Sweeteners have been used in all sorts of foods for centuries. Aside from the quick hit of dopamine achieved by your favorite sweet treat, sweeteners serve many functions in the chemistry of food. They are used in food preservation, and contribute to texture, mouthfeel, and leavening, as well as the browning and caramelization of foods. Without sweeteners, all the foods we know and love, from cookies and pancakes, to rolls and breads wouldn’t be the same.
Although sweeteners do serve a purpose in food, the average person consumes around 19 teaspoons of refined sugar per day! This is almost double the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 5-10 teaspoons per day for the average adult. With our increasing savvy regarding the detrimental effects of excess refined sugar, non-nutritive sweeteners, have gained in popularity. These artificial sweeteners have come under increased scrutiny because of their potential for negative side effects which can include migraines, mood disorders, and problems with liver or kidney function. Fortunately, there are many natural sweetener options so refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners can be avoided.
A GUIDE TO NATURAL SWEETENERS
Choosing a natural sweetener option is a balancing act to find that sweet spot between health and indulgence. Although these sweeteners are naturally occurring and less processed so they retain many of their beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, it is important to remember they are still sugars! A healthy dose of moderation goes a long way.
Stevia is a sweetener derived from the leaves of the South American stevia plant. The sweet components of this plant are called steviol glycosides and are about 100-200 times sweeter than table sugar. Because the body does not metabolize these glycosides, stevia is a zero-calorie natural sweetener. Stevia also has very little effect on blood sugar levels and is considered a low glycemic option.
Stevia can be found in liquid or powdered forms. Powdered stevia can range in quality from pure to highly refined. Less processed forms of stevia will be green or brown, while the more processed versions are white and marketed as a 1:1 baking replacement for sugar. A few drops of the liquid can be easily added to sweeten beverages, while the powdered form can be used in baking, though in adjusted amounts. 1 teaspoon of powdered stevia can replace 1 cup of sugar in baked goods.
Raw honey contains many vitamins and minerals including an assortment of B vitamins, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. Honey can have antibacterial and antifungal properties and can promote the growth of healthy gut flora. The flavor of honey is related to its tint, with darker honeys having a bolder flavor (as well as more of those important nutrients!). The lighter honey is in color, the more neutral the flavor and the more likely it is to be refined.
The calorie count and glycemic index of honey tends to be similar to that of sugar. Pasteurization also significantly decreases the nutrient content of honey so finding raw honey is best. Honey can easily be added to beverages, especially teas as a sweetener or used as a sugar substitute in baking. Adjustments will need to be made in baking, decreasing liquid and increasing the leavening agent, to account for the liquid nature of honey.
Medjool dates are the most common type of date used as a natural sweetener. Medjools are packed with nutrients like copper, magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins. Each date also packs 2g of fiber which can help regulate your digestive system and promote healthy gut bacteria. When used as a sweetener, dates contribute a complex flavor similar to caramel.
One date is similar to one tablespoon of sugar when it comes to calories. Thanks to the fiber content, dates have a smaller impact on blood sugar when compared to white sugar and have a slightly lower glycemic index. Dates are generally found dried and can be chopped and added to smoothies or oatmeal. Date paste or a syrup can be made by adding varying amounts of water and can be used as a 1:1 replacement in baking.
Blackstrap molasses is a reduction of raw cane sugar resulting in a sweet liquid with a concentrated nutrient content. While there are several varieties of molasses, blackstrap contains more potassium than a banana, is a good source of iron and calcium, and contains impressive amounts of other minerals including magnesium, copper, and manganese.
Because blackstrap molasses is made from raw sugar cane its calorie content is on par with white sugar, however, its effect on blood sugar is less pronounced and it has a lower value on the glycemic index. Blackstrap molasses has a strong flavor and is most often used in baking flavorful options like gingerbread. It can also be easily added to oatmeal, smoothies or yogurt.
Coconut sugar is produced by extracting sap from the flower bud of the coconut, evaporating out the water, then grinding the remaining solid sap into granules. It contains minerals including iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium as well as antioxidants. Coconut sugar is most similar to white sugar in consistency and use with a flavor similar to brown sugar.
Coconut sugar and white sugar are equal in calorie content while coconut sugar boasts a much lower glycemic index. Because of its many similarities to white sugar, coconut sugar can be substituted easily in most recipes.
