Lately it seems like we as a society are more food conscious than ever (well, at least those of us who are paying attention). Dieting is nothing new, but I’m happy to see that some awareness is being built about what our food is actually made of. Disturbingly, in too many cases, it’s not actually food.
I have a sweet tooth (shocking, I know). Growing up I enjoyed my mother’s homemade baked goods just about every day, and it never really got me into trouble. However, as I’ve mentioned before, recently I’ve developed some food sensitivities and I’ve been trying to limit my intake of cane sugar, among other things. Whether you’ve got sensitivities/allergies or not, you know we can all stand to reduce our sugar intake a little (probably a lot). So how do you satisfy your sweet tooth without resorting to those chemical-laden sugar substitutes in familiar little colorful packets?
Being a food fanatic, I subscribe to Bon Appetit, and finding the newest issue in my mailbox always excites me, even though lately half the recipes have been off limits to me. In the most recent issue, I was pleased to see a short feature on natural alternatives to cane sugar. The four featured were coconut palm sugar, dates, agave nectar, and maple syrup. I’d like to talk a little about each (plus two I’m adding) and share some recipes for sweet treats you can make with them. You won’t miss the regular sugar!
DISCLAIMER: I’m not a nutritionist. All my knowledge about food comes from personal experience. If you’re diabetic, or have other medical issues sensitive to your dietary intake, consult a doctor before incorporating any of these ingredients into your diet.
What’s different about these sugars?
I must start off by saying that all but one of these alternative sugars are still sugars, so unfortunately you won’t want to use them as an excuse to eat unlimited sweets. They are, however, quite a bit healthier than cane sugar, and personally I’ve found it much more enjoyable AND effective to indulge in sweets made with these ingredients a few times a week than to gorge on zero calorie artificial sweeteners (which, in case I haven’t made it clear, are almost all made of chemicals).
The vast majority of the cane sugar we consume is highly refined, and provides no nutrients; only calories (along with a host of unwelcome effects on our internal systems). The alternative sugars I’m discussing, on the other hand, are unrefined or at least less refined, and contain a variety of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. They also simply have a different chemical makeup, and are processed differently by our bodies. Agave nectar, for example, is touted as one of the lowest GI (glycemic index) sugars out there—meaning it has a lower effect on blood sugar when consumed. I’m not an expert in the biology of how our bodies process these various compounds, but I can speak from experience. I had been plagued with mild acid reflux symptoms for years, but they’ve just about disappeared since I eliminated cane sugar from my diet (even prescription medication didn’t do that). The alternative sugars don’t aggravate my symptoms at all. My sister gets severe migraines triggered by consumption of cane sugar. The alternatives don’t bother her.
Coconut Palm Sugar
What is it: Coconut palm sugar is the crystallized sap of the coconut palm tree. It’s similar in texture to cane sugar while being lower GI, and can thus be substituted 1:1 in recipes for a more nutritious dessert. It’s rich in potassium and iron and has a richer delicious taste similar to brown sugar. Watch this short video from the Dr. Oz show for more info about coconut palm sugar and how it’s absorbed by the body.
Recipe: ANYTHING! That’s the best thing about this particular sugar. Next time you make your favorite dessert, try this instead of regular sugar.
What is it: A date is a fruit, sweet enough to be used as a sweetener in recipes. You may see date sugar in a store, but whole dates are plenty sweet and more nutritious (whole foods are always more nutritious than processed ones). Dates are high in fiber, B-complex vitamins, magnesium and iron. They’re also sticky when you chop them up, which can be useful in certain treats. They’re great to use in truffles and homemade energy bars, but I’m going to share something a little different.
Recipe: Vanilla chia pudding (copied out of Martha Stewart Living)
- 1/2 cup chia seeds
- 1 cup raw cashews, soaked 2 hrs to overnight in filtered water
- 4c filtered water
- 7 Medjool dates, pitted
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
- 2 Tbsp coconut butter or oil
- 4 tsp. vanilla extract
- Pinch salt
- Drain and rinse cashews. Add them to a large blender with water, dates, salt, cinnamon, coconut butter/oil, and vanilla.
- Blend on high for 2 minutes or until mixture is as smooth as possible.
- Pour into a large bowl with chia seeds. Whisk well.
- Let stand for 15 minutes, whisking occasionally. Refrigerate at least 3 hours before serving.
