Americans on average consume 20 teaspoons of added sugar each day—more than double what is recommended by the American Heart Association. That’s 140 pounds of sugar and sweetener a year for every man, woman and child, a jump of 19 percent since 1970. America’s growing girth and skyrocketing rate of diabetes have followed suit.
Much of our collective sugar buzz is driven by processed sweet stuff—high fructose corn syrup, refined white sugar, glucose, dextrose—that’s pumped into everything from soda and candy to salad dressing, ketchup, bread, cereal and yogurt. In response, health experts increasingly extol the virtues of a diet that limits sugar consumption and suggest satisfying our urge for sweets with natural alternatives, used in moderation.
By no means do closer-to-nature sweeteners give you license to spoil a sweet tooth rotten. After all, if you want to stay trim and dodge the diabetes bullet, it’s best to minimize consumption of all forms of sweets. Yet in many instances, sweeteners like molasses and palm sugar can be a significant improvement over their highly refined counterparts. Some provide nutrients while others are less likely to spike blood sugar levels in the same way. What’s more, these products add taste. This extra flavor means you can often cut back on the amount of sweetener needed, reducing overall calories.
“From a culinary standpoint, natural sweeteners have more complex flavors, making your treat more satisfying,” says Fran Costigan, a New York-based vegan pastry chef instructor and author of More Great Good Dairy-Free Desserts Naturally. “You should consider the individual flavors of the alternative sweeteners and then choose the one that you feel best suits your recipe.”
So the next time you bake a batch of goodies or add a touch of sweetness to your afternoon tea, upgrade to one of these naturally sweet options.
In the United States alone, there are more than 300 varieties of honey, ranging from light and floral to dark and assertive, depending on the bees’ nectar source. “The flavors of local honey tend to be more complex and varied than commercial honey,” says Costigan.
Pros: University of California researchers report that honey contains antioxidants to help disarm free radicals that can harm body cells. Raw unpasteurized honey and dark varieties, such as buckwheat, contain more antioxidant potency than lighter versions, such as clover (the type most often sold in the plastic bear). Honey also contains small amounts of several nutrients, such as iron, zinc and selenium, and helps soothe irritated tissues, making it useful for ameliorating sore throats and coughs.
Cons: As a concentrated source of fast-digesting sugar calories with a high glycemic index, taking in too much bee sweetener can lead to weight gain and other problems associated with high blood sugar levels, such as diabetes. Teaspoon for teaspoon, honey actually has slightly more calories than sugar. Infants under 1 year old should not be fed honey because of botulism spore concerns.
Best for: Tea, yogurt, glazes, salad dressings, iced tea, quick breads, smoothies, muffins, toast.
Need to know: Unrefined sweeteners, particularly those that are liquid like honey and maple syrup, are more hygroscopic, says Costigan, meaning they retain moisture. “This benefit helps keep bakery items moist longer but baking time may have to be extended in order to avoid gumminess.”
Try this: Wisconsin Natural Acres’ raw honey (wnacres.com)
If a pancake could speak, it would say to maple syrup: “You complete me.” This amber liquid is boiled-down ambrosia from the sap of the maple tree. Generally, maple syrup tastes less sweet than refined sugar. Also available is maple sugar, produced by evaporating away the moisture from maple syrup.
Pros: A recent study conducted at the University of Rhode Island found a cocktail of 20 different disease-thwarting antioxidant compounds in a sample of maple syrup, including phenolics similar to those found in berries. Faux syrups made with processed sweeteners and maple flavoring are devoid of these. With fewer calories than table sugar and honey, maple syrup also contains a variety of minerals necessary for good health, including zinc, iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Cons: With a high concentration of fast-digesting sugars, pouring prodigious amounts of maple syrup on your flapjacks can cause unwanted Buddha-belly and send your blood sugar on a roller-coaster. Good-quality maple syrup comes with a fairly hefty price tag.
Best for: Oatmeal, yogurt, roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes, glazes, baked beans, pancakes and waffles, dessert loaves, cookies, chocolate sauces, cakes.
Need to know: “Made toward the end of spring, darker Grade B syrup has a fuller maple flavor and is perfect for many desserts,” says Costigan, whose favorite liquid sweetener is maple syrup.
