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posted: 7/7/2010 12:01 AM

On the hunt for a natural - tasty - sugar substitute

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For several years I've focused on reducing sugar - the all-inclusive term for granulated, powdered, brown and raw, as well as corn syrups, honey, maple syrup, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, etc. - in my food plan.

After losing 155 pounds I used aspartame (Equal) as a sugar stand-in, but after a while decided that may not be my best reduced-sugar path.

So I tried sucralose (Splenda), a newer contender in the sugar substitute ring. Its lack of heat sensitivity (an aspartame issue) and decent taste, with neutral aftertaste, made it my go-to sweetener for three years and saved me tens of thousands of calories.

My interest in organic foods got me thinking recently that artificial sweeteners don't really jibe with that organic philosophy so I renewed my search and discovered erythritol, a sugar alcohol. Erythritol's made from glucose (a sugar) and although alcohol is in its name, it is not alcohol.

My first look at and taste of erythritol came in the form of Organic Zero, an all-natural, USDA certified organic, calorie-free sugar substitute. I almost didn't buy it due to its high price tag - $12.99 for just 12 ounces. But it had the USDA's green and white organic label on the front, so I bit the bullet and bought it.

Although it looks just like granulated sugar, the package claims it's about 60 to 70 percent as sweet as common white sugar. A friend tried erythritol in her coffee and while she said it tasted similar to sugar, she still preferred the real thing. I tried it in my morning protein shake and found it contribute a cooling, almost mintlike sensation on my palate.

So what about stevia? Stevia is a sweetener made from the leaves of the herb stevia plant (stevia rebaudiana). For several years stevia has been sold as a dietary supplement, like a vitamin, since the FDA would not grant it GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status for use as a food additive.

Frankly, I don't care for the herbal notes stevia imparts to foods. Those unappealing herbal notes made coffee taste strange, didn't improve the flavor of ice tea and diminished a bowl of milk and cereal. I have not used it for baking.

Today there are several refined stevia brands (some are pricier blends of stevia and erythritol) available in supermarkets and natural food stores. I recently tried Whole Foods 365 brand Stevia Extract that's flavored with vanilla and found that while it has a far more subtle herbal note, it generally works well as a sweetener. I've also sampled Zevia brand natural diet cola (also at Whole Foods) made with stevia and found it more than acceptable as an alternative to other diet colas.

While these sugar-substitutes might not be perfect, at least you know there are two natural, zero-calorie sweeteners easily available that can help you cut calories. If you've discovered an all-natural sugar substitute that you like, tell me about it at don@theleanwizard.com.

Try this recipe: Summer isn't summer without potato salad. Although I love the standard, creamy American version, it's sometimes fun to change things up a bit. Give this a try.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at don@theleanwizard.com.

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