Although desserts should not be viewed as a source of nutrients but as treats, the ingredients should still be safe, pure, and as nourishing as possible – not only for health, but for flavor as well. Furthermore, when you do eat healthy, satisfying treats, just a few will be enough. With that said, one of the trickiest ingredients to get around when you are making healthy treats at home is the sweetener.
In general, ingesting sugars raises blood sugar. Elevated blood sugar can damage body proteins and lead to stiff joints, brittle bones, constricted blood vessels and wrinkles. Also when blood sugar rises quickly it causes insulin levels to spike as well, which leads to weight gain and ultimately cells that no longer respond to insulin or are insulin-resistant. The elevated insulin that comes with elevated blood sugar often leads to a “crash” below normal levels, resulting in fatigue and possibly shakiness and reduced mental clarity. The frequent ups and downs of blood sugar, known as the blood sugar rollercoaster, have many consequences including prediabetes and diabetes, heart disease and even Alzheimer’s. The rate at which blood sugar goes up after ingestion will depend on the quantity and type of ingested sugar and on the other components of the food it is in. If the sugar is accompanied by fiber, fat and/or protein, the rate at which sugar enters the blood will be slowed.
White sugar—pure sucrose—is a disaccharide made of glucose and fructose. In processing, white sugar has been stripped of all of its original minerals and vitamins, leaving only calories. Metabolism of sugar requires the presence of vitamins and minerals. Hence, metabolism of white sugar creates a demand for nutrients that it does not provide. There are much healthier choices than white sugar for sweetening foods but remember that even alternative natural sweeteners can cause health problems when taken in excess and for optimal health are probably best kept to a minimum.
Agave is derived from either the “Blue” or “Salmiana” agave plant, a relative of aloe vera. Although different manufacturers use different techniques, all agave must be hydrolyzed, or broken down, either with heat or with added enzymes. The resulting syrup yields between 7085% fructose, with the majority of the remainder being glucose.1 While once touted as a healthier alternative to table sugar, fructose has since come under intense scrutiny. The human body metabolizes fructose differently than it does glucose. Instead of moving into the bloodstream and causing a blood sugar spike, fructose is processed by the liver, leading to ‘novo lipogenesis’ or new fat formation, which usually comes in the form of increased triglycerides. Also, because fructose does not spike the blood sugar, it does not elicit an insulin (or leptin response), which means the brain is not signaled for satiety, leading to increased intake and weight gain.2 While agave is a more natural sweetener than refined table sugar and including small amounts occasionally may not pose a serious health risk, its use is probably best kept to a minimum, especially in those who are at risk for heart disease or are overweight or obese.
Amasake is an unrefined, sweet cultured Japanese mixture of water and sweet rice with the bacteria koji. This thick malt-like drink is absorbed slowly and can be consumed as a sweet warm or cold treat or used to sweeten baked goods.
Barley Malt Syrup is made from sprouted barley. It is slow-cooked with water to make thick syrup that contains mostly maltose. It is broken down slower than other refined sugar, preventing rapid fluctuations in blood sugar. It is half as sweet as white sugar and has a distinctive molasses flavor. For baking, use 1 ½ cups of barley malt in place of 1 cup of sugar and reduce the liquids by 1 to 2 tablespoons.
Brown Rice Syrup is brown rice that has been soaked, cooked, and treated enzymatically to chop the complex carbohydrates into sugars, namely maltose, and is absorbed very slowly. It is half as sweet as white sugar and has a mild butterscotch flavor. Use the same cooking conversion as for barley malt syrup.
Brown Sugar is made the traditional way white sugar is made, but with a small amount of molasses added back in. Other names are raw sugar and turbinado sugar.
Coconut Sugar is made from the watery sap that drips from cut flower buds of the coconut palm. Similarly to maple syrup, it is boiled to reduce its volume and then is crystallized. Coconut sugar is mostly sucrose (70% to 79%) and has some free glucose and fructose. It is notably high in potassium, phosphorus, and zinc.
Date Sugar is made from dried pulverized dates. This sweetener is more natural, unrefined, and less sweet than most sugars. Sprinkle it on yogurt and baked goods or dissolve in hot water to make a syrup that resembles honey, maple syrup, or rice syrup.
