Sugar is popular for a reason—it can make any food taste amazing. Sugar became a commodity in the early 1500s, yet there is evidence of people chewing sugarcane for its sweetness as early as 350 AD. While those who lived in ancient times didn’t know exactly what made sugarcane so sweet and delicious, they continued to use the sugarcane for the quick burst of energy it provided. No matter the reason it was used, sugar slowly began to revolutionize the way human beings ate.
Today, sugar is still popular. In fact, it’s added to nearly every item of food that can’t be directly harvested. Even unsuspected foods are health offenders due to their added sugar content—ketchup, marinara sauce, cereal, milk, and yogurt are common miscreants. This wouldn’t be an issue if the health detriments of sugar weren’t so well documented. Obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, tooth decay, and Alzheimer’s disease result from human beings’ inclusion of excessive sugar in their diet.
The glycemic index measures how fast a food is digested and absorbed by the body. The higher the GI, the greater the fluctuation in blood sugar levels. The higher the GI of a food, the greater the rapid rise in blood sugar. This constant balancing act by the body to keep blood sugar consistent begins to cause wear and tear—diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. To put this in perspective, table sugar has a GI of 68 while pure glucose rests at 100. This means that sugar has a high GI, which when repeatedly consumed, leads to many health problems.
So what can be done to avoid the negative consequences of sugar? Sugar substitutes are the answer, but don’t think Splenda will save you; there’s plenty wrong with artificial sweeteners. They are designed so the body can’t process them, but chemical manipulation often has unexpected consequences. Enter the world of natural sweeteners—these alternatives provide a way to avoid sugar-related health complications.
Dates are a naturally sweet fruit. While this sweetness is attributed to the sugar within the fruit, it is a sugar that is balanced by nutrients and fiber. The name is also something of a misnomer—date sugar isn’t sugar at all, but ground up dates. Dates have been cultivated for more than 8,000 years, yet they remain relatively unknown as a sugar substitute. In baking, one cup of dried, ground dates equals one cup of granulated sugar. 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. However, date sugar does have a GI higher than table sugar.
Palm sugar is very similar to regular sugar with its crystalline form and similar 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 1:1 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 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 popularity as a pre-packaged sweetener used primarily for coffee and tea, 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 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 co-ops, natural grocery stores, health food stores, or online.
This sweet substance is derived from both the sugar cane and the sugar beet. When harvested from the young sugar cane, 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.
Did you know that our bodies produce a little bit of this natural sweetener every day? Xylitol is found in fibrous fruits and vegetables like berries, cornhusks, 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, “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.
While still nutrient free, agave has a lower GI than table sugar as it generally scores under 30. Even better, agave is much sweeter than table sugar; meaning less agave typically needs to be consumed to achieve a sweetening effect. There are many different types of agave plants, allowing the syrup to be concocted into various colors and flavors. 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 it is replacing 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 ½ cup compared to 1 cup of table sugar.
If you want a sweetener with nutritional benefits, look to raw honey. Since it is unprocessed, raw honey contains a high concentration of antioxidant polyphenols. Its super-sweet taste suits coffee, tea, yogurt, and can even be used in baking and cooking. With a medium-ranking score on the glycemic index, 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.
So, what are your dietary needs and culinary desires? Often you can find a happy medium for your taste buds by choosing a sugar substitute best suited for your particular baking or cooking needs. While not everything that tastes sweet is detrimental to your health, it’s the massive quantity of sugar consumed every day in unsuspecting foods that can add up to trouble. Substituting these natural alternatives can help offset those negative effects and, instead, add a quality sweetener to your diet.