Photo: Chuck Hubbuch
According to the University of California San Francisco, the average American consumes about sixty-six pounds of sugar per year. Nutritionists say that is too much but we will leave the health issues of sugar for you and your physician to discuss. Sugar occurs naturally in some of our foods and we add processed sugar to many processed foods. Honey was the primary source of concentrated sugar for the ancients but people in tropical Asia have known about the sweet stems of sugar cane and its relatives for thousands of years. Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) was brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage. It is now grown around the world in warm regions. Sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) became an important source of sugar in the late 1800’s when a method for extracting its sugar was developed. It is now grown in cool climates around the world.
Other plant-based sources of sweeteners include sorghum, maple syrup, agave nectar, corn syrup, dates and other palms. Stevia is a commercial non-sugar sweetener that comes from a plant in the mint family, Stevia rebaudiana. Inulin is a plant-based soluble fiber that is sweet in some forms and is not absorbed well by the human digestive tract. Inulin is sometimes added to processed foods. Several other plant-based sweeteners are being researched for commercial use. They include chemicals derived from brazzien (Pentadiplandra brazzeana), monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii), serendipity berry (Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii) and miracle fruit (Synsepalum ducificum).
Of course, many of the fruits and vegetables we eat contain natural sugars. If nutritionists had their ways, these foods would be the primary source for our dietary sugar.
Citrus, prickly pear and lulo are among the plants at the Jacksonville Arboretum that produce sweet fruits. Sweet potatoes and yacon produce sweet tuberous roots at the Arboretum. Yacon is interesting because inulin provides its sweet taste. Stevia produced its sweet-tasting leaves in the Arboretum last summer but was overgrown by a neighboring plant. If it does not return in spring, we will plant another. Fig, banana, pomegranate and sugar cane are among the plants waiting to be added to the Arboretum plant collection in spring.
Join the Arboretum walking tours to learn more about these plants and the many other ways that people use plants.
by Chuck Hubbuch