What are “natural sweeteners” and why they are preferred over refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup? Meredith McCarty defines natural sweeteners by the four advantages she believes they have over sugar:
1. They are derived from a natural source that may be organically grown.
2. They use relatively simple, chemical-free processing techniques.
3. They may contain maltose and complex carbohydrates that break down more slowly in the body than the simple sugars sucrose, glucose, and fructose.
4. They may contain vitamins and minerals necessary for their metabolism.1
Every natural sweetener has its unique character. Sweeteners vary in taste. Some that are bold in flavor can add special interest or flare to your favorite dessert recipe. Or, maybe the unique flavor of certain ones will not suit at all. Some are particularly low in sugar and may be especially helpful for anyone trying to control blood sugar.
Besides nutrition, another reason to substitute natural sweeteners for sugar is to preserve the sense of taste. Sugar, when eaten in large amounts over time, depletes the body’s reserves of zinc, and zinc is necessary for normal taste perception.2 The more sugar we eat, the more we need: Excessive sugar can dull our taste, creating the cravings for more and more sugar in an effort to satisfy.
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Alternative Sweeteners and How to Substitute for Sugar in Your Favorite Recipes
Just as every natural sweetener has it own unique character, perhaps each has its own experienced expert-advocate. In my own research, I have turned to some of my favorite authors, including Paul Pitchford, Sally Fallon, Evelyn Roehl, Ann Louise Gittleman, and Meredith McCarty, all of whom have written about natural sweeteners. Each seems to have a unique “flavor” of ideas and recommendations.
Of all the natural sweeteners, both Paul Pitchford and Meredith McCarty prefer malted grain sweeteners (barley malt and brown rice syrup) because they are “the least concentrated, least sweet, and most nearly whole-food sweeteners.”3 Not highly processed, they are made in a natural and safe way that mimics the conversion of grain into sugar when we chew: Malting grains involves the amylase enzyme, similar to the way saliva in the mouth digests starches into simple sugars when we take the time to chew our food. Malted grains, which are only a third as sweet as refined sugar, also come with the major advantage that they metabolize very slowly and uniformly and do not create the spike in blood sugar that is associated with the simple sugars sucrose, fructose, and glucose. Meredith McCarty believes malted grains are “the most healthful of all” because they are processed naturally and “provide a slow but prolonged source of energy that is calming and soothing in comparison to other sweeteners.”4
Malted grains are also available as granules, an advantage in recipe conversions. But their distinctive taste may not always be appropriate for the flavor and texture that you are trying to achieve. This is where experimentation comes in. Play around using your favorite recipes. See what happens. Have fun!
A baked product made by substituting a malted-grain sweetener may even help to calm and soothe young family members. It is all interesting information. Just pay attention to how you feel.
The list below reflects my best effort to meld the information from the sources cited above, but please know that you may find some differences in advice and information depending upon whom you choose to read. Also, to provide you with better tips for baking, I have asked for advice and help from Ellen Arian, a wonderful friend who is a professional whole foods chef, and who bakes often for her clients, workshops and lectures, in addition to her husband and three children (www.ellensfoodandsoul.com). I am indebted to her for many of the baking tips that follow.
Agave: Rather new to the market, agave is already creating controversy. Critics point out that agave “nectar” is not truly derived from cactus, but rather from the starchy agave root bulb, which is converted to “nectar” by a method that is similar to the process used to transform corn to high fructose corn syrup.5 Because agave has a neutral effect on blood sugar levels and is used in small amounts (it is 50% sweeter than sugar), it may serve a role for some people, particularly diabetics who are trying to control blood sugar levels. It is more neutral (tasteless) than maple syrup or honey, and it works beautifully in homemade sorbet recipes in place of refined sugar. Agave is better as a supplementary sweetener for occasional use rather than as a mainstay.
Amasake: Derived from fermented rice, amasake is less than 40% maltose sugar (compared to white sugar at 99% sucrose). Maltose is a complex form of sugar so it is metabolized more slowly than sugar/sucrose. Amasake is one of the least potent sweeteners because of its low sugar content (it contains the least sugar of popular natural sweeteners) and because, as discussed above, maltose is slowly absorbed by the blood stream.