Evaporated Cane is a term used to describe many different products. Most follow the same basic method of processing. First, the juice is pressed from the sugar cane. Then, it is washed, filtered, and evaporated before being crystallized. Unlike white sugar, the refining stops here, which means this sugar remains closer to its natural state. Nevertheless, the processing it does go through removes most of the molasses and thus most of the nutrients that naturally occur in sugar cane juice. To compensate for the nutrient loss, some companies add molasses back. Since the amount added is generally proprietary, it is difficult to compare products. Most often though, the more molasses that is added, the darker the product, and the more nutrients it contains. Names of filtered evaporated cane juice products include Sucanat, cane crystals, dehydrated cane juice, granulated cane juice, milled cane, raw cane juice, and unrefined cane sugar. There is one unfiltered evaporated cane juice made by Rapunzel called Organic Whole Cane Sugar. Because it is unfiltered it is unlike the products discussed above and contains all the sugarcane’s minerals, vitamins, and micro-nutrients intact. Evaporated cane juice can be substituted cup for cup with white sugar. Side note: if an ingredient is listed as evaporated cane juice it most often means little to no molasses has been added back in, making it similar to white sugar. Nevertheless, it still is a healthier product than white sugar due to better processing.
Fructose is a natural sugar found in fruit, however commercially produced fructose is a highly refined product that is made from corn or beet and is about 60% sweeter than white sugar. Fructose goes through the liver during metabolism, thus some of this sugar gets stored in the liver instead of flooding the bloodstream. However, fructose has a greater tendency to convert into fat. Too much of it in the diet may lead to elevated triglyceride levels, elevated LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels, and copper deficiency.3
Fruit Juice Concentrate is a highly refined source of sugar and bears little resemblance to the fruit from which it was originally derived. The concentration of the sucrose in this sweetener can quickly flood the bloodstream. FruitSource™ is a brand name product that contains brown rice syrup along with fruit juice concentrate, which provides a slower absorption rate.
Honey is one of the oldest sweeteners in use, and unfiltered versions contain nutrients and enzymes and require little to no processing. It is 60% sweeter than white sugar, and quickly absorbs, thus less is needed. In general, the lighter the color the more mild the flavor, the darker the color the richer the flavor.
Lo Han is a Chinese perennial vine in the Cucurbitaceae (cucumber or melon) family. Lo Han fruits are used both inside and outside the People's Republic of China as a food, beverage, and traditional medicine. The most unique chemicals reported for the plant are the triterpene glycoside non-caloric sweeteners known as mogrosides in Lo Han fruits. When extracted, Lo Han can be as much as 200 times sweeter than cane sugar and is said to have little effect on blood sugar. The products we carry with Lo Han include Slim Sweet by Trimedica and Sweet n Slender by Wisdom of the Ancients (both are mixed with fructose, which does contribute some calories and reduce its sweetness).
Maple Syrup is made from the sap of maple trees and contains some minerals. Usually, the darker it is, the more nutrients it contains. Under new grading guidelines all commercial maple syrups are grade A, which is a standard of quality. Color and taste characteristics now distinguish different types of maple syrups and as before, generally speaking, the darker the color and more robust the taste, the higher the nutrient content. The new categories based on flavor and color profiles are as follows:4 5
|Grade A Color Classes||Taste||Compared to the Old Grading System|
|U.S. Grade A Golden||Delicate||Comparable to Grade A Light Amber|
|U.S. Grade A Amber||Rich||Comparable to Grade A Light Amber and Dark Amber|
|U.S. Grade A Dark||Robust||Comparable to Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B|
|U.S. Grade A Very Dark||Strong||Comparable to Commercial Grade|
Favor certified organic varieties, as some syrup producers use formaldehyde to prolong sap flow. Tip: blend fresh fruit, like strawberries, with maple syrup to lower the sugar content and boost the nutrient content of your pancake and waffle topping.
Molasses is the rich flavored by-product of sugar production. It contains more nutrients than most sweeteners. Barbados molasses is what remains after the first pressing of the sugar cane. Blackstrap molasses remains after total extraction of sugar crystals; therefore it is less sweet and more nutritious.
Sorghum syrup or molasses is made from the boiled juice of the sweet sorghum plant, a cereal grain commonly grown in the southern United States. It has a high iron content and a smoky, sweet taste. It is comparable nutritionally to blackstrap molasses and has similar effects on body metabolism.
