I want to talk about the plastic packaging in the sweeteners we choose, what trade offs we have to make to create less plastic packaging waste and still keep it organic and Fair Trade, and why reducing our intake of cane sugar is probably the best choice in the first place.
Here’s my situation. I go to Whole Foods with my own containers to buy sugar from the bulk bin. Zero packaging waste, right? But what I find is…
Organic sugar that is not Fair Trade…
Conventional sugar that is not organic OR Fair Trade…
I do find organic Fair Trade sugar packaged in plastic.
I’ve written about how ironic it is to put organic food in plastic packaging.
Why Fair Trade?
Here’s what Fair Trade USA, the organization that certifies products as Fair Trade, has to say about cane sugar production:
Dignity for sugar farmers
The US is an important sugar grower, growing over 80% of our domestic consumption. But the small amount of sugar that we do import is grown by impoverished sugar cane farmers in the developing world, subject to a declining world market price, environmental degradation, and hazardous working conditions.
Fair Trade certification ensures that sugar cane farmers receive a fair price for their harvest, creates direct trade links between farmer-owned cooperatives and buyers, and provides access to affordable credit. Through Fair Trade, farmers and their families are earning a better income for their hard work-allowing them to hold on to their land, keep their kids in school, and invest in the quality of their harvest.
Protecting the environment
Large amounts of herbicides and pesticides are commonly sprayed on to sugar cane crops. Burning and processing of sugar crops can also cause serious pollution of the ground, waterways and the air.
On Fair Trade farms, producers must adhere to strict standards regarding the use and handling of pesticides, the protection of natural waters, virgin forest and other ecosystems of high ecological value, and the management of erosion and waste.
Selling at Fair Trade prices enables small sugar farmers to pay for organic certification and training in sustainable agriculture techniques. Paraguay and Costa Rica grow organic Fair Trade Certified sugar cane.
So what are we to do when the only organic Fair Trade sweeteners come packaged in plastic? I for one have decided that once our store of cane sugars is gone, I will not be buying any more and instead opting for other kinds of sweeteners that are more nutritious and come without plastic packaging.
Oh man, do I love pure maple syrup. At our Whole Foods, we can get maple syrup from a stainless steel container. We bring our own bottle to refill over and over again.
What’s more, recent research has shown the maple syrup contains phytochemicals that may be beneficial to human health. In an interview two weeks ago with Ira Flatow of NPR’s Science Friday, Navindra Seeram, an assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Rhode Island and head of its Bioactive Botanical Research Laboratory explained the health benefits of real maple syrup:
Plants live for hundreds of years, and, obviously, plants are planted. They’re rooted. They cannot get up and run away from harmful UV radiations or from pathogens such as bacteria or fungi, et cetera. So plants evolve the mechanisms – these secondary metabolites which are known as phytochemicals – to protect themselves. So let’s, you know, switch – turn the switch on, and let’s look at the sugar maple tree.
Here they are growing in New England, living for three to 400 years. And their sap, if you really think about it, can be considered as their “life blood,” quote, unquote, because it’s taking nutrients from the roots all the way up to the leaves. Now, during the spring months, what happens is that a tapping happens here in New England and Northeastern North America, predominantly in Quebec. Sap is collected from the tree and then it’s boiled down 40 times to give on liter of syrup. Forty liters of sap gives one liter of syrup.
I think – you know, we speculated that the tree, obviously, is producing these phytochemicals, and it’s getting into sap and then ending up in syrup, because you’re really concentrating it down.
So we got pure Canadian maple syrup from some folks up in Quebec, where we’re collaborating on this research project. And we look beyond sugars, what’s in maple syrup, and lo and behold, we found about – and this is only the tip of the iceberg – about 20 plant compounds which are well-known antioxidants in maple syrup, a number of them which have never been reported before from maple syrup. And we’re very intrigued by what’s happening here in these plants.
Awesome. And happily for me, maple syrup is sourced in the U.S. and Canada.
My Whole Foods also sells Oregon honey in bulk. But I like to keep it local, sticking to raw local honey from the Queen of Sheeba Farms in Berkeley. It’s sold at our local farmers market. We also enjoy the raw honey from our friends the Drapers in San Anselmo, who invited us to come and be a part of their honey harvest a while back. Honey also contains antioxidants and is great for coughs and sore throat, as most of us know.
I’ve seen quite a few recipes lately that call for dates to be used as a sweetener rather than other types of sugars. Michael buys medjool dates on a regular basis from the Whole Foods bulk bin and loves to eat them plain like candy. Dates contain fiber as well as a host of vitamins and minerals.
What About Agave?
Berkeley Whole Foods also sells bulk organic blue agave nectar. But I’m not sure how nutritious it is. According Dr. Andrew Weil, agave nectar is highly processed and possibly as bad or worse than high fructose corn syrup.
I’ve stopped using agave myself and no longer recommend it as a healthy sweetener. The reason agave ranks relatively low on the glycemic index is because it has a high content of fructose…. New research suggests that excessive fructose consumption deranges liver function and promotes obesity. The less fructose you consume, the better.
As it turns out, agave has a higher fructose content than any other common sweetener, more even than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Because of its reputation as a “natural” sweetener, it is now widely used in products claiming to be good for health – from teas to nutrition bars and energy drinks.
Brown Rice Syrup: I’ve heard great things about it. But since I have not found in packaging-free, I’ll stick to honey and maple syrup. Have you found brown rice syrup in bulk?
Stevia: Stevia is an herb that tastes sweet like sugar. Unfortunately, I haven’t found it near me without a lot of packaging. However, I have seen bulk jars of it at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, so I know it’s possible to buy in your own container.
This is probably the best alternative of all! How many of us eat plain fruit for dessert instead of baked goodies and other sweet treats? I’ll admit, I am a chocoholic, and to me, dessert without chocolate is not actually dessert. But I’m trying. Because whole fruits are probably the best way to satisfy our sweet tooth and nourish us at the same time. Plus, they are packaging free. For me, it’s going to take a little practice.