Maple syrup is produced by tapping the trunk of a maple tree to collect the sap, then reducing the sap until thick liquid forms. Maple syrup in a good source of the mineral manganese and contains zinc as well as antioxidants. Commonly found in Grades A or B, Grade A is lighter in color and produced earlier in the season, while Grade B is produced later in the season and appears darker with a bolder flavor and contains more antioxidants. Be careful to get 100% pure maple syrup as many “breakfast syrups” are really just flavored corn syrup.
Calorie content of maple syrup is similar to white sugar but maple syrup has a lower glycemic index. Maple syrup can easily be used in marinades and dressings or drizzled over yogurt or oatmeal. It can be used as a 1:1 substitute in baking but adjustments for liquid may be necessary.
Monk fruit extract
Monk fruit is a small, round fruit native to Southeast Asia. It has a strong history in traditional Chinese medicine and is also known as luo han guo. Monk fruit gets its intense sweetness from potent antioxidants called mongrosides which is extracted from the fruit and can be used as a sweetener. It is generally 100-250 times sweeter than white sugar so a little goes a long way.
The mongrosides are not metabolized so monk fruit is considered a zero-calorie sweetener.
Because monk fruit has zero calories and zero carbohydrates it does not increase blood sugar. In addition, monk fruit has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which can offer a variety of health benefits. The extract is generally found in powdered form and can be used to sweeten beverages or in baking.
Fruit juice or jam
100% fruit juice or real fruit jam can be used as a substitute for sugar and can offer a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Most any type of fruit will work so choosing one is a matter of preference. For an effective substitution, it is important to choose juices or jam without added sugar. Or better yet, make your own!
Fruit juices or jams can be used in baking by decreasing the amount of other liquids used. Juices can be easily added to beverages to sweeten them.
Yacon syrup comes from the tuberous roots of the yacon plant native to the Andes mountains. The syrup is produced in a process similar to that of maple syrup. Much of its sweetness is due to a high content of fructooligosaccharides (FOS), a form of soluble fiber and prebiotic that can support gut health. The flavor of yacon syrup is similar to that of molasses or caramel.
Yacon syrup contains only about 1/3 of the calories per tablespoon when compared to white sugar and is considered almost a zero-glycemic food since its effect on blood sugar is minimal. However, consuming more than two teaspoons per day may result is GI upset thanks to the FOS. Yacon syrup can easily be added to beverages or used as a substitute in baking when adjusted for liquid content.
Erythritol, malitol, and xylitol are examples of sugar alcohols and despite the name, are neither sugars nor alcohols. They are carbohydrate with a chemical structure similar to both sugar and alcohol but contain neither. These sweeteners are extracted from plants or synthesized from starches and often used in packaged foods labeled “sugar free’.
Sugar alcohols tend to be about 60-70% as sweet as white sugar and contain about half the calories. Because of their unique chemical structure, sugar alcohols also have little to no impact on blood sugar. Sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed in the intestinal tract which allows fermentation by the gut bacteria. This fermentation can cause unwanted side effects like bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea.
Agave syrup comes from several species of the agave plant, including the same species that produces tequila. Agave is produced from the juices extracted from the core of the agave leaf. This juice is heated to breakdown complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, then concentrated to form a syrup. Agave ranges in color depending on level of processing with lighter version being more processed with a more neutral flavor and dark amber versions undergoing less processing and retaining a bolder caramel flavor. Dark or raw agaves retain the vitamin from the agave plant including good amounts of vitamin C and vitamin B6.
The sweetness from agave comes mostly from the simple sugar fructose with some products containing a similar fructose ratio to high fructose corn syrup. Fructose does not affect blood sugar so agave is considered a low glycemic sweetener. Agave tends to have slight more calories per tablespoon than white sugar. Agave can be added as a sweetener to beverages, used in baking by adjusting liquids, or used as a topping on oatmeal, pancakes, or French toast.
While there are many options for natural sweeteners, it’s important to note that simply because a sweetener is considered “natural” doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go hog wild. Natural sweeteners can still contribute calories and impact blood sugar and the vitamin and minerals found in these sweetens can be consumed in far larger amounts in other foods. Any type of sweetener should be used in moderation as part of a well-balanced diet. But by all means, enjoy your naturally sweetened treat every now and then.