June 2009: Natural Sweeteners

Natural Sweeteners as Substitutes for Sugar

Refined white sugar is a highly concentrated chemical. It is 99 percent pure sucrose, stripped of its natural nutrients. Sugar depletes our body of vital nutrients because just for its metabolism, we must tap into our stores of vitamins and minerals. Because our body is programmed to expect foods in their natural whole form, sugar creates a state of imbalance and a sense of emptiness that can set up cravings for its missing fiber, water, and nutrients. As a depleting food additive, sugar fosters acute disease by depressing the immune system, and it fosters chronic disease by upsetting the delicate interplay and intricate balancing of the endocrine-immune-digestive-assimilation systems of the body.

Indeed, we are supposed to like sweets. Nature planned it this way, giving us a plethora of sweet taste buds to steer us toward sweet foods that are also nutrient-dense, in order to encourage our survival. Nature also created an abundance of sweet, whole foods in the plant world to nourish us and for us to savor and enjoy.

Attracted to sweets, civilizations have for centuries consumed natural sweeteners for pleasure, energy, and health. Early healers understood, for example, that in minute doses honey could even be used medicinally. Because natural sweeteners do come with a host of vital nutrients that aid metabolism, they are a better choice than sugar.

Still, because all natural sweeteners are highly concentrated foods, they need to be used sparingly. Recall that it takes 17 feet of sugar cane to make one cup of sugar and that the 12-15 teaspoons of sugar in a typical bottle of Coke represent the sugar-energy concentrated from over four feet of sugar cane. Like sugar, all natural sweeteners are highly concentrated forms of energy. A tree must surrender 40 gallons of maple sap to make just one gallon of maple syrup. Between eight and 12 gallons of sorghum juice are needed to make one gallon of sorghum syrup. And, close to five pounds of fruit are required to make one pint of concentrated fruit juice. These comparisons make it easy to see why natural sweeteners are concentrated foods that, like sugar, can quickly elevate blood sugar levels.

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A Word About Artificial Sweeteners
Today we must deal with a vast and confusing world of sweeteners and sweetener combinations. Store shelves offer a variety of natural and artificial sweeteners, as well as a wide array of packaged/processed food products that incorporate them. Sometimes these sweeteners also include sugar alcohols, an effort by food companies to take advantage of the way they can be combined for synergistic and offsetting/ complementary effects (since sugar alcohols mute the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners). Each category of sweetener, as well as each specific product, differs in terms of how it is made, how it is metabolized, and how it affects the body. Our focus in this newsletter is limited to natural sweeteners, which are the only sweeteners that qualify as natural products.

Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin (Sweet-n-Low), aspartame (Nutrasweet and Equal), and Acesulfame-K (Sunett and Sweet One) are made by chemical (not food) companies. Like many artificial food colorings and flavorings, they are synthetic products derived chemically from decayed petroleum and natural gas by-products!link Constructed from dead underground matter, as opposed to living, organic, above-ground foods, these products are not something Nature programmed our bodies to recognize. Monsanto manufactures saccharin and aspartame (Monsanto bought Searle, the company that originally discovered aspartame), while Celanese, maker of synthetic fibers, created Acesulfame-K. Even sucralose (Splenda), which is the only low-calorie sweetener made from sugar, is a chemically-manipulated product created in the lab. Sucralose/Spenda seems no more deserving of the natural label than its other no-calorie cousins.

Rather new to the market are the sugar alcohols, like xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, and maltitol. These are created chemically by hydrogenating a type of carbohydrate. Sugar alcohols are becoming very popular because they can be combined with artificial sweeteners to help mask the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners. (We might wonder what our body is trying to tell us by the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners. Perhaps it isour taste buds rebelling to something so foreign. Little wonder when we consider how they are made:saccharin, by combining anthranilic acid, nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, and chorine with ammonia; and,aspartame by joining the isolated amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine with the alcohol, methanol.link In addition, because sugar alcohols do not feed oral bacteria, they can be used in chewing gum and other sweets without fostering tooth decay.

According to a 2007 survey by the market-research firm Packaged Facts, almost half of all households in America purchase and consume no-calorie sweeteners. Beyond this direct use, Americans consume more artificial sweeteners, of course, through packaged-processed foods where chemical sweeteners are hidden either singularly or in combination. One has to wonder what these chemically-manipulated sweeteners, some of which are petroleum-based, do to our systems. How does the body recognize them? Or, deal with them?

And Weight Control Many people use artificial sweeteners to try to control weight. Yet, research suggests this can be a self-defeating strategy: A 2005 study by the University of Texas found that the use of diet drinks correlated with weight gain, as the sweet taste set off a craving for energy-rich foods: People think they can just fool the body. But maybe the body isnt fooled. If you are not giving your body that food energy you promised it, maybe your body will retaliate by wanting more energy.link

Animal studies appear to confirm the link between the use of artificial sweeteners and weight gain. The sweet taste triggers a release of insulin, creating a dip in blood sugar, and a subsequent craving for more calories to stabilize blood sugar levels. Prolonged use of artificial sweeteners leads to an increase in daily calories and weight gain, as well as a loss of the natural checking tendency to eat less at the next meal.link

Natural Sweeteners, the Alternatives of Choice
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.link

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 bodys reserves of zinc, and zinc is necessary for normal taste perception.link 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.link 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.link

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.link 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 bodys 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.link 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.
Date Sugar
(not for baking)
1 1/2
Fruit Juice 2/3 1/3 cup 1/4 t.
Honey 2/3 1/4 cup 1/4 t.
Maltose 1 1/2 slightly
Maple Syrup 2/3 3 T. 1/4 t.
Maple Crystals 3/4-1
Molasses 1/2
Brown Rice Syrup 1 1/3 1/4 cup 1/4 t.
Sorghum Syrup 2.3 slightly
Sucant Equal 1/4 t.

