Sweeter Than Sugar

Going natural can both satisfy your sweet tooth and add nutrition to your diet.
By Cara Lucas

 

We are all familiar with that sleepy feeling experienced in the early afternoon, somewhere between the dismal hours of 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. It’s post-lunch hour, and you still have a little left to go in your work day.
    
You reach for something sweet to give you a boost of energy, but it leaves you feeling restless and wanting more. So, you make some coffee or tea, pouring in a packet of Splenda or Equal for an added boost. Shortly after you devour your afternoon pickme- up, you feel the onset of the inevitable crash instead of the sustainable energy you need to get through the rest of your day.
    
Don’t be tricked into thinking that you can only use aspartame-containing products to get the sweet fix you need to have a productive afternoon. You can actually incorporate healthier sugars into your diet by exploring natural alternatives.
    
We have selected eight substitutes that all rank low to medium on the glycemic scale, making them great options to turn to when you are trying to avoid the high spikes and low valleys of a zapped blood glucose level. The following sweetening options can actually add nutritional content to your diet by enriching the not-so-beneficial foods that typically come in the form of sugary drinks, desserts, and zero nourishment snacks.
 
Raw Honey
This popular sweetener in its raw form is unprocessed and remains as close to the state found in the hive as you can get. Raw honey is unique because it does not undergo the heating and filtering that strips it of desirable health benefits. It has a high concentration of polyphenols, a rich antioxidant that is thought to be potentially beneficial in treating many diseases. Most commonly used in recipes as a sugar substitute, raw honey provides super sweet taste when added to teas, coffees, and yogurts, as well as when used in cooking and baking. With a medium-ranking score on the glycemic index scale, it has a low impact on your blood sugar level.
    
In comparison, processed honey may not yield as many nutritional benefits while raw honey has been shown to eliminate high spikes in blood sugar, making it a reasonable sugar substitute when consumed in moderation.

Agave Nectar
Agave nectar, often called “nectar” or “syrup,” is extracted from the core of the Mexican Agave tequiliana plant (yes, the same plant that tequila hails from) and is then expressed and heated to form a syrup that is thinner than honey and sweeter than sugar. Primarily consisting of fructose, which is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruits and vegetables, organic agave is a great alternative to table sugar and has a lower glycemic index than both honey and sugar (GI of 30). There are many different types of agave plants, allowing the syrup to be concocted into various colors and flavors.
    
It has recently attracted media attention in regard to the authenticity of its chemical-free processing. To make sure you are purchasing all-natural syrup, first do some research on the brand to verify its organic seal and means of production. Because of its delicate form, you can use this caramel-tasting sweetener in drinks where it can dissolve easily. But remember, if used to replace table sugar in a baking project, make sure to compensate for the difference in form. Since it is a thin liquid, you will use less than regular sugar, or about 1/2 cup compared to 1 cup of table sugar.
 
Molasses
This sweet substance is derived from both the sugarcane and the sugar beet. When harvested from the young sugarcane, sulfur dioxide is added to act as a preservative, and it is boiled to crystallize the sugars. It can then be boiled several times, each time extracting more sugar than the last which makes it less sweet and provides more nutritional value in the form of a mineral-rich syrup. After the third and final boil, you are left with a substance called blackstrap molasses, which is the most nutritionally dense, and has a lower-than-table-sugar glycemic index of 55. You can use molasses in baking, and it tends to work best with foods that call for rich and chewy consistencies (think ginger snap cookies). When measuring, 1 pound of molasses should equal approximately 1 1/3 cups, and keep in mind that it might help to lightly spray the measuring cup with cooking oil in order for the molasses to pour more readily. Using one teaspoon of baking soda for every 1 cup of molasses often helps to counteract the acidic nature of this sugar substitute and helps yield an optimal flavor.
 
Dates and Raisins
Derived from the date palm tree and dried grapes, respectively, both dates and raisins are fruits that provide a great source of fiber and are high in vitamins and minerals. Not only can you enjoy them on their own as a quick snack, but dried fruits like dates and raisins can be used in a multitude of different ways. Try throwing them in a salad or incorporating them into a batch of oatmeal cookies. You can also use these fruits whole in porridge, pudding, yogurt, or cereal. Another option is to blend them into a smoothie or mix them into a batch of pancake or waffle batter. You can even whip up date sugar at home by grinding dehydrated dates into small pieces, making it comparable to brown sugar, cup for cup. Either way, they provide a great alternative to table sugar when your recipes call for it.
 
Fruit Juice Concentrate
Where else should fruit juice concentrate come from but from real fruit? Fruit juice
can virtually replace any liquid ingredient used in baking. You can make your own fruit juice concentrate by cutting up your fruit of choice, placing it in a saucepan, adding water, boiling the fruit until soft, straining out the seeds or skins, and adding your choice of natural sweetener as desired. Try freezing it to make popsicles for the kids, mixing it with seltzer to make fruit soda for a party, or blending it into a recipe to make various gelatin-based desserts. Depending on what produce you use, you could have a sweetener with a relatively low glycemic index number (raw apples have a GI of 40, for example) as well as meeting your daily requirement of fruit in your diet.
 
Palm Sugar
Palm sugar is very similar to regular sugar with its crystalline form and dissolving properties, but it’s very different because it’s completely natural, coming from the palm flower nectar of coconut trees. Once the nectar is extracted, it sits out in the sun and dries to form dark-tinted crystals comparable to table sugar. This natural alternative is not calorie-free, but it does rank low on the glycemic index (GI 35) due to its slow absorption into the blood stream. It is also nutritiously dense, containing high concentrations of magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron as well as vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, and C. Palm sugar is great to use in a 1 to 1 ratio substitution for sugar because of its obviously similar make-up. It would work very well as a brown sugar replacement in cooking or baking.
 
Stevia
Stevia is a calorie-free sweetener found in the leaves of a small, green shrub called Stevia rebaudiana in South America. It is 200 to 300 times sweeter than regular table sugar and has been popular in the United States since the FDA approved it in 2008. It initially gained its popularity as a pre-packaged sweetener used primarily for coffees and teas, but it can also be used in baking. When you prepare your measurements, keep in mind that because Stevia has such a strong impact, one teaspoon is usually enough to substitute for one cup of sugar. Stevia, in its unadulterated form, ranks a whopping 0 on the glycemic index scale because it contains no carbohydrates or sugars. However, that number climbs when other sugars such as glucose, fructose, and dextrose, are combined with it to make select artificial sweeteners. You can purchase Stevia at local food coops, natural grocery stores, health food stores, or online.
 
Xylitol
Did you know that our bodies produce a little bit of this natural sweetener everyday? Xylitol is found in fibrous fruits and vegetables like berries, corn husks, and mushrooms. It was discovered to be an ideal, low-calorie sweetener for diabetics and those with hyperglycemia because it does not have a significant impact on insulin levels due to a glycemic index of 13. It also may have dental benefits because of its ability to keep a level pH balance in the mouth, preventing bacteria from sticking to your teeth. For this reason, Xylitol is a key sweetener in many types of chewing gum and, according to the FDA, it “does not promote cavities.” Its solid form is similar in makeup to white table sugar with a measurement ratio of 1:1, making it perfect for baking your favorite treats.