is associated with a significant reduction in tooth decay, resulting in fewer cavities and resolution of periodontal disease. Xylitol has been shown to contribute to increased bone density, weight loss, stabilization of blood sugar and lowering of insulin levels. Additional benefits include:

• Increases energy by enhancing ATP production
• Increases utilization of fat
• Replenishes glycogen
• Anabolic — keeps biosynthetic pathways open
• Anticatabolic —helps maintain lean muscle mass
• Antioxidant —generates NADPH, keeping glutathione in an active state
• Increases endurance
• Reduces free radical and oxidative damage
The dental benefits are certainly one of the main reasons to consume xylitol rather than refined sugar. We can even brush with it! An in-depth exploration of this can be read at this site dedicated to healing teeth naturally:

Research has also indicated it helps prevent aging of the skin--another example of xylitol as the "mirror image" of refined sugar, which has been shown to promote aging of the skin, through the process known as glycosylation.

Commercially produced xylitol is derived from either birch bark or corncobs. From its name, many assume it must be an artificial chemical concoction, but it occurs naturally in the fibers of many fruits and vegetables. It is produced by our own bodies in the gut, about 5 to 15 grams daily during normal metabolism, with the enzymes to break it down.  Some may experience gastric distress when starting with xylitol, but this tends to pass when the body has adapted.  The health educator Chris Kresser writes: 

While sugar alcohols appear to be safe and potentially therapeutic, they are also notorious for causing
digestive distress. Because sugar alcohols are FODMAPs and are largely indigestible, they can cause
diarrhea by pulling excess water into the large intestine. The fermentation of sugar alcohols by gut bacteria can also cause gas and bloating, and sugar alcohols may decrease fat absorption by other foods. However, most evidence indicates that people can adapt to regular sugar alcohol consumption, and the adverse GI effects reported in studies tend to fade after the first month or so.
I look forward to the day when xylitol, stevia and blackstrap molasses, like white sugar and other processed foods, can easily be obtained at regular grocery stores. For now, they are mostly found in the natural foods and supplement stores, and can be ordered online. They are safe for diabetics, who ought to use other sweeteners with caution, or not at all.   

It is important to note that xylitol is toxic to dogs, and possibly cats, so pet owners need to be aware:

Xylitol can be used in recipes 1 to 1 as a sugar replacement. It can't be used in making yeast breads because it won't feed the yeast to make it rise. There are xylitol mints, chocolates, and chewing gum available. I don't care for gum; I mostly use xylitol in coffee, tea, and take small amounts from a bottle I carry with me when I'm out, enjoying the feeling that I'm benefiting my teeth (and general health) with the sweet stuff. But cheesecake is my cake of choice; I look forward to making it with xylitol and enjoying it on occasion, knowing I can indeed eat cake and have my health too!