There is no reason to use a processed sugar in the kitchen. Natural, unprocessed sweeteners are fantastic, full of flavor, nutritionally complex and are not a compromise. I recently did a post on alternative flours for gluten-free and grain-free lifestyles. I wanted to give a similar overview of alternative sweeteners. By no means a comprehensive list, this is an overview of some common natural sweeteners and I how they might be used.
So why an alternative sweetener? To be clear, all sugars, whether processed or unprocessed, contain the same number of calories, impact blood sugar and should be consumed in moderation. The primary reason is to use unprocessed sugars avoid the effects of refinement. I write more on this process in my article Sugar, The Devil is in the Refinement. In short, processed under high heat, using chemicals to bleach it, granulates sugars are stripped of all of their nutrients. In a natural, unrefined sugar there are minerals present which aid the body in digesting it. With a processed granulated sugar, the body is leeched of the minerals needed to digest the sugar since all of the minerals have been removed during processing1William Dufty, Sugar Blues https://books.google.com/books/about/Sugar_Blues.html?id=-ORrPwAACAAJ. While they do make an organic granulated sugar, it is still a highly processed product.
Coconut Sugar – 1 to 1 for sugar in any recipe Coconut sugar has a more molasses taste than granulated sugar and might be closely compared to brown sugar. I have long been a fan of coconut sugar, and you can read my article on it here. It does not taste like coconut at all, it is not made from the fruit, but instead the dried nectar. This is an unprocessed sugar and is something I always keep in my pantry. I use it as a replacement for white and brown sugar in my recipes. It is brown in color and will tint your food.
Sucanat – 1 to 1 for sugar in any recipe In spite of the unfortunate name, Sucanat (su- as in sugar, can- as in cane, nat- as in natural) is a great product that is simply unprocessed dried sugar cane juice. What you think you are getting in a bag of granulated white sugar, is what Sucanat actually is…a simple, natural plant-based sweetener. The natural taste of sugar cane is much richer than granulated sugar, more like molasses. The taste is quite similar to coconut sugar, but is slightly different. I always keep this in my pantry and is my most commonly used sweetener. I use it as a replacement for both white and brown sugar in any recipe.
Honey – Sweeter than sugar, can be used in baking Many healing diets do not allow for any sweetener other than honey. As such, people have gotten really creative about using it in any sort of recipe. I am not going to lie, I spent many years with just honey and I have baked cookies with it, made sauces, and used it as a topping. As you know, honey has a strong flavor which does impact your recipes. Be prepared to embrace the flavor. A couple of things on honey: Do not buy standard “honey-bear” honey from the grocery store. Modern honey processing uses GMO-sugar water or High Fructose Corn syrup to feed to the bees, which is not only terrible for the bees2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4103092/3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3735052/, but it results in a completely different nutrient profile4http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/109429106009817085https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/109429106009817086https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308814605003262. Look for wild, organic, raw, preferably local honey. Processed/pasteurized honey is exposed to high heat, and is often highly filtered to give the desired transparent look, which removes minerals and beneficial pollen. Some products are even cut with high fructose corn syrup to cheaply extend the product7https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2016/ay/c6ay01082b/#!divAbstract8https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19943465/. Moral of the story is scrutinize anything you put in your body and honey should be looked at carefully to ensure that it is of a quality that you want to consume. Using honey in recipes requires a little finessing to get the quantity to taste since it is not a 1:1 replacement for sugar. Because honey is liquid it will change the consistency of dough and batter, so be prepared to adjust liquid ingredients. Your best bet is to just start with less and test it for sweetness.
Coconut Nectar – Liquid nectar, similar to honey This is a lesser known product, but I am a huge fan of coconut sugar and wanted to share this with you. Coconut nectar is the raw, liquid form of coconut sugar, before it is dried. Coconut nectar is rich in minerals and has a nice flavor. It is a good replacement for honey for a different flavor profile. The consistency is like a very stretchy maple syrup. Coconut Secret is the brand that I use.
Maple Syrup/Maple Sugar – Replacement for sugar in some recipes If you love the flavor of maple, consider using it more in the kitchen. Maple syrup and it’s dried sugar version are a real treat. A quality, unprocessed maple syrup is rich in minerals and flavors and is great in baking. Because it is liquid, like honey, you will need to make adjustments to the liquid content to substitute it in a recipe. Consider trying it with my Grain-Free Maple Cookies recipe.
Stevia – Natural sugar-free plant-based sweetener, however modern granulated products are highly refined Stevia is sort of having its moment, because unlike most sweeteners it does not contain sucrose or fructose. The sweetener is derived from a plant that has a naturally sweet leaf. With record numbers of diabetes diagnoses, stevia has become a hot commodity in the sugar-free category. Stevia is being marketed to people who are diabetic, as it does not impact blood sugar levels. This is good and bad. The increased demand has helped natural stevia products become more widely available, but it has also led to the rise in many highly refined, highly processed products hitting the store shelves. Stevia was traditionally available as a liquid product, like a tincture, which has a prominent aftertaste. The commercialized versions and granulated the product and processed it to remove the color and give it the appearance of a granulated white sugar. If you choose to use stevia I would encourage you to do your research and find a minimally processed option.
Agave I do not use agave, as this product has become highly processed and it is difficult and expensive to find a raw and natural form
Monk Fruit Sweetener – Highly processed sweetener that is hitting the market right now Like stevia, monk fruit is a sugar-free, calorie-free sweetener that comes from a round, green fruit which contains a naturally sweet antioxidant called mogroside. The benefit of this product would be for people who are diabetic, as monk fruit does not impact blood sugar levels. Like stevia, the product does have a prominent aftertaste. Many of the commercially available monk fruit sweeteners have added sugars. If you choose to use monk fruit I would encourage you to do your research and find a minimally processed option.
Date Paste – Make yourself, great for raw dishes You and a blender will make this natural, fruit sweetener. Here is a little tutorial from the great site, Detoxinista.