Monday, March 23, 2009

Refining Sweetness

Mother’s milk is sweet. This primordial flavor primes our sweetness taste buds, associating sweetness with mothering and nurturance.

And most all of us want more sweetness. Ayurveda says sweetness itself is grounding, building, and cooling. Refined sugar is another thing, just as cocaine is to coca leaves. Refining sugar strips away nutrients, leaving an empty high that weakens rather than fortifying.

I grew up, a child of the 50’s, bottle fed and sugar filled. My mom has always been a fabulous baker and the bag of “C&H” sugar was always nearby. “C” was for California sugar beets. “H” was for Hawaii’s sugar cane.

I went to college in the middle of Red River Valley sugar beet country. Miles and miles of flat land were plowed to extract some sweetness from the soil. Even regular beets have a sweetness to them. These were bred to sugar. The nearby sugar beet plant filled the air with a sticky aroma that clung to the nostrils and literally sugar coated everything with a microscopic layer. It was mildly nauseating.

Sugar cane was foreign until I visited Hawai’i. The large sugar cane plantations long ago moved to cheaper labor markets. But I saw the slender black stalks growing in the botanic garden of Hawaiian plants. What alchemy was needed to change the inner juice, used as medicine in Ayurveda, into the white crystalline drug, called sugar, I do not know.

Now the cornfields of central US provide the ubiquitous sweetener of today – high fructose corn syrup. In the center of our grocery stores, where packaged processed foods abound, it is found on many, if not most, of the ingredient lists. Cheaper than sugar, it replaces more expensive sweeteners, often 2nd or 3rd on that ingredient list.

Even more concerning is a recent study that revealed that a large number of sampled foods with corn syrup had mercury in them. Why? Because an out-dated processing procedure used by some companies allows a bit of mercury to remain in the corn syrup. Unfortunately, this heavy metal accumulates, so even tiny amounts, if consumed frequently, will, over time add up to toxic levels. How could the people who own these processing plants knowingly continue to slowly poison people, especially when there are newer, non toxic methods available? They say that the levels in products are safe—that the result of repeated ingestions isn’t their responsibility. And they run ads on TV ridiculing people who are concerned about the health effects of high fructose corn syrup.

How about a return to Mother Nature’s own nurturing sweeteners—those we can grow, gather, or prepare in our kitchens? No mercury processes required.

--by Terra Rafael

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