Sweeteners: Six Natural Alternatives for the Average Sweet Tooth

Did you know the average American consumes two to three pounds of sugar each week? While you may not be munching on cookies or candy bars, processed sugar is hidden in almost everything you eat. From ketchup to pastas and mayonnaise to cereal, a large part of the average diet includes sugar-saturated components. Processed, or refined sugar, is the sugar cane in its most stripped down form. All nutritional value has been removed from the source to create something "pure" in its chemical makeup. To many people, there are only three kinds of sugar, white, brown and powdered. While fundamentally this is true, there are other natural sweeteners that can be used as alternatives. Using some of these can not only improve the quality of your baked goods, but improve the health of those you are serving.

Here is a list of alternative sweeteners that can be used in place of white table sugar:

HONEY: When used improperly or too frequently honey can be worse for you than table sugar, as it contains more calories, speeds up the process of tooth decay and can contain pesticides. However, with that said, RAW local honey is a different story altogether. The difference between the two is that commercial honey has been heated to produce a more clear color and loses some of the nutrients found in natural raw honey. Many local farmers markets and health food stores sell this kind of honey. Once you have tried it, that little bear of clover honey won't taste nearly the same.

FOR BAKING- Substitute 1 cup of white sugar with 3/4 cup honey, reduce the liquid in your recipe by 2 Tablespoons (for each portion of honey) and reduce your cooking temperature by 25 degrees

MAPLE SYRUP: Often times considered to be the purest sugar in nature, it serves as a great flavorful substitution for brown sugar. Once again, using maple syrup comes with a warning. Be sure you are buying real maple syrup. Many syrups at the store are marketed as such, but are really just maple flavored syrup, still containing high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. Read the nutrition labels. Real maple syrup will list maple syrup as the only ingredient. Maple syrup also contains nutrients essential to the daily diet recommendations that other sugars don't contain. Proud to boast, syrup claims 22% of the daily recommended dose of Manganese and 4% of the daily recommended dose of zinc.

FOR BAKING- Substitute 1 cup of white or brown sugar with 3/4 cup maple syrup, reduce the liquid in your recipe by 2 Tablespoons (for each portion of syrup) and reduce your cooking temperature by 25 degrees

SUCANAT: This natural sweetener is made from the juice found in raw sugar cane. The sugarcane juice is extracted, heated and cooled until brown crystals form. It contains less sucrose, calories and carbs than white and brown sugar. You can find it at local health food stores. While it can be slightly more expensive than white or brown sugar, the result is a better product.

FOR BAKING- Sucanat can be evenly substituted for white or brown sugar. It does, however, add color so you may want to use only in items that are expected to have a light or dark brown color.

AGAVE NECTAR: Recently popular in the gluten-free and vegan worlds, agave nectar has become easier to find. The nectar comes from the juice found in the core of the agave plant. This plant is native to my favorite part of Mexico, Jalisco (the state where Puerto Vallarta is located.) The juice is extracted, filtered, heated and hydrolyzed into a syrup. Most commonly, agave nectar is used to replace honey and like its counterpart, not always as good for you as intended. The fructose content is high, a fact that some people believe can contribute to weight gain. As with any sugar, use in moderation! There are multiple kinds of agave nectar. I would recommend either the light or amber, as dark agave nectar has a distinct flavor that could interfere with what you are making.

FOR BAKING-  Substitute 1 cup of white sugar, brown sugar or honey with 2/3 cup of agave nectar. Reduce the liquid in your recipe by 2 Tablespoons (for each portion of agave nectar) and reduce your cooking temperature by 25 degrees.

TURBINADO SUGAR (commonly seen as Sugar in the Raw): Considered to be natural brown sugar, it is very similar to sucanat. This sugar is the same ingredient (sugar cane juice) processed a little further to remove impurities and molasses formed. The result is a sugar lighter in color than sucanat, but darker than white sugar. Where most brown sugar is just refined sugar with molasses added back into it, this sugar is made in turbines and tends to be drier than common brown sugar. This sugar is found in most grocery stores, in individual packets and bulk.  This is also usually considered an organic product.

FOR BAKING- Substitutes with white and brown sugar evenly.

BLACKSTRAP MOLASSES: This sweetener is another that contains significant amounts of minerals and vitamins that are lacking in refined sugars. "First" molasses is left over when sugarcane juice is boiled, cooled, and removed of its crystals. If this product is boiled again, the result is called "second" molasses. Blackstrap molasses is made from the third boiling of the sugar syrup and is the most nutritious molasses, containing substantial amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. If you choose to use Blackstrap molasses, be sure to buy organic since pesticides can be heavily concentrated.

FOR BAKING-Blackstrap molasses has a very strong flavor, it is recommended to not use in heavy amounts for substitution of sugar.  It is recommended to be substituted for light molasses or used as a garnish.

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