If you have a sweet tooth, you know that completely cutting sugary foods out of your diet is not an option. You probably also know that eating too much sugar wrecks havoc on your body system’s balance, causing energy rushes, crashes, bellyaches and even more cravings for sweets.
We like sweet tastes for a reason; sugary foods are a source of easy energy and they stimulate the brain to release endorphins. Humans evolved in a world of scarcity, but we now live in a nation of overabundance- and our bodies haven’t caught up. Our brains are still chowing down on as many calories as possible whenever they present themselves so that we can outrun the lion on the savannah later tonight.
The modern human eats more sugar in one day than our ancestors did during their entire lives. When found in nature, sweet foods are not only a source of easy energy – they also contain minerals and nutrients. Today however, most sweeteners are sugars that have had all of their natural nutritional value completely refined away.
Enter: natural sweeteners. Although some foods on the list below are still simple carbohydrates that raise blood sugar levels (honey, stevia, fruit concentrates and sugar cane juice/Sucanat) and thus are technically still sugar, others contain more complex sugars that are more slowly absorbed by your body and don’t throw your system out of whack (agave, barley malt, brown rice syrup, date sugar, maple syrup, molasses and xylitol). Those that do raise blood sugar levels are still better than refined sugar; take honey for example. Because it is sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it, and along with the sweet you will also get some vitamins, nutrients and pollen – not just empty calories.
Make no mistake- all sweeteners should be used sparingly, but when you can't fight that sweet tooth, a natural option is always better than refined white or brown sugar or even worse- high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS and agave syrup or agave nectar, have taken some considerable heat in the media. According to Dr. Nalini Chilkov, L.Ac., O.M.D.,
"The negative health effects of high fructose corn syrup are well documented. Agave syrup has been recently promoted as a "healthy" sweetener. However, most health conscious users don't realize that agave is also a high fructose syrup. Agave syrup is typically 95% fructose and 5% glucose.
High fructose syrups increase risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure) and liver inflammation. This is clearly not a healthy choice for a sweetener. America must get over its sweet tooth and learn to enjoy the natural sweetness of foods."
Try a few of the sugar alternatives below, and as their unfamiliarity wears away and you get a sense of when and where to use them, you may even find that you like them better than traditional refined sugar.
- BARLEY MALT SYRUP or GRANULES: Everyone loves a malt, the milkshake’s sassier cousin. Barley malt syrup has the same rich, roasted taste and goes well with barbeque and winter squash. In granulated form, barley malt syrup makes a good substitute for brown sugar, and this healthier alternative contains complex carbohydrates and protein along with maltose and glucose.
- BROWN RICE SYRUP or GRANULES: With a mild, almost butterscotch taste, brown rice syrup is made when brown rice grains plus various enzymes are cooked down into a thick liquid. Half as sweet as sugar, brown rice syrup contains complex carbohydrates and is good in cooking and beverages, although it tends to make baked goods too crisp unless combined with another sweetener like honey or maple syrup.
- DATE SUGAR: High in fiber and rich in potassium and iron, date sugar is made of dried dates that have been pulverized and possibly combined with oat powder and/or oil. Date sugar does not dissolve, and thus works best on a crumbled topping, a bowl of oatmeal or similar endeavors.
- FRUIT CONCENTRATES: Made when fruit juices are cooked down to a thick syrup and then frozen, these sweeteners have slight flavors depending on the fruits they came from. Apple and grape concentrates are most common, as are mixtures of pineapple, peach and pear. Beware: concentrated fruit juice means that any pesticides used on the fruit will be concentrated too, so be sure to opt for organic on this one. Fruit concentrates do not work well with chocolate.
- HONEY: Humans have loved honey for at least 10,000 years and probably more. Although it is still considered a refined sugar, unheated and unfiltered (raw) honey contains propolis and pollen as well as B vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Honey is excellent in baking but should not be eaten by children under two.
- MAPLE SYRUP: With brilliant red leaves, sugar maples all over the northeastern part of the country are tapped for sap, which is then boiled down into a sugar or dehydrated into granules, much in the same way it has been done since the time of the colonists. Grade A is lighter, milder and comes from early pressings, and Grade B is darker, stouter, comes later in the year and is much better for you. Maple syrup is great in pies!
- MOLASSES: Molasses is a by-product of refining sugar cane and like maple syrup, comes in different strengths. Sweet or “Barbados” molasses comes from the first press and is light and tangy; bittersweet Blackstrap molasses comes from the last press and is much stronger and darker with more minerals like calcium and iron.
- STEVIA: The newest star of the sweetener world, stevia is a South American bush whose leaves are 300 times sweeter than sugar. It has zero calories and does not raise the blood sugar, making it a good alternative for diabetics – though some say it has a slight aftertaste. Women trying to conceive should not consume stevia as native peoples used it as a birth control.
- SUCANAT and SUGAR CANE JUICE: Sugar cane juice is made from crushing juice from the whole cane, and comes in many forms both liquid and granulated. The most popular and most nutritious form is Sucanat, a brand name (a contraction of Sugar-Cane-Natural) for one types of dehydrated, unrefined sugar cane juice made with a hint of molasses.
- XYLITOL: Low in calories, xylitol is a sugar alcohol sweetener derived from the fibers of many plants including mushrooms, oats, berries and birch. However most xylitol today is derived from cornhusks, meaning much of what is available domestically contains genetically modified ingredients, so tread with caution.