June Recipes: Sweet Breakfast Treats for June Celebrations
June is a special month. The longest days of the year bring weddings, graduations, reunions and other special times when friends and family gather. When we look ahead to these occasions, having a few delicious breakfast treats baked ahead of time can be helpful, particularly if we have house guests of various ages and sleeping schedules. The following recipes can be made in advance and are as delicious a day later as they are fresh-baked from the oven. In your times of celebration, we hope they please the guests while they also take pressure off the host and hostess.

Apple Upside-Down Biscuit Cake
For the topping:
3 T. unsalted butter
2 T. maple sugar
1 lb. Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into thin wedges
For the cake:
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
3 T. maple syrup
1 t. baking powder
t. baking soda
t. salt
t. cinnamon
5 T. cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425 F.
For topping: Heat butter in an ovenproof 10-inch heavy skillet (preferably well-seasoned cast-iron) over moderate heat until foam subsides. Stir in maple syrup and remove from heat. Spread mixture evenly in skillet and arrange apples, overlapping in one layer.
For cake: Blend flour, syrup, baking powder and soda, salt, and cinnamon in a food processor. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Transfer to a bowl and add buttermilk, stirring just until mixture is moistened. Drop batter on top of apples and gently spread, leaving a 1-inch border around the edge of the skillet so cake can expand. Bake cake in middle of oven until golden brown and firm to the touch, 20-25 minutes. Cool cake in skillet on a rack 3 minutes, then invert onto a platter. Replace on the cake any apples that stick to the skillet. Serve warm with crme fraiche or sour cream.
Source: Ellen Arian

Breakfast/Snack Raisin Squares (18-24 squares)
3 cups seedless raisins
1 cups filtered water
1 cinnamon stick
3 T. fresh lemon juice
cup kuzu or arrowroot, dissolved in
2 T. water
3 cups rolled oats
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
t. salt
pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup maple syrup or barley malt

Combine all ingredients in a 2 quart saucepan. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes.
2. Discard the cinnamon stick. In a blender or food processor, puree the raisins and return them to the saucepan. Add the dissolved kuzu and cook over high heat, stirring until thickened and clear; set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 350 F. Oil a 9-by-14 inch cake pan.
4. Crust: Place the oats, flour, and salt in the container of a food processor. With the machine running, drop in the pieces of butter, one at a time, until well mixed (Or, cut the butter into the flour in a bowl, using 2 knives until the mixture is crumbly.)
5. With the food processor still running, slowly pour in the syrup or barley malt (or stir it into the flour in the bowl) until well mixed and you have a soft dough. Divide the dough in half.
6. Roll out one-half between two pieces of wax paper, to fit the cake pan. Remove the top paper. Invert the dough into the pan and carefully peel off the bottom paper. Gently press the dough into all the corners of the pan, then fold over or press down the edges so that the crust is flat with no border. Spread the filling evenly over the crust, smoothing with a rubber spatula.
7. Break up the remaining dough between your fingers until crumbly. Sprinkle the crumbly dough evenly over the raisin filling, covering it completely. Press down lightly.
8. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until very lightly browned. Let cool, then cut into squares.
Source: The Natural Gourmet

Banana-Nut Muffins (Makes 12 Muffins)
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup butter or ghee, melted and cooled slightly
cup maple syrup
Two large eggs
Two teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Three small or medium bananas, about 2 cups, well mashed
Two cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. fine sea salt.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with parchment paper liners.
Place the nuts on a cookie sheet and toast for 10 minutes (about 4 minutes for pecans). Cool,chop and set aside.In a large bowl, mix together the butter or ghee, maple syrup, eggs, vanilla and bananas.
Over a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and sea salt.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, adding the nuts as you stir. Be careful not to overmix.
Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling each about full.
Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until the tops of the muffins feel well set. Turn the muffins out of the tin and cool on a rack. Source: Ellen Arian

Blueberry Muffins (10-12 muffins)
8 tablespoons butter at room temperature
3/4 cup plus
Two tablespoons maple syrup
Two large eggs
Two cups whole wheat pastry flour
Two teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup whole milk (or 1/4 cup buttermilk + 1/8 teaspoon baking soda)
2-1/2 cups organic blueberries, fresh or frozen
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place parchment liners in muffin cups.
In a large bowl, cream the butter with an electric mixer. Add the maple syrup and continue creaming until light and fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
In a medium bowl, sift the dry ingredients. Then add them alternately with the milk to the butter-maple mixture. Mix only until just combined.
In a small bowl, crush a handful of the blueberries with a fork and mix them into the batter byhand, along with the remaining blueberries.
Source: Ellen Arian

Copyright 2009 Pathways4Health

  1. Library.thinkquest.org/Coo5271F/chemistry. [link]
  2. See New York Times, Showdown at the Coffee Shop, 4/15/09 [link]
  3. www.webme.com/diet/news/20050613/drink-more-diet-soda-gain-more-weight. [link]
  4. S.E. Seithers, A Role for Sweet Taste: Calorie Predictive Relations in Energy Regulation by Rats.Dx.doi.org/10.1037/0735-7044.122.1.161. [link]
  5. Mary McCarty, Sweet and Natural, 17. [link]
  6. Biochemist Paul A. Stitt, quoted in Beyond Antibiotics, p. 84. [link]
  7. Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods, 193. [link]
  8. McCarty, 18. [link]
  9. The Weston Price Foundation, Wise Traditions, Spring, 2009. [link]
  10. 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. [link]
  11. Paul Pitchford. [link]