Stevia (last but definitely not least) is a no-calorie herbal sweetener. It can be cooked with and is 200 to 300 times sweeter than white sugar. Since there are too many things to say about this sweetener, there is another customer file dedicated to just stevia. Be sure to ask a vitamin aisle employee for a copy.
Yacon Syrup is syrup made from the roots of the yacon plant and tastes similar to molasses. Originally grown in the Andes, where it is mostly eaten like a fruit, it is now grown in other high altitude regions around the world. Yacon is closely related to Jerusalem artichokes and like them, is rich in short chain sugars like inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which taste sweet. These saccharides are resistant to human digestion and pass into the colon where they work as prebiotics (food sources for probiotics). Because the inulin and FOS are not absorbed into the blood stream, yacon syrup does not cause a large spike in blood sugar and may help to feed beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract. Yacon syrup also contains fructose, glucose and sucrose.6
A last tip: To use liquid sweeteners in a recipe that calls for sugar, substitute ½ to ¾ cup of honey, maple syrup, or molasses for one cup of sugar and decrease the other liquids in the recipe by ¼ cup for each ¾ cup of sweetener. To cut down the amount of sugar, you can reduce the amount of sweetener and replace it with amasake, unsweetened applesauce, date sugar, or mashed sweet potato.
We all are going to indulge in some sweet treats once in a while. Your best bet is to make your own, using whole grain flours, organic oils and butter, and the healthiest sweeteners you can. The descriptions and suggestions above should give you a better understanding of how to use healthier sweeteners. Keep working on reducing your “sweet meter”. For example, start using Rapunzel’s Organic Whole Cane Sugar as a sugar substitute. Then cut down the sweetness by using half brown rice syrup or date sugar. This way your taste buds will slowly become satisfied with less sweet, which will be better for your health in the long run!
Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohol is neither a "sugar" nor an "alcohol". In this case it is used in the scientific definition "of a processed liquid." Sugar alcohols, which include sorbitol, xylitol, and maltitol, are found naturally in berries, apples, and plums. They also are produced commercially from carbohydrates such as sucrose, glucose, and starch. Most sugar alcohols are approximately half as sweet as sucrose. As a group, sugar alcohols are incompletely absorbed and metabolized and consequently contribute fewer calories than other carbohydrates. Sugar alcohols affect blood glucose levels less dramatically than sugar and therefore require little or no insulin for metabolism. Thus, sugar alcohols are often used in foods for diabetics. Keep in mind, sorbitol has been implicated in cataract formation. Additionally, sugar alcohols in general can cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal bloating, cramps, and diarrhea when taken frequently.7
Xylitol is made from wood or other plant-products and is a sugar alcohol (as mentioned above). It is expensive to process, therefore is rarely seen in foods, but can be found in chewing gums and jams. Since this product is metabolized differently than sugar it may be used safely by diabetics and hypoglycemics. Bacterial salivary organisms do not feed, grow, or ferment on xylitol as they do on other simple sugars. "Sugar-Free" chewing gum contains xylitol because it does not produce the bacterial support for increase of cavity-causing acids, particularly when it makes up 60% of the product. Keep in mind, some resources say sugar alcohols can stimulate hunger and cause addictive allergies similarly to sugar.7 This sweetener is found in several prepared products as well as in bulk.
Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol. It can be found in minute amounts in some fruits such as watermelon, pear, and grape. It is also present in mushrooms, cheese, and fermented foods such as wine, sake, beer, and soy sauce. It can readily be used for baking.8 Erythritol is manufactured through a process of fermentation by converting glucose to erythritol. The main sources used are wheat and corn starch. In its final state it is white, odorless crystals that have a sweetness approximately 60-80% that of sucrose. There are no toxicity concerns with erythritol, and it has an extremely low potential for causing allergic reactions. The only concern is loose stool or a laxative effect when used in large amounts, which is the case with all sugar alcohols. In a test focusing on gastrointestinal tolerance, only a few people experienced symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, intestinal rumbling, flatulence and thirst. In Food Additives, A Shopper’s Guide to What’s Safe and What’s Not, erythritol is described as being “better tolerated than other sugar alcohols.”9 This sweetener is found in several prepared products but has not been produced in bulk for baking at this time.