Healthier Alternatives to using Sugar
We love sweet things so much that we have entire holidays more or less devoted to them: From Halloween candy and Christmas cookies to marshmallow Easter bunnies and heart-shaped boxes of Valentine’s Day chocolates, the candy aisles at the grocery store are always stocked with specialty confections alongside the old standbys.
If only we reserved our sweet tooth for holidays, we’d be in much better shape than we collectively are. But even if you only cave in to sweets during the holidays, you’re probably still consuming a lot more sugar than you should be.
Obesity is a major problem in our country, and it’s largely due to the amount of refined sugar we consume in a staggering number of the foods we eat.
Sugar is added to foods that are already sweet, like fruit juice and peanut butter, and to processed foods that really don’t need it, like yogurt, spaghetti sauce, and instant oatmeal.
All of this additional sugar adds up to about 22 teaspoons consumed every day by the average American. Considering that the recommended daily intake of sugar is three teaspoons for children, five for women and nine for men, we are living an added-sugar nightmare that’s causing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and chronic inflammation at an alarming rate.
Less Sugar Means Better Health
Reducing the amount of refined sugar you eat is a good way to lose weight and prevent disease, and it’s largely a matter of choosing whole foods over processed varieties. Eating mostly whole foods is beneficial to your health in other ways as well, including reducing your sodium intake and keeping a host of processing chemicals and chemical preservatives out of your body.
In addition to cutting back on processed foods, replacing refined sugar in your oatmeal, coffee, or home-baked goods with a healthier sugar substitute is an effective way to prevent overloading your liver with sugars like sucrose and fructose, which turn into visceral and subcutaneous belly fat.
The Glycemic Index
Before we get to what you can use in place of refined sugar for baking and everyday use, you should understand the glycemic index, which ranks carbohydrates according to the effect they have on blood sugar. The glycemic index ranges from zero to 100. Lower numbers on the scale indicate that the food is digested and absorbed into the body slowly, which means that blood sugar and insulin levels will rise gradually. Foods with higher rankings are digested and absorbed by the body more quickly, which means blood sugar will rise faster.
By way of comparison, glucose has a glycemic index of 100, while sucrose, or refined tabled sugar, rates a 65. High fructose corn syrup, which is cheaper than sucrose and therefore used more widely in processed foods, has a glycemic index of 68.
Healthier Alternatives to Sugar
Natural sweeteners and sugar alcohols are the safest available substitutes for sugar. Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose, are synthetic substances that are produced in a lab, and they can negatively affect your health, especially when used in large quantities. Artificial sweeteners have no nutritional value, unlike most natural sweeteners.
Consider your health goals when deciding which sugar substitute to use. If you have diabetes or are at risk for developing it, use alternatives with a low glycemic index. If you’re watching your weight, opt for those with the fewest calories.
Replacing Sugar with Natural Sweeteners
Natural sweeteners are carbohydrates that come straight from nature, and while they contain natural sugars and calories, they have nutritional value in the form of vitamins and minerals. They may be all-natural, but these sweeteners can be as dangerous to your health as sugar when consumed in large quantities and, also like sugar, can cause tooth decay. Use natural sweeteners to replace sugar in your coffee or tea, and sprinkle or drizzle them over your oatmeal or cereal.
Glycemic Index: 15
Calories: 20 per teaspoon
Agave nectar is made from the agave plant, which also gives us tequila. While it has more calories than sugar, it’s much sweeter, so you can use less. Prebiotics in agave nectar help nourish intestinal bacteria to promote digestive health.
Baking: Substitute ¾ cups agave nectar for one cup of sugar, and lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees to avoid over-browning.
Glycemic Index: 50
Calories: 21 per teaspoon
Honey contains vitamins, minerals, and a concentrated dose of antioxidants, and recent studies show that it may help lower bad cholesterol. The darker the honey, the more flavor and nutrients it has.
Baking: Substitute ½ cup of honey for every cup of sugar, reduce the liquid by ¼ cup, and increase the baking soda by ¼ teaspoon. Lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees to prevent over-browning.
Glycemic Index: 55
Calories: 58 per tablespoon
Molasses is a byproduct of sugar cane processing. It contains 15 percent of the daily iron requirements for pre-menopausal women, as well as vitamin B6, calcium, and magnesium. There are more antioxidants in molasses than in any other natural sweetener.
Baking: Substitute 1-1/4 cups molasses for each cup of sugar. Reduce the liquid in the recipe by 1/3 cup, and add a teaspoon of baking soda for each cup of molasses you use. Don’t replace more than half of the sugar in a recipe when using molasses as a substitute.