Barley Malt: The fermented extract of roasted barley sprouts, barley malt is only 50% maltose sugar so it, like amasake, is relatively easy on blood sugar levels. It is very strongly flavored so it is not always suitable. It can work in spice cakes and with root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots (e.g., sweet potato pie or carrot cake). It also browns beautifully and sweetens home-baked bread. Barley malt is not as sweet as honey and it offers slight amounts of vitamins and minerals. Because it is thick, it should be warmed or brought to room temperature before measuring. Helpful tip: Lightly oil measuring spoons or cups that you plan to use so it slides out easily. When baking, you might develop the habit of measuring fats and oils before sweeteners. This will make it easier to clean measuring utensils.
Brown Rice Syrup: Like barley malt, brown rice syrup is made from fermented brown rice, and is just 50% maltose sugar. It is the mildest flavored of the liquid sweeteners and is less destructive to the body’s mineral balance, providing some of its own trace minerals. Brown rice syrup is about half as strong as honey and can work well when paired with maple syrup in baking. It is best suited to recipes where a crisp topping is desired and less suited to cakes and muffins. This is because it tends to become hard and sticky with baking, an effect that works well in a crisp or crumble.
Date Sugar: Made from finely-ground, dehydrated dates, it tastes similar to brown sugar and is rich in nutrients, with most still intact. Date sugar, which is more than 70% sucrose, is very sweet, and it provides fiber and a host of vitamins and minerals. It is high in tryptophan, so it can help calm hyperactive children. Unfortunately, because it does not readily dissolve, has a tendency to burn, and does not result in a pleasing texture, it may not substitute easily in your favorite baked goods or in hot beverages. For baking, maple crystals are a better choice. Date sugar is better used as part of a sweet crisp topping, or as a solo topping for hot grain cereals. (Date sugar may be hard to find on store shelves.)
Fruit Juices: Fruit juices are about 10% sucrose. Try to make your own since high heat used in commercially processed juices can destroy nutrients. Fruit juice is versatile and can work in all types of desserts, and pairs well with maple syrup in baked goods. Like all ingredients, it should be brought to room temperature before using. Fruit juice requires a lower baking temperature, which means you will also have to experiment with baking times. Try reducing the oven temperature 25 F degrees from what is called for and begin checking about 10 minutes in advance, and in 5 minute intervals, from what is outlined in your recipe directions.
Honey: Made from flower nectar, it is highly refined and processed, in this case in the stomachs of bees. It is important to buy organic honey whenever possible, since honey is not the pure product we might imagine it to be. Sugar waters, insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides are used in the rearing of bees. Also , in fighting mites, many beekeepers use highly toxic coumaphos strips. Traces of all these pesticides can be found in commercial brands of honey. Honey is 85% sugar, three-quarters glucose and one-quarter fructose, and is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream. Honey has a strong taste, which is much sweeter than sugar. In minute doses, honey has some medicinal benefits, both for inflammation and as an anti-microbial.
Maple Syrup: Maple syrup is boiled-down sugar-maple tree sap and provides a host of trace minerals incorporated from the tree roots growing deep in the ground. It deserves a central place in baking since it is local to the Northeast, has a long-standing history, keeps well in the refrigerator, and provides a gentle sweetness that works well in all sorts of baked goods. For people trying to control blood sugar levels it may have to be used conservatively since it is concentrated; it is 85% sucrose. Maple syrup has a strong flavor all its own, which imparts a wonderful taste to many baked goods and especially dairy-based desserts. (Avoid commercially-processed brands that often employ formaldehyde. Buy organic maple syrup and try to purchase it in glass bottles to reduce the risk of lead contamination.) You might want to use Grade B syrup in baking because it often costs less and has a fuller flavor, while Grade A is an option for anyone who wants a lighter flavor and does not mind paying a little extra. Maple syrup can be mixed half and half with brown rice syrup or apple juice, so enjoy experimenting.
