Boy, do we love sugar. According to public health authorities, the average American ate two pounds of sugar annually two centuries ago; at this point, we’re up to almost 152 pounds per year. And that amount, 42.5 teaspoons a day, is way, way more than the 13.3 teaspoons nutritionists recommend as our upper limit. What’s more, scientists have linked our national sweet tooth to all sorts of ill health, from heart problems to diabetes to cognitive issues.
The desire to cut refined sugar consumption has led many people to consider some of the following alternative sweeteners. Remember to always check labels and sources, to go for products with the least amount of processing and to opt for organic whenever possible. Also, keep in mind that “natural” doesn’t automatically equal “calorie-free.”
This sweet sap from the core of the agave plant, the same one that tequila is derived from, was once used by the Aztecs for its healing properties. Although there are many species, the blue agave plant from the volcanic soil in Mexico is the most common source. With a consistency and taste that’s compared to honey, it’s about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, with 20 calories per teaspoon. And because it has a very low glycemic index, agave nectar is a good choice for weight loss candidates and diabetics, and contains vitamins C and B for good measure. Like honey, agave is used to sweeten drinks and in baked goods.
However, it has suffered from a bad rap with nutritionists. “Agave is about 90% fructose, which concerns me,” says Lauren Deville, NMD, a Tucson, Arizona-based naturopath. She explains that fructose is stored right away in the liver, and when consumed in abundance, it can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Another issue is rooted in the processing. “A lot of the ones on the shelves are not pure; there are other sweeteners or chemicals added,” says Wendy Vigdor-Hess, RDN, author of Sweetness Without Sugar (SolThea Press).
This sweetener is actually a byproduct of the sugar refining process. But although it’s derived from sugar, with the same carbohydrate levels and 19 calories per teaspoon, it’s a diabetic-friendly option, due to the fact that it is digested more slowly. And blackstrap is high in vitamin B as well as iron, potassium and other minerals.
“It’s a vegan way to help with iron intake, but it has a distinct spicy flavor, so it’s hard to use in baking unless you’re making gingersnaps or something,” Vigdor-Hess says.
Kelly Walunis, kitchen manager at the Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, Montana, concurs. “It adds a rich, intense flavor,” she says. “If you’re using it for 100% sugar replacement, it’s going to overpower, so I often combine it with other sweeteners.” Walunis uses blackstrap with a coconut sugar in molasses cookies, bran muffins, pumpkin bread and applesauce; since molasses is approximately 25% less sweet than sugar, it makes sense to use this old-time favorite along with something else.
Derived from the unopened flowers of the coconut tree, with little processing aside from dehydration, coconut sugar is high in potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron and amino acids, and has a low glycemic index to boot. Often compared in looks, flavor and sweetness to brown sugar, with 15 calories per teaspoon, it’s a one-to-one sugar substitute for all-around baking, though like brown sugar, coconut sugar will impart a caramelized flavor.
“It is low glycemic because of a soluble fiber called inulin, which slows the release of glucose into the blood,” Deville says. “For any baking recipe that calls for table sugar, I suggest coconut palm sugar to make it a lot healthier.”
Walunis warns, however, that just like replacing anything for sugar, you’re not going to have the same results. “It doesn’t replace it exactly: It has a little bit of a softer texture, so cookies won’t come out as crisp,” she says. “You can cream it with butter, but the outcome of the pastry will be denser and softer.”
Brown Rice Syrup
This thick syrup, derived from broken-down brown rice starch, is not nearly as nutritious as brown rice. But it does contain trace amounts of calcium, magnesium, manganese and zinc, although its glycemic index is high.
Brown rice syrup, with its honey-like consistency, is often used in processed foods as a replacement for high-fructose corn syrup. “I make rice crispy treats with it instead of with marshmallows,” says Vigdor-Hess. “It has that gooey consistency with its own kind of sweet flavor.”
Walunis says it can be used as a one-to-one swap with corn syrup or honey in recipes. “It has a milder flavor than honey; you could use it in fudgy, gooey things, or for making candy treats,” she says. But Deville adds that there are healthier sugar alternatives that she would recommend first.
Literally ground-up dates, this natural sweetener also imparts nutrients from the fruit, including fiber, potassium, magnesium, manganese and vitamin B6, along with 15 calories per teaspoon. “This one will be more complex in its nutrition, with the extra fiber and more nutrition,” Deville says. “Healthwise, I’d probably put it in the same category as coconut sugar, maple syrup and honey.”
Date sugar is best used in baking and wet applications, replacing sugar at a ratio of two-thirds of a cup to one cup of sugar. “Even though it has a granular texture, it doesn’t melt the way sugar does and dissolve into drinks,” Walunis says. “It’s better in a wet application, like a brownie or dense cake. But, it can be harder to find and pretty expensive.” When using date sugar, be prepared for its nutty, caramel flavor.
The art of “sugaring” maple trees was a tradition passed down from Native Americans more than 300 years ago. Most traditionally seen smothering a stack of pancakes, maple syrup has long been a natural sugar substitute, and in its most pure form contains potassium, calcium, manganese, phosphorus, iron and a number of antioxidants.
“You get calories from it (52 per teaspoon), but not empty calories,” Deville says. “And its glycemic index is lower than sugar, making it a better choice.”
“It can be used as a one-to-one replacement to liquid sweetener,” Vigdor-Hess says. “I use it in my energy bars and in a banana pancake. Some people use it to sweeten drinks instead of honey.” It’s a great addition to oatmeal and gooey baked goods, like pumpkin pie.