What is it: Agave nectar is made from the sap of the blue agave plant, which is a big spiky plant that looks like the top of a giant pineapple. It is low on the glycemic index, and as a bonus it’s quite a bit sweeter than sugar, so you can easily get away with using less of it. I use it as a sugar substitute in baking all the time, but because it dissolves in cold liquids it is particularly useful for sweetening your favorite iced beverage. Instead of reaching for a bottled or fountain iced tea, try brewing your own unsweetened tea and adding agave nectar. It’s tastier and much healthier.
Recipe: Peach Sweet Tea
- A good quality peach black or oolong tea, preferably flavored with real peach (as opposed to natural or artificial flavor). I really like this one.
- Filtered water, enough to fill the pitcher of your choice
- 1-2 Tbsp. agave nectar, or to taste
Heat water until steaming but not boiling. Follow the directions on your tea of choice to determine how much tea you need for the amount of water you have. Brew tea and remove tea leaves. Allow the tea to cool to room temperature. Stir in agave, and chill in a pitcher. Enjoy over ice!
Maple syrup is more sugary than the others listed, but it is still a bit lower on the glycemic index than white sugar, plus it contains vitamins such as calcium and manganese. And, come on… it’s delicious. It’s important to note that only PURE maple syrup counts here; “pancake syrup” and other similarly named imitators are usually just corn syrup in disguise. However, you don’t have to splurge on the expensive grade A stuff for baking. Grade B works wonderfully.
Recipe: Maple pecan ice cream, tweaked from this recipe
- 2/3 cup Grade B maple syrup
- 1 3/4 cups heavy cream
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
- Heat the maple syrup in a small saucepan over medium heat, simmering until it’s reduced by a quarter, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
- Heat the cream and milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until just simmering, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the yolks in a medium heatproof bowl until light in color and thickened slightly, about 2 minutes.
- Once the milk mixture is simmering, remove from heat and pour about 1/2 cup into the yolks, whisking constantly. Return the yolk mixture to the saucepan with the remaining milk mixture and place over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the custard is thick and coats the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes. (When you run your finger through the custard, a line should hold and not run back into itself.)
- Remove the custard from heat and stir in the maple syrup reduction and salt. Pour the custard through a fine-mesh strainer into a large heatproof bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- Once the ice cream base is chilled, freeze it in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Add crushed pecans about halfway through the churning process.
Your run of the mill clear yellow honey in a plastic bear isn’t feeding your body much more than sugar. Raw honey, on the other hand, is considered a super food. It has antibiotic properties, plus it contains antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, and phytonutrients. Depending on the variety, it can range from light, solid, and spreadable to thick and dark, almost like molasses. Typically, the darker the honey, the greater the antioxidant and nutrient content. As a bonus, its GI is less than half that of white sugar. It’s the only thing I put in my tea. And it’s so tasty, sometimes if I’m desperate and out of sweets I just eat a spoonful.
Recipe: Honey hazelnut pear cake. I eat this cake for breakfast. Seriously. Adapted from this recipe
- 2 1/2 c almond flour
- 1/2 c hazelnuts ground in food processor (or hazelnut flour)
- Pinch salt
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 c coconut oil (you can also use light olive oil, or melted butter)
- 3 Tbsp raw honey
- 3 eggs
- 1/4 c milk, or nut, coconut, or soy milk
- 1 pear, chopped
- 1 Tbsp orange zest (optional)
Preheat oven to 350F. Combine the dry and wet ingredients in separate bowls and mix each well (keep pear and zest separate). Pour wet mixture into dry and mix with a spatula until well incorporated. Stir in chopped pear and zest. Pour mixture into a greased 9-inch cake pan. Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until lightly golden and a tooth pic inserted into the center comes out clean.
Allow the cake to cool COMPLETELY before attempting to serve. Almond/hazelnut meal crumbles when warm, but holds together nicely once the cake is cool.
What is it: You may be familiar with stevia as a zero-calorie packet sweetener. In its whole form, it’s an herb you can grow in your garden or on your windowsill. It’s the leaves themselves that are sweet. Stevia is unique on this list in that it isn’t a sugar at all; it’s GI is actually zero. It is thus a great natural sweetener for people who need to keep their intake of all sugars extremely low. You can use stevia in powdered, liquid, or, if the recipe is conducive, whole leaf form. Be careful though; it can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, so you’ll want to use very little. I find it has an odd aftertaste when too much is present.
Recipe: Super berry smoothie
- A small handful each of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries
- A handful of dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, or chard
- 2-3 whole stevia leaves, or to taste
- 1/2 – 1c milk of choice, or filtered water
Blend on high until smooth. Enjoy!
Got any recipes or suggestions of your own to share? Our comments are always open!