This is really an addendum to the post on sugar, but something I decided that needs a little attention, sweeteners. I'll keep it short and am really mainly concerned with how it behaves when you cook with it. This is again not the definitive work on the subject, just my musings.
There are quite a few sweeteners on the market, some derivatives of sugar, some chemical and I only know of one that falls into the natural category.
One of the best know is sorbitol. It is a sugar alcohol with half the calories of sugar. The majority comes form birch bark, cheap, renewable and plentiful. You may also know it by xylitol or glucitol.
In the chemical category, there is aspartame or saccharin. I have no dietary restrictions so have no experience with either.
That brings us to stevia, the only natural sweetener I am aware of. It is a member of the sunflower family and a native of South America. It has been in use there for over 500 years and has been used since the '70's in Japan. Because it is a plant, there is no patent or proprietary use for stevia. It is sold as a dietary supplement and is under a lot of fire in many countries because of concerns around safety. The rebuttal is that there are billions of dollars at stake so the only danger is to the company bottom line. One real drawback with stevia is that it's production and preparation aren't regulated. It can mean that the extract quality can vary a lot from company to company but it is the same with vanilla and many other flavourings so... Find one you like and stick with it.
All of these products are used as sugar substitutes and that is a bit misleading when you are cooking. They are not sugar and should really be treated like vanilla or cinnamon when you cook. They only provide the sweet taste, none of the other chemical reactions. They are in essence flavourings.
You can't make jelly or jam set using only stevia or any of the others, they don't cause the gelling reaction with pectin and acid that sugar does. They don't preserve the way sugar does, they don't react with gluten the same way and finally don't provide the volume.
Does that mean you shouldn't use them? Not at all. Just be aware that incorporating them into your cooking regime might be a little harder than just a simple substitution. For people with diabetes or other dietary problems, these products are a great way to be able to enjoy the sweet taste with out putting your health at risk.
Do your homework. Every one of the products above is laced with controversy surrounding their safety, there are hundreds of pages devoted to it. Be smart and make informed choices.
As I mentioned earlier, I do not suffer from any dietary restrictions nor am I counting calories (although I could stand to lose a few pounds), so I have no experience with any of these products. I must admit I find stevia interesting and am wondering about trying it out in the garden.
Feel free to leave a comment and share your experiences, good or bad. Thanks for stopping by.