Glycemic Index: 54
Calories: 50 per tablespoon
Maple syrup is the sap of the maple tree, boiled down into a thick syrup and filtered to remove impurities. It’s only about 60 percent as sweet as sugar, and about two-thirds of its sugar is sucrose, or table sugar. This means that using maple syrup in place of regular sugar will only cut the sugar content of the recipe by 1/3. Still, maple syrup contains potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, manganese, and 24 antioxidants, which makes it a little better than sugar if you’re in a pinch. For baking, use the thicker, darker Grade B syrup, which has a stronger flavor. Grade A
Baking: Substitute ¾ cups maple syrup for every cup of sugar in the recipe. Reduce the amount of liquid by 3 tablespoons for every cup of sugar you replace.
Fruit juice concentrate
Glycemic Index: 46 for orange and apple juice
Calories: 46 per ounce
Fruit juice concentrate is comprised of fructose and glucose, but the sugars are less refined and have some nutritional value, including vitamin C and potassium. Orange and apple juice add interesting flavors to your baked goods, but should be used in denser recipes like cookies and muffins.
Baking: Substitute 2/3 cups of fruit juice concentrate for every cup of sugar. Reduce the liquid ingredients by 3 tablespoons per cup of sugar omitted.
Glycemic Index: 0
Stevia is made from the leaves of the stevia plant, native to South America, and it’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar. Generally recognized as safe by the FDA, stevia is considered a nutritional supplement. Some people report a metallic aftertaste when using large amounts of this natural sweetener, which is available in powdered or liquid form at most health food stores.
Baking: Substitute one teaspoon of stevia for every cup of sugar. Since you’ll lose volume by cutting out the sugar, add ¼ to ½ cup of applesauce or pureed banana for every cup of sugar you replace.
Coconut Sap Sugar
Glycemic Index: 35
Calories: 16 per teaspoon
Coconut sap sugar is made from the sap of the coconut tree, which is simmered down into a soft, moist, molasses-scented sugar that looks, smells and tastes like brown sugar, but with half the glycemic index. It contains minerals like magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron, and it’s packed with antioxidants.
Baking: Substitute one cup of coconut sap sugar for one cup of brown or white sugar.
Sugar alcohols, which are neither sugars nor alcohol, occur naturally in plants and are less sweet than sugar. They’re commonly used in sugar-free products. You can identify them by the -ol at the end of their names. Sugar alcohols have fewer calories than sugar and are less sweet. In large amounts, they can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea, but the good news is that they won’t harm your teeth and won’t affect your blood sugar like sucrose will.
Glycemic Index: 0
Brand Names: Sweet Simplicity, Zero, ZSweet
Erythritol is derived from corn and is about 70 percent as sweet as sugar. Since it’s absorbed by the body before it reaches the large intestine, it won’t cause as much gas and bloating as other sugar alcohols will. You can use pure erythritol, which comes in powdered and granulated forms, or you can choose a product like Truvia, which is a blend of erythritol and stevia.
Baking: Substitute 1-1/4 cups of powdered erythritol for each cup of sugar in your recipe.
Glycemic Index: 12
Calories: 9 per teaspoon
Brand names: XyloSweet, XyloPure, Miracle Sweet
Xylitol is derived from corn and hardwood trees. It’s considered one of the best sugar substitutes for baking, since it responds similarly to real sugar in terms of browning and texture. Xylitol is extremely harmful to dogs, so make sure to keep Fido away from the xylitol muffins.
Baking: Substitute one cup of powdered xylitol for one cup of sugar. Process granulated xylitol in a coffee grinder before baking with it.
Other Ways to Sweeten
Instead of using sugar or honey to sweeten your cereal or oatmeal, sprinkle dried fruit over the top. Dried fruit is sweet and has plenty of fiber, although some varieties are high in calories. You can also add dried fruit to cookies and muffins for added texture and pleasantly surprising pockets of chewy sweetness.
A pinch of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, or ginger will add extra subtle sweetness to baked goods, and each contains powerful nutrients and antioxidants.
A teaspoon of vanilla extract or ¼ teaspoon of almond extract enhances the sweetness of desserts, particularly chocolate treats, and gives them more complex flavors and aromas.
The Bottom Line
Enjoying homemade baked goods is a great way to get your sweet fix while controlling the amount of sugar you consume. Likewise, opting for unsweetened versions of staples like oatmeal, bottled teas, and peanut butter gives you the option to sweeten them yourself so that you can control the amount and type of sweetener used.
Substituting refined table sugar with other sweeteners can make a big difference in your health and help keep your weight under control, but it’s important to remember that substituting a healthier sweetener for refined sugar doesn’t necessarily make the dish healthy. Even all-natural sugar substitutes should be consumed in moderation.
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