The average American is taking in 400 calories a day from added sugars, mostly from refined sugar and syrup sweeteners. High-fructose corn syrup, for example, is cheap to produce, and found in many prepared foods and beverages. But those calories can be dangerous. This quick-acting sugar is believed to lead to increased storage of fat in the liver resulting in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, digestive upset and atherosclerosis, eventually increasing the risk of diabetes, obesity and even high blood pressure.
In spite of the dramatic rise in use of real sugar, artificial sweeteners are making a debut in a wide variety of products. Those artificial sweeteners include aspartame, sucralose, ACE K and saccharin. They may not carry calories, but their other potentially harmful side effects have been a source of concern for years.
While all are technically “safe” per the FDA, they are under increasing scrutiny. Side effects can range from headaches and migraines and mood disorders to shrunken thymus glands involved in immune control and impairment of liver and kidney function. Fortunately, there are healthful and tasty alternatives to refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. Here are five natural sweeteners and sugar substitutes:
1. Raw Honey
Raw honey contains small amounts of antioxidants, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. These nutrients help to neutralize free-radical damage and provide essential vitamins and minerals to keep the body healthy. One tablespoon of raw honey has 64 calories and the same glycemic load as a banana. It is important to note that these are the benefits of raw honey only. Once honey has been pasteurized, it can lose some of its benefits.
How to use raw honey:
First, do not cook with it. Use it drizzled on breakfast cereals, over toast, on yogurt and for salad dressings. You want to maintain as many of the nutrients in honey as possible, so keep it away from the heat. If you enjoy honey in your tea or coffee, do not subject it to the boiling water. Wait until the drink is tepid enough to comfortably sip and then add raw honey.
Stevia is native to South America and has been used for hundreds of years as a sweetener. It has no calories and lacks the nasty side effects of artificial sweeteners, although some may experience a slight metallic aftertaste. If that has been your experience in the past, try a brand that is higher in steviosides. It will be sweeter, without the bitterness.
How to use stevia:
Unlike honey, stevia is heat-stable, so feel free to use it however you desire. It is important to remember that it is 200 times sweeter than sugar, so do not use it in the same ratio. For baking, this can present a problem since refined sugar makes up a lot of the bulk in many recipes. This is easily rectified. To make up for the bulk, use a third to half a cup of one of the following bulking agents: fresh fruit puree (bananas or applesauce), yogurt, roasted winter squash, whipped egg whites or you can use one to two tablespoons of coconut flour.
Dates contain potassium, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and vitamin B6. They come from the date palm tree and are easily digested.
How to use dates:
The first step is to make a paste. Date paste can be used one to one as a substitute for sugar in most recipes and, unlike stevia, it does add bulk for baking. Soak Medjool dates in hot water until soft. If the water reaches room temperature and the dates aren’t soft enough, soak in hot water again. Add soaked dates to your food processor along with one tablespoon of the soaking liquid. Blend until smooth.
You can also use date paste to sweeten your favorite muffins and pies. For fruit pies, mix one to one and a half cups of puree with four cups of fruit. Bake as usual.
4. Coconut Sugar
Everyone has heard of coconut water, coconut milk, coconut flour and fresh coconut. Coconut sugar is extracted sap from the blooms of the coconut. More and more people are also using coconut sugar because it may have a lower glycemic load and contain minerals not found in table sugar.
How to use coconut sugar:
Use it in your favorite recipes, as it measures the same as sugar. You can dissolve the coconut sugar in the liquids from the recipe and then add as normal. This is not the best option if you are making cakes or cookies that rely on the “creaming” method for texture. You can even make your own powdered sugar by putting one cup of coconut sugar in your small coffee grinder or food processor, along with one tablespoon of arrowroot powder.
5. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is a great source of manganese, and contains calcium, potassium and zinc. Rich in antioxidants, this all-natural sweetener may help neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage. Select the darker Grade B maple syrups that contain more of beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups.
How to use maple syrup:
Maple syrup is heat-stable, so you can use it in virtually any application. Add it to marinades, glazes and sauces and use it for baking. Use it to sweeten homemade granola and your morning coffee. For a glaze for cookies or cakes, heat until just barely simmering, and add the coconut powdered sugar from above.