It’s the Holiday season and a great time to share a simple introduction to natural sweeteners. We’re baking many more sweets than we normally would throughout the rest of the year so why not substitute white sugar for a natural sweetener. It will taste just as sweet and delicious yet be healthier for our bodies.
When I found myself on my journey to natural sweeteners, I was downright confused. I didn’t know where to start and what confused me more was seeing a myriad of so called “natural sweeteners” lined up on my health food stores shelves.
There was such an array of different kinds of natural sweeteners, I didn’t know which to use for what.
Then, I was astounded by the price. My goodness, this stuff was expensive. Much more so than regular white sugar.
How on Earth was I going to replace white (cheap) sugar for this so called, “healthy” sugar?
With just a little knowledge of how each sweetener can be used, you’ll be on your way in no time to ditching the white refined sugar and using wholesome natural sweeteners for all of your cooking and baking needs.
Why Switch From White Sugar?
White sugar has been refined to the point where it’s stripped of all vitamins, minerals, proteins, enzymes and other beneficial nutrients. The refining process filters out the molasses which contains most of the nutrients. In order for our bodies to metabolize the sugar it must draw from our own reserve of vitamins and minerals leading to a host of problems. It also increases our insulin levels in our blood leading to a weakened immune system. The raised insulin in our blood increases the storage of fat; so, when you eat foods high in refined sugar, you increase fat storage. Weight gain.
Now remember, this is most scary for the person or families that eat a Standard American Diet filled with processed foods mostly made up of refined sugar. It’s this diet that leads to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer… just to name a few.
However, you can begin to see that white sugar really shouldn’t have a place in our diets. There are a variety of “natural sweeteners” that although should be eaten in moderation are much healthier for our bodies.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all natural sweeteners. The following list is based on what I use in my own home.
These are sweeteners that come from the sugar cane. A tall perennial grass with stout, jointed, fibrous stalks that are rich in sugar.
Although coming from the same plant as white sugar, natural sugar cane sweeteners are less refined containing more vitamins, minerals and trace elements. This allows our insulin levels to not spike as quickly as white refined sugar. Each of the cane sugar’s below has a different degree of refinement.
Organic Whole Cane Sugar, Rapadura/Sucanat
Organic whole cane sugar is the only type of cane sugar that is unrefined. It’s a deep brown color with a caramel taste to it that is not crystalized and retains all of it’s nutrients.
Rapadura is made by first extracting the juice from the sugar cane (using a press), and then evaporating the water out of the juice by stirring with paddles over low heat.
Traditionally, this juice was then formed into a block. In Mexico it’s called piloncillo. In Colombia, panela.
The most popular form of organic whole cane sugar in the United States is from the German company, Rapunzel, originally called Rapadura. Because of diplomatic problems it was renamed Organic Whole Cane Sugar still under the Rapunzel brand. Rapunzel uses a modern method of drying the sugar by passing it through a sieve, leaving a grainy sugar.
Rapadura is the only cane sugar that does not separate the sugars from the molasses. This allows all of it’s vitamins and minerals to be retained allowing our bodies to metabolize it more slowly. It does not effect our blood sugar levels as much as refined sugars.
Rapadura takes a little getting used to. It’s dark colored and has a rich deep flavor. It tastes excellent in morning coffee and can be used in baking. Because of it’s deeper flavor, it makes a great alternative to regular brown sugar (which is just white sugar with added molasses) in any of your baking needs.
You can purchase it at any health food store or in bulk from Azure Standard.
Sucanat, or SUgar CAne NATural, is an American trademark and according to Wholesome Sweeteners, made in the same way as Rapadura.
These natural brown, large crystal sugars are refined. In the United States it’s known as Turbinado, Raw Sugar (Sugar in the Raw). In the United Kingdom it’s mostly known as Demerara. They are processed in much the same way as white sugar except they don’t go through the entire process. Some of the molasses is left in so it does contain some nutrients.
It taste great in coffee, tea and because of it’s large granules it’s great to top on baked muffins or pies.
Evaporated Cane Juice/Organic Sugar
Evaporated cane juice or organic sugar is also refined. Again, it doesn’t go through the entire refining process as some of the molasses is left in the final product leaving some trace vitamins and minerals. This is the sugar that taste the most like “white” sugar and can be substituted 1 for 1.
