Confused by all the “natural” sweeteners on your grocer’s shelves? Here’s the scoop. White sugar from cane or beets is highly refined, with a pronounced, adverse effect on insulin and blood sugar. Natural sweeteners are less refined and rich in naturally occurring minerals, and many have less impact on blood sugar. On a culinary level, they’re rich and deep in flavor and color, and can add complexity to treats. While none are nutritional superstars, a few natural sweeteners shine a little brighter than others. Some to try:
Agave. A golden-brown, liquid sweetener that’s less viscous than honey, but thicker than maple syrup. It was traditionally derived by boiling the sap of the blue agave plant, native to Mexico. Modern versions, however, are more refined and even the varieties labeled as “raw” are cooked at extremely high temperatures and highly refined.
However, the glycemic index measures only glucose levels; agave is 92 percent fructose, and only 8 percent glucose, so the numbers are misleading. Agave may actually impact your body in much the same way as high-fructose corn syrup—that is, by markedly increasing insulin levels. Use it in moderation and in small amounts. It’s best in smoothies, beverages and desserts like pies, puddings, cheesecake and custards, or those with a softer texture, but it can be used for baking breads, cakes, and cookies. Substitute 2/3 cup of agave for every cup of white sugar, and reduce liquid by about 1/3.
Brown rice syrup. A heavy syrup with a thick, creamy texture, pale golden color and mild sweetness that’s reminiscent of butterscotch. Brown rice syrup is made by fermenting brown rice with enzymes to convert the starches to sugars. It’s about 50 percent complex carbohydrates, and only about 5 percent glucose, so it has a relatively low glycemic index of 25, with about the same number of calories as sugar (45 per tablespoon). The downside: because it’s only half as sweet as white sugar, you’ll usually need more of it. Like agave, it’s best in sweets with a softer texture. Baked goods made with brown rice syrup tend to be heavy and hard, especially around the edges and surfaces. Use it instead for hard or crunchy baked goods, like cookies, biscotti or granola. It’s about a third as sweet as sugar; substitute 1 1/3 cups of brown rice syrup for every cup of sugar, and reduce liquid by 1/8 to 1/4 cup.
Palm sugar. Made by boiling down the sap of flowers from the coconut palm, this sweetener has a more delicate flavor than sugar or honey, with slight earthy undertones that hint of caramel and maple syrup. It’s also known as “coconut palm sugar.” Palm sugar has a relatively low GI of 35, with 45 calories per teaspoon. It’s available in chunks of rocks, or as a granulated substance that looks similar to brown sugar. Because it dissolves easily and provides bulk, the granulated form is ideal for baking. It’s slightly less sweet; substitute 1 1/8 cups of palm sugar for 1 cup of white sugar, in recipes where the mild maple-caramel flavor will be incorporated.
Date sugar. Derived from dried, dehydrated and ground dates, date sugar has a grainy texture, a deep, earthy flavor and color, and rich sweetness. The upside: it’s minimally refined and processed, and is rich in minerals. The downside: drying, dehydrating and grinding dates concentrates and increases sucrose levels, so date sugar has a strong impact on blood sugar, even though the glycemic index and calories (12 per teaspoon) are relatively low.
Date sugar is best used in baked goods that are forgiving of its color and texture, like spice cookies, nut breads, granolas, or anything with a darker color and dense texture; in light-colored cakes, cookies or puddings, it will show up as distinct brown flecks. Because it won’t dissolve in liquid, date sugar can’t be used to sweeten beverages, puddings, custards or pies. Substitute 2/3 cup date sugar for one cup sugar. It browns quickly and burns easily, so shorten cooking times by several minutes.
Florida Crystals. A brand name for organic sugar made from sugar cane grown in Florida. It’s unbleached and less processed than white sugar, with only a portion of the mineral-rich molasses removed; it’s also certified CarbonFree. Similar sweeteners include Sucanat (dried sugar cane that contains all the molasses), Rapadura (similar, but more finely ground) and turbinado (a less-processed version of sugar cane, with larger crystals). All have essentially the same calories and glycemic index as refined white sugar. Because it’s finer in texture and lighter in color than other unrefined sugars, Florida Crystals can be substituted one-to-one for sugar in cakes, cookies and other goods. Rapadura, Sucanat and turbinado add a light brown color and slight molasses flavor in cooking; best for recipes calling for brown sugar, like oatmeal cookies or quick breads.
Stevia. Derived from a small shrub native to Paraguay, stevia is extremely sweet, free of calories, and has no impact on insulin levels. While stevia is not approved by the FDA for use as a sweetener, it is approved as a dietary supplement. Moreover, stevia has been safely consumed for centuries in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and other countries. One old study (1) suggested that a metabolite of stevia could be mutagenic, but subsequent studies have refuted that initial finding, or found the effect insignificant (2, 3).
Some studies have also suggested that stevia may actually help control insulin levels. Stevia is sold as a white powder, in individual packets, and as a liquid extract, in the supplement section of natural products stores. One teaspoon of the extract is about as sweet as a cup of sugar, and is ideal for sweetening tea, lemonade, smoothies or other liquids.
Because it lacks bulk, it’s trickier to use in baking. In general, replace 1 cup of sugar with 1 teaspoon stevia plus 1/3 cup of a bulking agent like egg whites, apple sauce, mashed bananas, pumpkin puree, or yogurt. Stevia works better for cookies, biscotti, granola, pies, not so much for breads, cakes or anything where texture is important. Be careful of adding too much: it can add licorice and bitter undertones to recipes.
Xylitol. Originally derived from birch bark, most xylitol is now refined from corn; it’s a white crystalline substance that’s similar in appearance and sweetness as sugar, and can be used as a direct substitute in any recipe that calls for sugar. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, a class of sweeteners that the body doesn’t metabolize as sugar, so it has no effect on insulin levels, and contains about 1/3 the calories of sugar, about 9 per teaspoon. It’s extremely effective in preventing cavities (4), and may also have some positive effects on bone health.
The downside: because it’s not absorbed by the body, in large amounts it can cause gas, bloating and loose stools It dissolves easily in liquid, so it’s ideal for sweetening beverages and smoothies. Though it has the same color, texture and level of sweetness as white sugar, it’s not great in baked goods or recipes that require large amounts of sweetener, because of the laxative effect; use it in combination with other natural sweeteners. One important note: xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs, so keep it on a pooch-proof shelf.