How Sweet it is! A Guide to Natural Sweeteners

Sugar and I have a love-hate relationship.  I love it, but I hate the effect it has on my body.   So, I try to avoid it and am pretty successful, except for on special occasions.  If you ever happen to be at a birthday party with me, and also happen to value your life, don’t get between me and the cake.

I’ve written before about the evil effects of refined sugar on our health.  Natural food enthusiasts declare it a total “zero” food, nothing more than empty calories and seductive sweetness.  I’ve never liked the idea of artificial sweeteners, and it never occurred to me to try anything else.  It turns out there’s an incredibly long list of natural sweeteners out there, each with its own claim to fame and particular uses.  I couldn’t possibly write about them all, so I’ve narrowed it down to a few favourites.

Agave Nectar
Slightly less viscous than honey, and similar in flavour, this nectar is made from the juice of “The Mexican Tree of Life and Abundance”, Agave Tequilana.  And yes, that’s the same plant that they use to make tequila.   Its low glycemic index makes it an alternative to honey for people who need to watch their blood sugar levels.  One and a half times as sweet as sugar, Agave nectar dissolves easily, making it a great sweetener for drinks.  I love drizzling it across pancakes.

Honey
After preparing this column last night, I spent the whole day today recommending honey to my sick and coughing patients.  I’d known that honey had been shown to outperform dextromethorphan in suppressing coughs, but never imagined that this age-old sweetener had so many beneficial properties.  Rich in antioxidants, honey also can contain strains of probiotic bacteria.  Some research suggests that despite its high glycemic index, it may still somehow improve blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity when compared to other sweeteners.  Studies have shown it to be more effective than silver sulfadiazine in preventing infections in burn patients, and it may even lower cholesterol levels.

Barley Malt Syrup
This syrup, made from sprouted barley, contains maltose, glucose and complex carbohydrates.  Maltose breaks down slowly, giving barley syrup its famously low glycemic index.  Apparently it contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, though probably in amounts too minute to have much of an impact.  This works well in baked goods (substitute 1 1/3 cups barley malt for 1 cup sugar), though you need to reduce the amount of liquid and add extra baking soda.

Date Sugar
I’d never heard of this one, but it sounds great.  They grind up dehydrated dates to produce it, so this sweetener is actually pure dried fruit, full of nutrients, complex carbohydrates and fibre.  Substitute it directly for sugar in baked goods, and also in crumb toppings for desserts.  It won’t work in drinks though, as the pieces don’t dissolve.

Maple Syrup
Rich in calcium and potassium, and sixty percent as sweet as sugar, maple syrup gets honours as one of the least refined sweeteners available today.  Health food enthusiasts claim that many non-organic brands actually contain formaldehyde, so it’s best to buy organic.

Stevia
Did you know that in Japan, stevia claims 52% of the sweetener market, sugar included?  We’re way behind the times on this one.  Stevia Rebaudiana is a sweet-leafed plant originally native to Paraguay, though it now grows in places as exotic as southern Ontario.  Glycosides known as steviosides give stevia its incredible sweetness, up to three hundred times sweeter than white sugar.

Part of the reason we’re not more familiar with it, is that stevia ran into some serious controversy with the U.S. FDA.  Supposedly because of a series of studies from the 1980’s that showed mutations in bacteria exposed to stevia, the FDA refused  to elevate it from “food supplement” to official sweetener status.  Stevia apparently contains a variety of phytonutrients, has no calories, and has been shown, in studies at Purdue University, to actually inhibit the development of dental plaque.   One small study out of Brazil also showed that it may help improve glucose tolerance.

Stevia is too sweet to substitute it directly for sugar in recipes. The sweetness of different brands or preparations varies, so you need to follow the substitution guidelines provided by the manufacturer.   Stable at high temperatures, it works well for sweetening hot beverages.

If you plan to try using any of these natural sweeteners with different foods and dishes, take the time to do your research first.  Each sweetener substitutes for sugar in a different ratio, and you may also need to adjust other ingredients such as liquids and flours, particularly in baked goods.

copyright Dr. Susan Biali 2008

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