The press is rightly focusing attention on the detrimental health consequences of diets high in refined, processed sugar and now synthetic sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharin) have been shown to disrupt our beneficial gut microflora, so what is the alternative? Well, mother-nature provides several natural alternatives and they just happen to be healthier, tastier, and rather than being ‘empty calories’ – actually provide some useful, healthy nutrients too.
1) Raw Honey (1 tblsp: 64 calories) promotes healthy gut bacteria while providing enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, zinc and B vitamins, but note – raw is best, drizzled on food, many nutrients are lost when honey is heated/pasteurized and processed.
2) Stevia (0 calories) is a plant related to the sunflower, native to South America and powerfully sweet, many times sweeter than table sugar. Due to its zero calories, and zero glycaemic effect, it is the no. 1 choice for anyone watching their weight or managing diabetes. Because you need so little of it, when using it in baking, it is advisable to add a bulking agent like a cooked/mashed squash or fruit puree.
3) Dates (x1 Medjool date: 66 calories) very versatile for use in baking, they will of course add a dark colour, which works a treat as a sugar substitute in chocolate recipes. They add a whole host of beneficial nutrients like magnesium, vitamin B6, potassium, copper, and manganese, oh – and they lower LDL cholesterol too.
4) Coconut sugar (1 tblsp: 45 calories) can seem pricy, but look at the ‘extras’: it’s packed full of minerals, iron, zinc, phosphorous, potassium and antioxidant polyphenols and has a wonderfully low glycaemic load – pleasure without the guilt.
5) Maple Syrup (1 tblsp: 52 calories). I’m often asked – ‘does this really come from Maple trees?’ – Yes – it really is the sap, collected and boiled to reduce it then filtered. Another natural sweetener packed with manganese, calcium, potassium, zinc, and the darker the colour, the more antioxidants it contains.
5) Blackstrap Molasses (1 tblsp: 47 calories) comes from raw cane sugar, a sort of ‘whole-sugar’ with everything ‘left in’, which is simply boiled and reduced till it’s a rich, dark syrup. It is nutritious compared to its white/processed, poorer cousin, providing copper, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, selenium, and vitamin B6, with the highest phenolic antioxidant content. Great in cookies, gingerbread and marinades.
6) Brown Rice Syrup (1 tblsp: 55 calories) is derived from brown rice that is fermented with enzymes to break down the starch into easily digested sugars. Heating then concentrates the liquid to a beautiful amber colour. But beware – this syrup alternative may contain gluten, as the enzymes used in the fermentation process are from barley.