Try this: Maple Grove Farm’s pure maple syrup (maplegrove.com)
Robust molasses is the concentrated by-product of the process that turns sugar cane into refined granulated white sugar. It is not as sweet as refined sugar. Brown sugar is just white sugar with a fleck of added molasses (or a coloring agent).
Pros: A star among its sweetener brethren, this is no ordinary leftover. Molasses has a greater antioxidant capacity than honey, maple syrup, corn syrup, refined sugar and agave, according to a recent Journal of the American Dietetic Association study. Another reason to laud molasses: It possesses more vital nutrients, including energizing iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, selenium and magnesium, than other sweeteners. Magnesium plays an essential role in bone health, immunity and blood sugar regulation. This could be why researchers from the University of North Carolina discovered that people who consume the most magnesium in their diets are about half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes over a 20-year period as people who take in the least magnesium.
Cons: The distinctive bittersweet flavor of molasses, especially blackstrap, limits its use.
Best for: Baked beans, breads, pumpkin pie, meat glazes and marinades, spice cakes, cookies, gingerbread.
Need to know: “To make molasses easier to measure and incorporate, place the jar in a pot of warm water,” advises Costigan. Because of its very strong flavor, a little goes a long way. So Costigan suggests that when experimenting with molasses, start by replacing an eighth of another sweetener with it and see if you like the results. If yes, try using more next time. Molasses can contain concentrated amounts of chemicals sprayed on sugar cane, so consider choosing organic.
Try this: Wholesome Sweeteners’ Fair Trade Organic Molasses (wholesomesweeteners.com)
This tasty newcomer is gleaned from juice extracted from the same spiky, desert-dwelling plant used to make tequila. Agave syrup (also called agave nectar) is less viscous than honey, maple syrup and molasses with a meadowish flavor. It contains about the same number of calories as honey, which is slightly more than table sugar.
Pros: Agave is about 40 percent sweeter than sugar, which means you can use less and reduce calorie intake. Used in moderation, it can be an option for people concerned about diabetes because it ranks lower on the glycemic index than many other sweeteners and produces less-dramatic spikes in blood sugar—i.e., “sugar rush”—after consumption. Some vegans consider agave the perfect substitute for honey.
Cons: Somewhat of an empty calorie source, agave does not contribute useful amounts of minerals or antioxidants to the diet. Its high fructose content means it should be enjoyed in moderation only. Researchers have found that large amounts of fructose in the diet may raise blood triglyceride levels, which can contribute to heart problems. Because it’s not pasteurized, agave should not be given to infants.
Best for: Yogurt, smoothies, puddings, hot cereals, hot and iced tea, coffee, fruit salads, salad dressings, cookies, as a replacement for simple syrup.
Need to know: Agave has gotten mixed reviews as a baking sweetener. It’s a matter of trying it and seeing the result. Start with a recipe that specifically calls for it and branch out from there. Since agave is sweeter than honey, maple syrup and sugar, use less. Darker grades and raw agave tend to be more robust in flavor than filtered light-colored versions. Agave is also now available in a variety of flavors.
To produce this up-and-coming sweetener, harvesters climb palm trees and collect the sap from the flower blossoms. This nectar is boiled into thick syrup, then dried and ground to produce a grainy, crumbly sweetener that’s not quite as sweet as refined white sugar. Palm sugar is sometimes called coconut sugar, as it can be made from coconut palms.
Pros: Palm sugar is a low-fructose, low-glycemic index sweetener, making it beneficial for diabetics or anyone watching their waistline. It’s believed to retain a significant amount of the nutrients found in its flower source, including B vitamins, and is also one of the most sustainable sweetener options on store shelves. Palms produce an average of 50 to 75 percent more sugar per acre than sugar cane.
Cons: Palm sugar is not yet as readily available in stores as other sweeteners and can be more expensive. “Keep a watchful eye for palm sugars that might be mixed with heavily refined sugars to cut costs,” says Costigan. “Use a quality brand and read ingredient labels carefully.”
Need to know: For optimal baking results, Costigan suggests grinding coarse sweeteners like palm sugar in a blender to a finer consistency so they dissolve better in batter.
Best for: Coconut-based desserts, muffins, cookies, cakes, brownies, quick breads.
Try this: Navitas Naturals’ Organic Palm Sugar (navitasnaturals.com)
Date sugar is made from dehydrated and ground dates.
Pros: Contains the abundance of fiber, vitamins and minerals, including iron and calcium, found in dried dates. It is one of the most “whole food” sweeteners available.
