A guide to natural sweeteners
Almost everyone enjoys a sweet from time to time. But most of the sweets in the typical American diet are highly processed foods, sweetened with white and brown sugar and corn syrup. These are highly refined sweeteners stripped of fiber, vitamins and minerals. There are healthier choices.
Less-refined sweeteners closer to their whole food forms have some advantages. Date sugar, maple syrup, and rice and barley malt syrups retain some nutrients required by the body to metabolize sugars. They’re absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream so they’re less likely to cause highs and lows in blood sugar levels.
Even the most wholesome sweetener, however, can affect blood sugar stability and compromise the immune system, so quantity matters. The good news is that the less refined the sweetener, the easier it is to be satisfied with smaller amounts.
Choices in sweeteners
In recipes calling for white sugar, try substituting some applesauce or mashed ripe banana, puréed dates, raisins or prunes — adjusting the amount of liquid. They’ll add fiber and create a delicious, moist texture. Or, try one of the choices below:
Agave* is extracted from the agave cactus plant. It’s sweeter than sugar and may be suitable for diabetics.
Barley malt syrup* comes from sprouted barley that’s roasted and cooked down to a syrup. Its malt-like flavor is good for baking with squash, barbecue, and sweet and sour sauces. Mix a spoonful into milk or a non-dairy beverage for a “malted.” Be sure to read labels because brands sold at other stores may contain corn syrup or refined sugar.
Brown rice syrup* is made with brown rice and a culture that’s cooked to a syrup. Half as sweet as white sugar, its mild flavor is similar to butterscotch. It’s very good for cooking, baking, and in drinks or marinades. Be sure to read labels because some brands include barley malt and corn syrup.
Cane sugar is made from sugar cane that’s crushed mechanically to extract its juice. Several unrefined or unbleached forms are available and excellent in any recipe.
- Muscovado sugar is made from unrefined, evaporated cane juice. Unlike processing for white sugar, the molasses is not separated from the sugar stream when the cane is crushed. The juice is not spun but rather dried slowly to retain more plant material in the crystals and results in a pronounced flavor with a slightly sticky texture. It is unbleached and crystalline, retaining its natural molasses and trace vitamins and minerals.
- Organic, whole cane sugars sold under the Rapunzel and Wholesome Sweeteners brands, also are unrefined and unbleached and retain natural trace vitamins and minerals. The molasses is not separated from the sugar stream. Raw cane juice is filtered and heated to syrup, then dried. Rapunzel sieve-grinds its dried juice for a very fine granular texture (formerly called Rapadura sugar). Wholesome Sweeteners stirs its syrup to produce larger grains (called Sucanat).
- Turbinado sugar is made by heating sugar cane juice, then spinning it in a centrifuge or turbine to extract moisture and molasses for large, golden crystals. It’s closer to refined sugar than raw sugar.
- Demerara sugar is similar to turbinado. The cane juice is heated, filtered and spun in a centrifuge to separate the molasses from the large, crunchy crystals.
Date sugar* is a whole-food sweetener made of dried, pulverized dates. Some brands add oat flour to make it free-flowing, others add oil for softness. Rich in iron, potassium and vitamins, the high fiber content slows absorption. Date sugar does not dissolve, but is delicious in baking and crumb toppings. It burns easily, so bake with care.
Fruit juice concentrates are fruit juices cooked down to a syrup and frozen. Their fruit flavors are a plus or minus depending on your preference. Non-organic grapes can have especially high levels of pesticide residues, so choose organic grape concentrates.
Honey is made by honeybees from plant nectar. Unheated and unfiltered raw honey is cloudy and contains healthful propolis and pollen. Although it is a simple sugar, less is needed because it’s sweeter than white sugar. Honey is a very versatile sweetener and is excellent in baking. It should not be given to children younger than two to protect against infant botulism.
Maple syrup* is the boiled sap of sugar maple trees. Grade A is light and from early sap runs. Grade B is from later runs and has a stronger flavor. Buy organic to avoid residues of formaldehyde and other chemicals used to keep tap holes open longer. Crystallized maple syrup is available as a sprinkle. Refrigerate to inhibit mold.
Molasses* is a by-product of refining sugar cane. Blackstrap is slightly sweet, comes from the final press of sugar cane and is a source of iron and calcium. “Unsulphured molasses” indicates no sulphur dioxide was used in extraction or as a preservative. Refrigerate to inhibit mold.
Stevia is derived from a perennial shrub with leaves 30-times sweeter than sugar. It has no calories and may be useful for people with diabetes, hypoglycemia or candida. Available in powdered, liquid, concentrate, tea or tablet form.
Xylitol today typically comes from corncobs and if not organic, may be genetically modified. It tastes similar to cane sugar, is low in calories, and reportedly does not cause cavities. It may be suitable for diabetics.
Zero is a brand name for a certified organic calorie-free erythritol, a type of sugar alcohol. It’s derived from organic sugar cane juice, which is fermented, filtered and crystallized.
* These sweeteners contain more complex sugars, are absorbed more slowly and are less likely to disrupt blood sugar stability.
To replace white sugar in a recipe, try these substitutions
|Sweetener||Amount to replace 1 cup sugar||Adjustments to recipe|
* If you use barley malt or brown rice syrups in baked goods, be aware that a natural enzyme in these sweeteners may liquefy the consistency of the batter. This is more likely when eggs are not used. To prevent liquefying eggless recipes, first boil the barley malt or brown rice syrup for 2 to 3 minutes, cool, then measure and use.
** For each 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, reduce salt by 1/4 teaspoon.
*** Do not substitute more than half the sugar in a recipe with molasses; blackstrap molasses is not sweet.
Tip: If the recipe doesn’t call for any liquid, add 4 to 6 tablespoons of flour for each cup of liquid sweetener substituted for sugar.
|Agave||3/4 cup||Reduce liquid in recipe by one-third to one-half. Reduce baking temperature 25 degrees.|
|Barley malt syrup*||1 1/3 cup||Reduce liquids by one-fourth. Add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda for each cup syrup to help baked goods rise.**|
|Brown rice syrup*||1 1/4 cup||Reduce liquid by one-fourth and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda for each cup syrup to help baked goods rise.**|
|Date sugar||1 cup||none|
|Frozen juice concentrate||2/3 cup||Reduce liquids by one-third and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda per cup of concentrate.**|
|Honey||1/2 cup||Reduce liquids by one-eighth. Reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees and cook a bit longer.|
|Maple syrup||1/2 to 2/3 cup||Reduce liquid by one-fourth and add 1 teaspoon baking soda per cup of syrup.**|
|Molasses||1 1/3 cup sweet molasses||Reduce liquid by 6 tablespoons and add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda per cup of molasses.***|
|Stevia||Read labels for powder, liquid or concentrate.||Follow suggestions on product label.|
|Sugar cane juice
(Rapadura, Sucanat, muscovado, turbinado, demerara)
|Xylitol or Zero, granulated||1 cup||none|