Natural Sweeteners – Sugar Alternatives

The only sugar our ancestors knew of was unrefined sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant sources, and eventually sugarcane, but not in a “packaged” form. Processed or refined sugar became widely available since the 1500s. It didn’t take long to catch on in popularity. The average American consumes at least 100 pounds of sugar a year, of which approximately two-thirds is added to foods during processing.

Below is a list of natural sweeteners, that I recommend using as sugar substitutes in your recipes and look for these on the labels of the processed foods you do consume.

Have you ever meet a person who didn’t like sweet foods?  I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t eat any sweet foods.  I know some who say, “I don’t like sweets.”  But, truth is they do eat sweet foods, even if it’s not a sweet dessert food and just fruit.

Any baby offered a sweet-tasting food seems to prefer it over other bland baby foods.  Babies much prefer bananas, pears, and applesauce to oatmeal and rice cereals or green beans.  Even sweet potatoes babies prefer because of their natural sweetness.

I read there are two ideas about why most humans are “naturally” drawn to sweet foods.  One is that our DNA provides a survival mechanism whereby we can differentiate between poisonous substances in the wild (generally bitter) from edible sources (mostly non-bitter).  Another idea is that as human beings we are unable to manufacture vitamin C, found mostly in sweeter foods, like fruits, therefore God gave us a “sweet tooth” so we would naturally crave the foods we need in order to survive.

The only sugar our ancestors knew of was unrefined sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant sources, and eventually sugarcane, but not in a “packaged” form.  Processed or refined sugar became widely available since the 1500s.  It didn’t take long to catch on in popularity.  The average American consumes at least 100 pounds of sugar a year, of which approximately two-thirds is added to foods during processing.

Below is a list of natural sweeteners, that I recommend using as sugar substitutes in your recipes and look for these on the labels of the processed foods you do consume.  I have listed them in alphabetical order and have placed an asterisk (*) next to the ones I use.

Agave

*Agave – It is a natural, liquid sweetener consumed by ancient civilizations for thousands of years made with agave nectar extracted from the heart of the agave plant.  Agave is a low-glycemic index sweetener, so it is slowly absorbed into the body preventing spikes in blood sugar.  It is 75% sweeter than sugar, so you need less.  It has a sweet, mild taste and is perfect for baking, sweetening beverages, and as a multipurpose sweetener.  I use the raw variety.

Barley Malt Syrup – Is a sweet byproduct of sprouted, roasted barley, slowly cooked into a thick, dark brown syrup.  It has a rich mellow sweet flavor that’s half as sweet as refined sugar.  Ideal for baking, especially spice cakes, gingerbread, dark breads, baked beans, barbecue sauces, candied vegetables and home brewing.  It contains 76 percent maltose.

For breads it improves appearance, texture, and keeping quality.  Too much will make your bread gummy, heavy, and either too sweet or bitter.  [Replace 1 tablespoon sweetener in recipe with 2 tablespoons syrup.]

*Blackstrap Molasses – Molasses is the by-product of sugar refining that contains all the nutrients from the raw sugarcane plant.  Blackstrap molasses is the end result of the third and final boil and is very dark and has a robust, somewhat bitter-tart flavor.  It contains the lowest sugar content of the molasseses, but many more of the vitamins, minerals, and trace nutrients in the sugarcane plant, making it more nutritious than other sweeteners.  Blackstrap molasses is an excellent source of copper, manganese, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins.

It’s used in a variety of baked goods, particularly in vegetable and meat dishes, as a coloring agent and sweetener.

*Brown Rice Syrup – Is made by cooking brown rice in pure filtered water then evaporating most of the water, which leaves a naturally sweet golden syrup.  It is a healthful and allergen-free alternative to other sweeteners, because it is gluten-free and wheat-free.  It is half as sweet as sugar.  Substitute rice syrup in place of sugar, honey, corn syrup, maple syrup, or molasses.  To substitute sugar, use 1-1/4 cup rice syrup for one cup of sugar, using 1/4 cup less of another liquid needed in the recipe.

