5 Sweetener Alternatives
Sugar has a bad wrap. It's often criticized for creating cravings, causing spikes in blood sugar, and contributing to inflammation. Therefore for some, it makes sense to limit consumption. For others, consuming carbs and natural sugars, even in abundance, are part of an active and healthy lifestyle. Both camps can usually agree that when you enjoy something sweet, it’s probably best if they are from less refined, whole food sources. However, is it really possible to make the switch to natural sugar alternatives and where should you start? Here are some of the most popular natural sweeteners on the market today:
Who doesn’t love honey? It's the delicious golden nectar extracted from flowers and turned into thick deliciousness by beautiful, buzzing creatures. This sweet and sticky substance can be used as a natural sweetener for baked goods or in your tea or coffee. It has a very strong sweet factor and doesn’t take much to serve its purpose! Many people like using honey in their drinks during cold and flu season because it can act as a cough suppressant. It has anti-inflammatory properties and offers other health benefits such as boosting your immune system and fighting bacteria. Raw honey also contains antioxidants that are thought to help prevent heart disease, cancer and other health conditions. One thing to keep in mind about honey is that it does tend to lose nutritive properties when heated, so raw is the ideal choice when choosing a variety. (1)
Maple syrup is extracted from maple tree sap, which is boiled down and concentrated into a sweet syrup. It can take as much as 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Maple syrup contains some antioxidants as well as zinc, magnesium and manganese. (2) It’s a great option for sweetening desserts, oatmeal or coffee. We love maple syrup and use it in a smoky-sweet maple date emulsion using northeastern maple syrup smoked over applewood and our thickest organic date syrup.
The agave plant is indigenous to Mexico and has been used there for centuries in traditional medicine and culinary applications. Much like table sugar, it attributes sweetness without adding any other depth of flavor to your recipe.
Agave nectar is one of few natural sweeteners that’s considered low glycemic. Does that mean that it is healthy? It is mostly fructose which is much higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup. It is also devoid of most, if any, vitamins or minerals, making it a very sweet but nutrient lacking sweetener. (3)
Contrary to what most people believe, coconut sugar is not derived from coconuts, but from the sap of a coconut tree. The sap is tapped, heated and processed down into its granular form. Most would agree that coconut sugar tastes great and it offers some health benefits as well. Coconut sugar can be used to replace white sugar 1:1 and contains several trace minerals including zinc, iron and calcium. It isn’t as likely to spike your insulin levels like white sugar will often do. If you have high blood pressure or diabetes (or just want to lower your risk of heart disease), consider coconut sugar one of your options for replacing white sugar in recipes and beverages. (4)
Spending several months out of the year on trees at temperatures of over 100 degrees, dates are a hearty fruit and seem to thrive best in high heat with little water coming from above. Lab reports show the rich vitamin and mineral content of dates do not seem to be altered much through the production of dates into syrup or sugar, and in fact, in terms of nutrition, score much higher than most other natural sweeteners on the market. Just one tablespoon of date syrup contains potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, B Vitamins 1, 2, and 6, Folate, Niacin and Manganese as well as over 7 amino acids.
In addition to vitamins and minerals, dates, including in the form of syrup, sugar and paste, have an exceptionally high ORAC value. The ORAC, or Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, measures the antioxidant capacity in food which has shown to be connected to decreasing the risk of many diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Date syrup has an average ORAC value of 6500. Red wine has been praised for its ORAC value, which still comes in less than date syrup at 4600.
Dates are hard to beat on nutritional benefits, and they are extremely versatile. Not only can you enjoy caramelly, sun-kissed dates straight off a tree (sometimes lovingly referred to as tree candy), but you can enjoy the sweet nectar in the form of a syrup, the dried and pulverized dates as sugar, or ground up fresh dates as paste. Perhaps the best feature regarding dates is their complex flavor profile. Date syrup makes everyday pancakes a rich treat, and date paste gives protein and energy balls a caramel like sweetness that is hard to beat! Dates are also great in savory applications. Ever had a bacon-wrapped date? Add date syrup to acid, think balsamic or apple cider vinegar, a fat like olive oil and just a dash of salt and pepper and you have a delicious marinade or vinaigrette.
As you might have surmised, although we do love some of the other alternative sweetener options, we choose dates most often for their remarkable nutritional value, extraordinary flavor profile and multifaceted applications in baking and cooking.
1. John Skinner, Professor and Apiculture Specialist Entomology and Plant Pathology, University of TN
2. USDA database, https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/169661/nutrients
3. Hooshmand, Shirin et al. “Effects of agave nectar versus sucrose on weight gain, adiposity, blood glucose, insulin, and lipid responses in mice.” Journal of medicinal food vol. 17,9 (2014): 1017-21. doi:10.1089/jmf.2013.0162
4. Alternative sugars: Coconut sugar. Br Dent J 223, 749 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.bdj.2017.1011
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