Maple Crystals (Maple Sugar): Maple crystals are a wonderful, all-purpose sweetener that substitutes easily for refined sugar in nearly all recipes. It is especially good for children transitioning away from refined sugar. It is very versatile, though it may disappoint when baking cookies since it does not always produce the same crisp product achieved with sugar. Made from what is left after evaporating all the liquid from maple syrup, it is rich in trace minerals with a unique maple flavor that adds depth to foods. It has a tendency to clump, but a quick trip through a spice grinder can quickly rectify this. Since maple crystals can be costly, it is worth buying them in bulk. A good source is www.coombsfamilyfarm.com.
Molasses: The byproduct of the sugar refining process, unsulfured molasses is made from the juice of natural cane and is very sweet. Medium/dark molasses, from the second extraction, is moderately sweet. Blackstrap molasses, which is 65% sucrose, is made from the last extraction, so it is the most concentrated in minerals, especially iron, calcium, zinc, copper, and chromium; but it is also the most concentrated in toxins such as lead and pesticides.
Rapadura: Unrefined evaporated cane juice, it contains minerals, especially silica. It resembles sugar and so is a direct and easy substitute for sugar in baking. Like sugar, it is pure sucrose.
Sorghum Syrup: Sorghum, 65% sucrose, is made by boiling down cane juice. Because sorghum cane attracts few insects, it is rather free of pesticides so it is a good sweetener for those seeking chemical-free sweeteners.
Stevia: A sweetener derived from an herb native to Latin America, it does not affect blood sugar levels and can be used successfully by those unable to use other natural sweeteners. Choose only the green or brown extracts or powders; the white and clear extracts can create imbalance because they are very refined and are devoid of nutrients.7 A powerful sweetener, stevia must be used sparingly; and because it has no bulk, it is not appropriate for baking. Stevia was only recently approved to be sold as food, rather than as a supplement. Because it is a plant, it cannot be patented, so it does not have a strong marketing force to foster its use.
Sucanat: The abbreviation/trade name for Sugar Cane Natural. It is pure, naturally dried sugar cane juice with its molasses content remaining. The molasses content leaves brown flecks in baked products. It also clumps, so you may need to sift or grind it in a spice grinder before using. It is 88% sucrose, but with most phyto-nutrients of the cane still intact. It has a mild flavor with a molasses accent and can be substituted 1:1 for sugar.
Note concerning turbinado (raw) sugar and brown sugar:
Turbinado, which is often advertised as a nutritious natural sweetener, is best avoided. As the first extraction from molasses, it can contain insects, molds, and bacteria, unless heated and sanitized. It is actually highly processed.
Brown sugar is simply refined white sugar with a bit of molasses added to add color and taste.
The Chart below can be used flexibly. Sweetening foods is a matter of taste and also depends upon where you are on your own personal journey transitioning away from sugar. You can use this guide as a starting point and then adapt it to your own tastes and preferences. Experiment, but you cannot go wrong following these suggestions.
Amount in Cups
Reduce Liquid/Cup Sugar
Add Baking Soda:
|Barley Malt||1 1/3||1/4 cup||1/4 t.|
(not for baking)
|Fruit Juice||2/3||1/3 cup||1/4 t.|
|Honey||2/3||1/4 cup||1/4 t.|
|Maple Syrup||2/3||3 T.||1/4 t.|
|Brown Rice Syrup||1 1/3||1/4 cup||1/4 t.
Copyright 2009 Pathways4Health.org
- Mary McCarty, Sweet and Natural, 17. [↩]
- Biochemist Paul A. Stitt, quoted in Beyond Antibiotics, p. 84. [↩]
- Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods, 193. [↩]
- McCarty, 18. [↩]
- The Weston Price Foundation, Wise Traditions, Spring, 2009. [↩]
- I do not believe that fructose belongs on the list of natural sweeteners since it is often made from refined corn and can deplete the body of chromium and copper stores. Although metabolized more slowly than sucrose, like sugar, it has no nutritional value. [↩]
- Paul Pitchford. [↩]