Walunis also uses maple syrup more for wet applications, including a tofu pudding with maple syrup and vanilla. “One thing you have to be aware of is the flavor,” she says. “And grade B is more concentrated than grade A, so use that in baking to offer more sweetness. You can substitute with some practice, but it’s not going to replace sugar; it just won’t come out the same.”
Monk Fruit Powder
Made from the extract of a small melon grown in parts of Southeast Asia, monk fruit powder is reportedly 200 times sweeter than sugar. With zero calories and carbs, and the added benefit of a number of antioxidants, it can be a sweet deal for diabetics and dieters.
“It doesn’t affect your blood sugar,” Deville says. “It helps support insulin levels and glucose stability, and it’s high in antioxidants.”
With a slightly caramelized flavor, monk fruit powder can be used for baking, although—because less is required and it has a lighter texture than sugar—bakers will have a different outcome. “You can use it in baking,” Vigdor-Hess says, “but initially I would tell people to try it in a drink, like tea or a smoothie, until they know the taste of it works for them.” And because monk fruit is a relative of the squash family, Vigdor-Hess warns those with a nightshade sensitivity to stay away from it.
A calorie-free sugar substitute, stevia was one of the first popular sugar alternatives to hit the market. A powder derived from the ultra-sweet leaf of the stevia plant, it was used by the Guarani of Paraguay more than 1,500 years ago to sweeten food and medicine.
Up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, stevia packets are showing up at some coffee shops. “Stevia is more analogous to artificial sweeteners, but it comes from nature, while those are made from chemicals in a lab,” Deville says. “It has no sugar molecules and therefore no glucose, but it has a bit of an aftertaste, which is the biggest drawback.”
Stevia is not as popular for baking. “I recommend that people buy a cookbook if they’re going to bake with it, because it wouldn’t replace the sugar density,” Vigdor-Hess says. “I make an awesome matcha latte, with almond milk and stevia liquid.” She also suggests looking for less-processed versions. “If it’s white, it’s been refined, but a lot of co-ops carry the green powder that’s just the ground-up plant.”
A naturally occurring substance derived from hardwoods such as birch, xylitol became more widely used in Scandinavian countries during a World War II–era sugar shortage. Today, it’s often found in sugar-free gum, candy, mints and natural toothpaste—as well as in dental health supplements and children’s chewable multivitamins—because of its antimicrobial properties that have been shown to improve oral hygiene.
Xylitol has 9 calories per teaspoon and is slightly less sweet than sugar. Although it can be used as a one-to-one sugar replacement in baking, for sensitive stomachs it’s best in small doses. “Sugar alcohol won’t affect blood sugar, and it doesn’t get broken down until it gets to the gut,” explains Deville. “But when the gut bacteria breaks it down, it can cause gas.”
PHOTO: © SHERRY VAN DYKE
Oatmeal Goji Cookies
“The goji berries give these cookies a unique flavor,” says Wendy Vigdor-Hess. “Making them with chocolate chips is delicious, too.”
1½ cup rolled oats (certified gluten-free)
1 cup brown rice or millet flour
1⁄3 cup organic hemp protein powder (optional)
¾ tsp xanthan gum (use guar gum if corn-sensitive)
¼ tsp sea or Himalayan salt
4 tbsp ground flax seed plus 3⁄8 cup warm, filtered water
½ cup pure maple syrup (unprocessed; use up to ¾ cup sweetener to your taste)
¾ cup walnut, sunflower or unrefined, virgin coconut oil (If using coconut oil, measure ¾ cup after melting)
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp alcohol-free vanilla flavoring
1⁄3 cup goji berries
1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Lightly grease two cookie sheets with unrefined, virgin coconut oil.
2. Combine oats, flour, protein powder (if using), xanthan gum and salt. Set aside.
3. In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine ground flax seed with water and set aside. In another bowl mix together maple syrup (or other sweetener), oil, cinnamon, vanilla and goji berries. Combine the two wet mixtures in one bowl.
4. Add wet ingredients to dry mixture, and mix well. Using a tablespoon, drop cookies onto the cookie sheets. Bake 15 minutes or until lightly browned.
Yield: 26 cookies
USED WITH PERMISSION FROM SWEETNESS WITHOUT SUGAR BY WENDY VIGDOR-HESS (SOLTHEA PRESS).
PHOTO: © SHERRY VAN DYKE
Rice Crispy Treats
2 tsp unrefined, virgin coconut oil (or organic, GMO-free Earth Balance)
1 cup brown rice syrup
5 tbsp unsalted and unsweetened almond butter (can use other nut or seed butters)
2-3 tbsp unrefined coconut cream (not oil)
2 tsp alcohol-free vanilla or vanilla extract
6 cups dry natural, gluten-free brown rice crispy cereal (1 whole box)
1. Get all ingredients together before starting, since things go quickly. Melt oil in a large pot and heat. Add rice syrup and nut butter. Stir and heat until bubbles form.
2. Turn off heat and add vanilla. Add cereal and mix well with a spatula.
3. Place mixture into a 13” x 9” pan. With slightly wet hands, press mixture flat.
4. Let set to room temperature; then slice and serve. Lasts a week in an airtight container.
USED WITH PERMISSION FROM SWEETNESS WITHOUT SUGAR
BY WENDY VIGDOR-HESS (SOLTHEA PRESS).