Honey in Honeycombs

*Honey – I use raw, unpasteurized (unheated, unprocessed, and unfiltered) honey, like that which comes direct from the honeycomb, for most of my baking and sweetening.  Honey, in its natural and unrefined form, contains a host of phytonutrients and enzymes that have a multitude of beneficial attributes.  The process of heating and straining the honey, although this process creates a clearer product, destroys most of the nutrients and the bee pollen.

Honey is sugar, consisting of numerous types of sugars, but will not cause the rapid rise and fall of blood sugar levels as does white sugar.  Since it is a real food and does contain nutrients, it’s one of the best natural sweeteners to use, but don’t over consume it either.

Honey has many redeeming nutritional properties, doesn’t spoil, and can be stored in airtight containers for a long time without any nutritional loss.  If honey is left exposed to the air, it will in time ferment and develop an unpleasant taste.  Amazingly, the bees prevent any fermentation by sealing the honey in the honeycomb.

The strength of crystallization (hardness) determines the amount of live-state nutrients and heat-sensitive enzymes.  The harder the honey, the better.  To melt back down once crystallized, place the jar of honey in a large pot with enough hot tap water to cover the honey in the jar.  Place on stove on the lowest heat setting.  Let warm until honey is entirely melted down.  You may also place the jar of honey in a warm place in direct sunlight, such as in a car or in a window.  (Caution: Do not heat or warm honey stored in plastic containers, only glass.)

Be careful of high temperatures when using honey as it tends to over brown and scorch.

The varieties or flavors, fragrance, and color of honey as well as level of nutrients are determined by the kind of flowers from which the bees gathered nectar.  Some varieties of honey that I am familiar with are:

Clover Honey – is perhaps the most popular honey.  It comes, of course, from the nectar of the clover flower.  It is a light, very mild and very sweet honey.  Clover honey, because of its high sucrose content, tends to crystallize more readily than other honeys but this does not harm the nutritional value.

Gallberry Honey – Comes from the gallberry flower and is common in southern Georgia.  It is a dark, stronger flavored honey.

Orange Blossom Honey – Comes from the blossom of the orange trees and has a very distinctive flavor.  It is has a medium color and flavor.  Orange Blossom honey is especially nice for sweetening herbal teas or eating on bread.

Sage Honey – Has all the qualities of Tupelo only a little milder and sweeter.  It comes from the west from the nectar of the blossom of the Sage bush.

*Saw Palmetto Honey – (This is my husband’s favorite!)  Saw palmetto plants are slowly disappearing in Florida making this honey a real gourmet; one seldom tasted outside the borders of Florida.  Pure Raw Saw Palmetto honey is full of pollen, enzymes and amino acids.  Saw palmetto honey has a woodsy flavor and makes a great mild honey, not as sweet as some.

*Tupelo Honey – Is a very mild, nicely flavored honey.  (This is my favorite!)  Use it for sweetening where you don’t especially want to taste a honey flavor, such as in apple or pumpkin pie, or cream cheese icing, real whipping cream, or yogurt.  It comes from the Tupelo flower, which grows in the Florida panhandle and the Deep South.  It is higher in a sugar called levulose and lower in sucrose.  Levulose is assimilated more slowly by the body and can therefore be tolerated by diabetics.  Tupelo honey will not crystallize.

*Wild Flower Honey – Is produced from the nectar of whatever flowers are in bloom.  It is a dark honey with a strong flavor.  It is usually less expensive and therefore excellent for use in bread baking or to eat.  Its flavor is usually too strong to substitute for sugar in recipes such as pies or icing.

*Pure Maple Syrup – Is a natural sugar made from the sap of some maple trees, but the heating process used to obtain the proper consistency destroys much of its nutritional value.  It should therefore be used in moderation.

