Most of us love the taste of sweetness, and we are not to blame, we are wired for it! But what can we use other than white sugar to satisfy our sweet tooth?
White sugar has found its place snugly in the culinary world, performing well in baking, making caramel, and dissolving in liquids with ease. Why change? We know that sugar has an impact on our brain, organs, blood sugar levels, mood, sleep, so there are many reasons to try alternatives. Here are some natural alternatives I’m familiar with that I’d recommend and others I think are better left on the store shelf.
The Real Deal
If you are going to use standard sugar, look for non-GMO, organic, raw, and/or fair trade cane sugar. Raw cane sugar is less refined than white sugar, but it still packs that sweet punch to your blood sugar, and should therefore be used with discretion.
One of the closest natural sugars to refined white sugar in terms of replacement in baking is coconut sugar. It looks much like brown sugar (which is essentially sugar still containing its natural molasses) and behaves somewhat like brown sugar would, though it is a bit more sensitive to heat, burning more easily.
Though it is popular in the Paleo world and to me a healthier choice than ordinary white sugar, coconut sugar still affects blood sugar levels, so use it sparingly.
Sliced or chopped dates are often used to sweeten and enhance flavor in French and North African dishes such as tagines. My preference is the king of dates, the medjool, large and plump, but it is definitely a calorie bomb best consumed in small amounts.
Pitted, halved, and wrapped in half a strip of bacon and cooked in the oven, a date makes a delicious appetizer or accompaniment to breakfast. I use chopped dates in homemade nut-seed-chocolate-date bars (recipe on my website) as an alternative to expensive store-bought granola bars. A little date bar goes a long way for a sweet snack.
Because of its moisture, it can be a challenge to bake with honey, but if you experiment and substitute part of a recipe with honey, you might find great uses for it! We make our own homemade granola using raw, organic honey as the sweetener.
Raw honey contains the enzymes and microbial richness that has been harnessed traditionally for pastes, tinctures, and other natural remedies. Overheating raw honey diminishes the bacterial content and can burn the honey. Low and slow cooking and baking, if at all, will help protect that raw goodness.
Pasteurized (heated) honey can be used to sweeten in baking and cooking, but I still would recommend an organic and/or locally sourced artisanal honey over those mass-produced honey brands that are potentially mixed with other non-honey ingredients.
A little bit of high-quality honey goes a long way, so why bother with low quality anyway? Know your source. The same goes for maple syrup, where the chances are high that an artisanal brand will contain the nutrients and complexity of flavor you are looking for in your cooking and baking other than just the sweetness.
Stevia, Monk fruit, and Erythritol
Stevia is a plant and comes in powdered and liquid forms, but it is often mixed with artificial sweeteners. Read the label to make sure you are getting 100% pure stevia.
While some people favor stevia for its lack of effect on blood glucose levels, it can sometimes still negatively affect people with autoimmune issues.
I have found monk fruit and erythritol most useful when I need a sweetener for coffee beverages or for baking and cooking.
Monk fruit sweetener is derived from an Asian, antioxidant fruit that has no purported effect on blood sugar levels, but lends a sweetness to foods and beverages very close to that of regular sugar.
Erythritol, a sugar alcohol derived from cane sugar (look for non-GMO), requires less in quantity to match the sweetness of white sugar and has no glycemic effect.
Erythritol is often found combined with monk fruit to create a one-to-one sugar replacement (without the glycemic load of sugar and without troubling the gut), which to me is a match made in heaven.
What To Avoid
Based on what I’ve learned over the years, I would recommend avoiding any artificially-derived sugar alternative, as our bodies tend to not know what to do with artificial ingredients.
We often feel the deleterious effects of these chemicals by way of high blood sugar or the accumulation of toxins that our bodies have trouble processing and excreting.
Read the Label
Much of the packaged food on grocery shelves today, whether a beverage or snack, is made with high fructose corn syrup or some derivative thereof.
These processed syrups have high glycemic effects on our bodies, raising blood sugar levels, making us crave more, and potentially leading to chronic conditions. (Not to mention their impact on the environment being derived from mono-cropped corn, requiring pesticides and irrigation, and often being genetically modified.)
Marketed as a natural alternative to sugar, even agave is basically a processed fructose with a similar glycemic effect to high fructose corn syrup.
Keeping an eye out for products that are non-GMO or GMO-free will help keep highly processed syrups and other ingredients off of your grocery list. Read the labels before buying, and go for the better alternatives mentioned above.
Tania Teschke is a writer and photographer who is passionate about French food and wine and is the author of The Bordeaux Kitchen,: An Immersion into French Food and Wine, Inspired by Ancestral Traditions. Tania has learned from cooks, butchers, chefs, and winemakers in France and holds a diploma in wine science and tasting from the University of Bordeaux. Tania continues to explore the deep connection the French have to their land, their cultural heritage, and to the nutritional density of their foods.