Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Sweetness Without Guilt: The Norbu Lowdown.

We are bombarded with nutrition information left, right and centre. So much so that many people throw their hands in the air in exasperation and stop listening altogether. After all, if no one can agree, why not just eat whatever you want, right? Well, not exactly. There are actually some pretty solid pieces of advice that we would be wise to bear in mind. One of these is to minimise sugar intake (which I discussed in my post on the WHO sugar recommendations).

How do we reconcile this with the fact that we love the taste of sweet food and don't want to feel deprived? One solution that has fairly recently hit supermarket shelves in Australia is a product called Norbu. Under normal circumstances sugar substitutes fill me with horror. But Norbu is not in the artificial sweetener category, in which lie shockers such as Aspartame. No, Norbu is actually a natural sweetener, made from Monk Fruit and erythritol (derived from fermented, non-GMO corn). And it tastes very similar to sugar. It can replace sugar in hot drinks, cooking, desserts and baking. Sounds too good to be true I know. Which is why I contacted the people who produce Norbu and asked them some detailed questions, to put my mind at rest.

Before I add a new food to my diet I want to make sure it's healthy and there are no hidden ‘nasties’. When a product claims to be low GI, fructose free and contain nothing artificial, as well as not contributing to tooth decay and containing 96% fewer calories than sugar, you want to make sure there's no down side. I was recently lucky enough to ask Mark Chen from Flyjo (the company that sells Norbu) a few questions about their product.

Of course the first thing most people want to know is, are there any negative side effects? When I asked about this I was told that there can be a laxative effect when too much is consumed. The amount that can be eaten without digestive issues of course depends on the individual. If you have IBS or any other gut issues I’d probably steer clear of it. According to Mark Chen, compared to other sugar alcohols such as xylitol, the erythritol in Norbu is easier on the stomach and less likely to cause uncomfortable bloating. However, he suggests that people with sensitive digestive systems consult their doctor before consuming Norbu, just in case. 

Next, I was keen to understand a bit more about the ingredients, such as how their erythritol is made, and what exactly is the ‘flavour’ on the ingredient list. Apparently, non-GMO corn is fermented and then the result of that fermentation is spray dried to result in the granulated erythritol that is found in Norbu. And as for the flavor (which did worry me a bit), it’s just monk fruit. I was told categorically that “there are no other ingredients in the granulated Norbu besides erythritol and monk fruit”, neither of which are genetically modified. Yay.

So how does it actually compare to sugar in real life terms. Well, I think it’s remarkably similar in taste to sugar, although a bit subtler when dissolved in hot water. Compared to stevia-based products, the other fairly new additions to Australian supermarket shelves, I think it tastes better, and without any unpleasant aftertaste. As anyone who has ever done gluten-free baking would know, replacing ingredients with substitutes can change the finished product. Norbu, although able to replace sugar 1:1, has different chemical properties to regular sugar and so recipes might need some adjustments. The website www.sweeterlifeclub.com has some recipes and tips to get you started.

Another thing I discovered (and like about Norbu), is that it is an Australian made product, produced by an Australian company and therefore adheres to FSANZ regulations. It is also the only table-top monk-fruit sweetener available in Australia, which sets it apart from the ever growing industry of sugar replacements on the market.

When deciding which sweetener to use there are a number of considerations. For example, some people want low GI, some limit fructose, many want to avoid artificial sweeteners, and others go for a paleo approach. Up until today I would have said that Norbu fits into all those categories except for the last. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jane from janeshealthykitchen.com categorizes the ingredients of Norbu as paleo. Which basically means that our ancestors could have (although they probably didn’t) make a food such as Norbu. Obviously monk fruit is fairly clearly a wholefood, but with a name like erythritol, how on earth is that paleo? Jane argues that so long as it’s not genetically modified (which Norbu isn’t), you could theoretically do some fermenting in your own kitchen and make erythritol.

The ironic thing is that many paleo advocates actually don’t eat as our ancestors ate. Not because of what they eat, but because of the quantities. If you truly ate as though you were a hunter-gatherer, you would consume only tiny amounts of sweet food very occasionally. Unfortunately products such as honey did not come in convenient jars - you had to fight the bees for it! These days it’s possible to live a theoretically paleo lifestyle whilst consuming far too much sugar (from sources such as honey, dates and fruit juice). Whilst paleo sweeteners may have more nutrients than refined cane sugar, high levels of fructose are still detrimental to our health on many levels. Not to mention the blood sugar effects of highly concentrated sugars, which are especially bad for those with diabetes or pre-diabetes (an ever increasing major risk factor for diabetes in which blood glucose levels are high but no symptoms are present).

Speaking of blood sugar, both my kids go a bit tropo on sweet foods. Not only this but my youngest has had bad candida overgrowths in the past, so I wanted to confirm that Norbu was low GI and would not feed candida in the gut. As I suspected, because it does not contain sugar, it doesn’t feed candida or send blood sugar on the roller coaster ride normally associated with sweet treats. This means that my children’s behaviour is noticeably calmer than if I gave them regular sugar. A pretty important quality, both for their health and my sanity.

Sugar, in all its forms, is detrimental to our teeth and guts because it feeds our ‘bad’ bacteria. In this modern world, full of antibiotics, stress, pollution, herbicides and pesticides, and lacking the fermented foods enjoyed by traditional cultures, our digestive systems are easily compromised. We are less able to maintain a balanced population of gut flora than in caveman days. Yet most of us still crave sweetness. Our ancestors may not have been able to pick a packet of Norbu off a tree, but I think for the health of our guts (and the rest of our bodies) it’s one of the best sweeteners around.

So in summary, Norbu is good for blood sugar levels and diabetes, contains no fructose, candida or tooth-bacteria feeding sugars or anything artificial. It’s arguably paleo, tastes like sugar and is non-GMO. Other than being non-FODMAPS (i.e. not good for IBS sufferers or those with a sensitive gut) and expensive compared to sugar, in moderation it doesn’t appear to have any major flaws. I’m definitely a fan. Now lets get cooking…

May you be full of beans and Norbu,