Word of caution: The imitation maple syrups on the market should be avoided since the main ingredient is high fructose corn syrup with a maple-like flavoring added; nothing that resembles the real thing.

*Stevia – Is a naturally sweet herb with no calories that is much sweeter than sugar and a much healthier alternative to artificial sweeteners.  It is available in single serving blend packets or bulk, clear liquid, and concentrated extract form.

The species Stevia rebaudiana, commonly known as sweetleaf, sweet leaf, sugarleaf, or simply stevia, is widely grown for its sweet leaves.  It was discovered in the late 1900s.  As a sweetener and sugar substitute, stevia’s taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar, although some of its extracts may have a bitter or licorice-like aftertaste at high concentrations.  With its extracts having up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, Stevia has received recent attention and acceptance with the high demand for low-carbohydrate, low-sugar, and low-calorie food alternatives.

Dehydrated Sugar Cane

*Sucanat – “Sugar Cane Natural” is a darker brown non-refined granular soft sugar.  Sucanat® retains its full molasses content and is essentially pure dehydrated sugar cane juice.  The juice is extracted by mechanical processes, heated and cooled at which point the small brown grainy crystals are formed.  It is a great substitute for brown sugar.  Sucanat® is a brand name and there are other brands of dehydrated sugar cane.

Sucanat® is often confused with turbinado sugar, which contains only a trace amount of its original molasses content, making it closer to refined sugar except with a golden color and a hint of molasses flavor.  There is also a “honey” variety, which is lighter in color, and can be used in place of refined sugar in recipes.

Xylitol – Is a naturally produced sugar alcohol with 40 percent fewer calories than sugar, therefore an excellent sugar substitute.  It is found in the fibers of many fruits and vegetables.  It is roughly as sweet as sugar with virtually no aftertaste.

One of its well known, researched and documented, health benefits is as an inhibitor of oral bacteria and tooth decay.  If you chew gum, especially children, be sure to select a brand that is sweetened with xylitol in lieu of other artificial sweeteners, like aspartame.

I’ve never cooked with xylitol but I have purchased it for my son to use when he had a tooth ache from a cavity.  We were heading out of town for a conference for 3 days and there wasn’t any way to deal with the tooth until we got back.  Turns out the xylitol worked wonders and he was able to wait until our next scheduled appointment.

Well, this completes my list of natural sugar substitutes that I’ve come to know and use.  I encourage you to sample them in your favorite recipes in place of refined white and brown sugar or any of the artificial sweeteners, like Splenda®.

The main thing to keep in mind, these are all sweeteners and other than Stevia they all come with calories attached.  Refer to the Natural Sweeteners Comparison Chart to see the differences at a glance.  If you are attempting to lose weight or have high blood sugar issues, then you need to limit or perhaps even eliminate the sweet foods you eat.

In my home, we’ve eliminated purchasing products made with refined sugar.  When we do make desserts they are much healthier now because we use one of these natural sweeteners.  How about you?  Which of these natural sweeteners are you familiar with and currently use in place of artificial sweeteners or refined sugar?

To your health,
Lynn

4 thoughts on “Natural Sweeteners – Sugar Alternatives”

  1. Maple syrup is making an appearance in our home these days. My husband, Brian, discovered the “Joys of Maple Syruping” last year and continued the practice this year. He loves spending the time out doors tapping the trees and boiling down the syrup. The final product is awesome.

    1. Sharon,
      That is awesome! I bet it does taste better than you’ve had before. I’d love for you to bring a sample for me on the JimBoat4!
      Thanks for sharing,
      Lynn

  2. Lynn,

    An excellent and timely article! I have been curious about all the new and different natural sweeteners. Now I have a better idea about which ones to try and the best way to use them. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks Jeani!

      I find that I use these regularly: Agave Syrup, Tupelo Honey (local to my area) and dehydrated sugar cane, both honey and molasses flavored. I’ve tried a number of the others, especially when trying a new recipe.

      Lynn

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