Cons: Date sugar can be tricky to find in stores. Granules don’t readily dissolve in liquid so it’s not ideal for sweetening beverages. Use it in recipes where bits of texture are an asset. “Date sugar also has a tendency to burn during cooking,” Costigan adds, so watch the oven carefully.
Best for: Sprinkling on puddings, crisps, cobblers, cereal, granola, yogurt, smoothies.
Try this: NOW Foods Date Sugar (nowfoods.com)
Since winning FDA approval for use as a sweetener in 2008, stevia is increasingly available in stores in granulated and liquid form. This extremely sweet sugar substitute, 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, is extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, native to Paraguay.
Pros: Think of stevia as a more “natural” alternative to calorie-free sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. Free of calories, stevia offers weight-loss benefits and won’t mess around with your blood sugar levels. In studies to date (albeit mostly industry funded), stevia has shown little in the way of health concerns.
Cons: By volume, some stevia products on the market actually contain more sugar alcohols, such as erythritol (added as bulking agents), than actual stevia extract. When consumed in large amounts, sugar alcohols may cause gas and other tummy troubles. Some brands have a bitter, metallic aftertaste that might be off-putting to some.
Best in: Drinks, fruit salads, cereal, yogurt, baked goods.
Need to know: It is important to follow the manufacturer’s directions when using stevia as a sugar replacement. A little goes a long way. Consider using stevia in combination with other natural products, such as molasses, maple syrup or rice syrup, to boost their sweetness and reduce calories.
Also called demerara-style or raw sugar, turbinado is produced by squeezing the juice from sugar cane and then evaporating it to form crystals that are larger than traditional white sugar. The gold-to-brown color is the result of the natural molasses that remains. A similar sugar is Sucanat, which is a whole cane sugar that contains all cane sugar’s nutrient-rich natural molasses. Also available is Rapadura, a finer grind whole cane sugar.
Pros: Measure for measure, these sugars contain fewer calories than heavily refined white sugar and supply many of the nutrients present in sugar cane. They add more complex flavor to desserts than table sugar and hold in more moisture, meaning moister baked goods. Turbinado and Sucanat may be a “greener” choice for the environment in that less energy is used to produce them.
Cons: Like other sugars, it’s important to consume turbinado and Sucanat in moderation to keep blood sugar in check. Yes, they contain nutrients, but nowhere near those offered in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other whole foods.
Need to know: You may want to grind turbinado and Sucanat to a finer consistency before baking with them. “The large crystals, however, can add a nice crunch when sprinkled on top of cookies and muffin batters,” says Costigan. Because these sugars retain a subtle hint of molasses, “they add wonderful flavor to chocolate, spice and fruit desserts but may not be suitable for a delicate vanilla or lemon cake.” For items like white cakes, Costigan recommends using an organic white cane sugar as opposed to heavily processed table sugar.
Best in: Pie crusts, muffins, cookies, cakes, dessert loafs, crisps, barbecue sauces, especially as a substitute for brown sugar.
Avocado Chocolate Pudding
SERVES 2 TO 3
This no-fuss, no-cook pudding provides an abundance of healthy fats from the avocado. Serve cold with a generous topping of fresh raspberries.
2 ripe avocados
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons agave syrup or maple syrup
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange zest, optional
½ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon sea salt
⅛ teaspoon cayenne or chili powder, optional
¼ cup unflavored hemp, rice or soy milk
1. Scoop out the flesh of the avocados and place in a blender or food processor along with remaining ingredients.
2. Process mixture until smooth. Spoon into serving dishes and chill.
Each serving contains 320 calories, 25g total fat, 7g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 114mg sodium, 28g carbohydrate, 11g fiber, 4g protein.
Vegan Chocolate Cookies
MAKES 12 TO 14 COOKIES
Chocolate lovers will adore these moist morsels. They may seem too moist when taken from the oven but they’ll firm up upon cooling. If you don’t have store-bought applesauce, peel and chop two medium apples; cook them in a saucepan until very tender and mash.
½ cup coconut oil, melted
½ cup palm, turbinado or Sucanat sugar
⅓ cup unsweetened applesauce
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¾ cup gluten-free All-Purpose Flour Blend of choice
¼ cup flax meal
1 teaspoon xanthan gum or guar gum
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup dairy-free chocolate chips*
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a cookie sheet.
