Pick The Best Natural Sweetener for You
If you’re looking for an alternative to refined sugar, there sweet, natural alternatives!
-Sarah E. Wally, MS RD
Sweeteners have been a frequent target of the “food police” for years, with experts pointing the finger at sugar and sugar-substitutes for everything from obesity, to diabetes to hyperactivity. Luckily for those of us with a sweet tooth, the scientific evidence does not support a link between consumption of sweeteners and increased risk of obesity or behavioral disorders. Although, caloric sweeteners like sugar, honey, and syrup do contribute calories and should be consumed in moderation. The Institute of Medicine suggests a maximum intake of no more than 25 percent of total calories from caloric sweeteners, while the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise consumers to limit foods and beverages that contain added sugars.
Still, today’s consumers are particularly vigilant with regard to health and food choices and many are looking for alternatives to traditional refined sugar to sweeten beverages or use in home-baked treats. Natural sweeteners are gaining popularity as the public – and moms in particular – seek out less-processed foods for their families.
This natural, unrefined sugar is made from sugar cane. The sweet liquid extracted from the cane is crystallized through evaporation, and then spun in a large drum (or turbine) to further dry the sugar. By contrast, white sugar is obtained by refining sugar cane crystals to remove all of the cane juice flavor. Retaining some of the cane juice creates the beautiful amber hue that is characteristic of Turbinado sugar and adds a molasses-like flavor. Although it has a slightly higher calorie count that regular sugar (20 calories per teaspoon vs. 16), its distinctive crunchiness makes the perfect topping for freshly baked muffins and pies or sprinkled over cereal or fruit. Turbinado sugar also makes a delicious addition to homemade spice rubs for grilled meats, and works well in hot beverages (although, note that the larger sugar crystals do not fully dissolve in cold liquids). Sugar In The Raw®, with its signature brown paper packet, is the most well-known branded turbinado sugar.
The “new kid” on the block, Agave is gaining popularity and real estate on grocery store shelves across the country. This naturally occurring liquid sweetener comes from the cactus-like Agave plant, which is native to Mexico. Although Agave nectar can differ in thickness and color depending on the manufacturer, all Agave naturally has a low Glycemic Index (GI), which means it doesn’t cause the rapid spikes in blood glucose caused by refined white sugar and many other sweeteners. And, while slightly higher in calories than sugar (about 20 calories per teaspoon vs. 16), it is also 25 percent sweeter, so you may find you need less of it to get the same desired effect. Agave is perfect for use in hot or cold beverages, as a syrup on pancakes and waffles, or for cooking and baking. As with all liquid sweeteners, there is some trial and error when converting recipes that normally call for sugar. If using Agave in place of sugar in a recipe, start with 2/3 to 3/4 the amount called for, and reduce other liquids in the recipe by 10 to 25 percent. Popular Agave brands include Wholesome® and Agave In The RawTM.
Stevia is a plant with naturally sweet leaves that is native to South America. Although just recently approved for use in the U.S. as a food additive, Stevia has been used to naturally sweeten foods and beverages throughout the world for hundreds of years. The sweet compound from the Stevia plant is extracted in a process that is similar to steeping tea leaves, and then dried into a powder, which is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Unlike other natural sweeteners, Stevia is categorized as a zero-calorie sweetener and can be particularly useful for people with diabetes, as it contains just 1 gram carbohydrate per serving. Using Stevia is a great way to reduce sugar by 50 to 100 percent in your baking and cooking, and in beverages. New products in the marketplace are made specifically for baking, allowing for easy conversions when substituting Stevia for sugar in your favorite recipes. Well-known Stevia brands include Truvia®, Stevia In The Raw®, and Purevia®.
Honey is truly a naturally-occurring sweetener, with honey bees serving as the primary processors. Although researchers have claimed that honey is beneficial for everything from weight loss to allergy relief, consensus is still out on the actual health benefits of honey. Sweeter than sugar, honey is also a tad higher in calories (22 calories per teaspoon vs. 16), but less may be needed to get the same desired sweetness. The flavor and color of honey also differs widely, depending on the variety in the regional flowers from which the bees gather nectar. Honey is widely used to sweeten both hot and cold beverages, as a topping for oatmeal or toast, and can be used as a substitute for sugar in cooking and baking. If the honey in your pantry has hardened over time, simply place the container in a pan of warm water and let it de-crystallize slowly.
Sarah E. Wally is a registered dietician, nutrition expert and consultant for Cumberland Packing Corp.’s In The Raw® family of sweeteners.