2. In a bowl, combine coconut oil, sugar, applesauce, cocoa powder and vanilla.
3. In a separate bowl, combine flour, flax meal, gum, baking soda, cloves and salt.
4. Fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients, mixing until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.
5. By heaping tablespoons, place batter on a prepared cookie sheet about 2 inches apart, gently pressing down on each with the palm of your hand.
6. Place in preheated oven and bake for 10 minutes. Rotate cookie sheet 180 degrees and bake for an additional 5 minutes. Let cool before removing from sheet.
Each cookie contains 161 calories, 11g total fat, 8g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 109mg sodium, 17g carbohydrate, 2g fiber, 2g protein.
*TIP Allergy-friendly chocolate chips are available from Enjoy Life Foods, enjoylifefoods.com
Gluten-Free Banana Ginger Muffins
MAKES 10 MUFFINS
Incorporating chopped banana into these light muffins lets you cut down on the amount of sweetener and fat needed and boosts each muffin’s nutritional might. If desired, try honey in place of agave.
2 cups chopped bananas
⅓ cup coconut oil, melted
½ cup agave syrup, preferably light grade
2 eggs or egg substitute
½ teaspoon pure vanilla or almond extract
2 cups gluten-free All-Purpose Flour Blend of choice
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda + a pinch more
1 teaspoon xanthan gum or guar gum
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease 10 cups of a muffin tin.
2. Mash bananas with a fork or potato masher, leaving puree slightly clumpy. Mix with coconut oil, agave, eggs and vanilla or almond extract.
3. In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Stir banana mixture into the dry ingredients and gently mix until combined.
4. Divide batter among 10 greased muffin cups. Place in preheated oven and bake for 28 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Each muffin contains 236 calories, 9g total fat, 7g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 42mg cholesterol, 292mg sodium, 39g carbohydrate, 1g fiber, 2g protein.
Honey Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Low-fat, inexpensive pork tenderloin takes perfectly to this honey-infused glaze. Extra tenderloin can be sliced and served cold in salads and sandwiches. Butternut squash works well as a substitute for sweet potatoes, if desired.
2 pork tenderloins (about 1½ pounds total), excess fat removed
2 tablespoon vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons gluten-free soy sauce*
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
½ teaspoon hot sauce, optional
2 garlic cloves, grated
1 1-inch piece ginger, grated
1½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
3 tablespoons milk or unflavored dairy-free milk
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon butter or dairy-free buttery spread
1 1-inch piece ginger, grated
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Salt, to taste
1. Season pork with salt and pepper. In an ovenproof skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add pork and sear all sides until golden brown, about 5 minutes.
2. To make honey glaze, combine honey, soy sauce, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, rice vinegar, hot sauce, garlic and ginger in a bowl.
3. Transfer half the honey mixture to a separate bowl and set aside. Spread remaining half over pork and transfer skillet to preheated 425-degree oven. Roast pork until an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of meat registers 145 degrees, about 15 minutes. Coat with remaining glaze and let rest 5 to 10 minutes before slicing.
4. As pork cooks, steam sweet potatoes until very tender. With a potato masher or in a food processor, mash together potatoes, milk, maple syrup, butter, ginger, nutmeg and salt. Serve mashed sweet potatoes with pork slices.
Each serving contains 663 calories, 17g total fat, 10g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 169mg cholesterol, 1338mg sodium, 52g carbohydrate, 5g fiber, 72g protein.
Buckwheat Banana Pancakes with Blueberry Sauce
SERVES 2 TO 3
Buckwheat flour infuses these hearty pancakes with extra protein, fiber and nutrients. If you find buckwheat’s earthy flavor too strong on its own, replace half of it with another gluten-free flour, such as brown rice or quinoa, or with a gluten-free blend.
1 cup blueberries
¼ cup dark maple syrup or agave syrup
1 cup buckwheat flour
1 ripe banana, mashed
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1 egg or egg replacement
⅔ cup + 1 tablespoon unflavored hemp, rice or soy milk
1. To make blueberry sauce, whirl blueberries and maple syrup together in a blender until combined but still slightly chunky.
2. In a large bowl, combine flour, banana, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and egg. Stir in milk. Add more milk if needed to reach desired consistency.
3. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Drop batter, ⅓ cup at a time, on to the skillet and cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until nicely browned. Serve pancakes topped with blueberry sauce.