How do I use cane sugar? I use Rapadura in coffee and in place of brown sugar in baking. I use Turbinado to sprinkle on top of muffins or pie crusts. I use Evaporated Cane Juice in place of white sugar in recipes that need a more neutral flavor such as lemonade, ice-cream, or white birthday cakes. I also powder organic sugar by blending it until it pulverizes and use it for buttercream icing or polvorones.
My natural sweetener of choice. Raw honey deserves a post all of it’s own. Raw honey is unheated, unfiltered, unpasteurized, and unprocessed. Raw honey contains 27 minerals, 22 amino acids and 5,000 live enzymes. Going far beyond minerals and vitamins, it fights disease, heals us from within, soothes illness, boosts our digestive system and can even be used as a natural beauty product . Raw honey is a a super food.
When choosing raw honey, choose local where it’s made from the pollen in your own community which can aid in combating allergies. Check your local farmers market or local grocer. To buy in bulk, check into your local Weston Price Foundation Group to see if they may help you in finding a source for local raw honey.
When substituting honey in a baked recipe, substitute 1/2 cup honey per cup of sugar. So if a recipe calls for 1/2 cup sugar, use a 1/4 cup honey. Since it is a liquid, cut about 2tbls of liquid from the recipe if using honey. It does take some getting used to and practice.
How do I use honey? All bread baking, coffee, tea, cakes, ice-cream, oatmeal, sauces for cooking, slow cooked meats, drizzled on baked goods, yogurt, raw egg yolks, bunuelos, in vinaigrettes, to brine meats, to soothe sore throats, to use as antibacterials, to infuse with herbs. (Just to name a few)
Real Maple Syrup
Real, pure maple syrup from the sap of the sugar, black or red maple tree contains vitamins and minerals. It’s high in manganese and zinc and it’s Earthy sweet flavor makes it a great alternative to brown sugar.
When substituting maple syrup in a recipe, substitute 1/2 cup honey per cup of sugar. So if a recipe calls for 1/2 cup sugar, use a 1/4 cup real syrup. Since it is a liquid, cut about 2tbls of liquid from the recipe if using syrup. It does take some getting used to and practice.
Coconut Palm Sugar
Contrary to it’s name, coconut palm sugar does not have a coconut taste. It reminds me a bit of Rapadura. Large granules with a deeper caramel type of flavor. Coconut sugar isn’t made from the coconut, rather, it’s drawn from the sap of the coconut palm tree buds. It’s rich in nutrients filled with minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and B vitamins. What’s most notable about this natural sweetener is that it’s low in the glycemic index making it a great alternative for diabetics.
My sister had gestational diabetes during her third pregnancy. Throughout that time I gave her some of this coconut palm sugar to use in place of regular sugar in her morning coffee. She was ecstatic that it made her coffee taste deep, rich and full of flavor and at the same time kept her blood sugar levels low. She’s now a huge fan of this natural sweetener and continues to use it.
My brand of choice is Sweet Tree Coconut Palm Sugar. Organic, fair, and made using sustainable methods.
How do I use coconut palm sugar? In coffee, tea, flan, and other baked goods.
There’s no better way to make something a little sweeter than by adding dried fruit. Nature’s candy. Raw fruit in it’s dehydrated form contains all of it’s nutrients and at the same time adds sweetness. By adding dried fruit to baked goods, oatmeal, granola, yogurt, you can use less to no added sweetener. A win win situation.
It’s also fun to begin experimenting with raw food sweet recipes. By pulverizing dried dates, figs, and prunes you can mix them into ground nuts for tasty crusts or dehydrate apples to top onto pies and cakes. Again, by using dried fruits you can cut down on any additional sweetener.
How do I use dried fruit? In yogurt, oatmeal, granola, ice-cream, lara bars, cheesecake, and eaten raw.
Other Natural Sweeteners
The list above are natural sweeteners that I use in my own home. There are a variety of other sweeteners such as sorghum syrup, stevia, brown rice syrup, and probably others that I don’t use. I try to stick to traditional sweeteners that have been used in my family for generations. Most notably, honey.
One particular so called “natural sweetener” that I wouldn’t advise is Agave Syrup. Kristen from Food Renegade has written a great post on why it’s truly not healthy for our bodies.
One thing to remember, a sweetener, natural or not, is just that… sugar. Sweets have gone back for centuries, however, they should have their place. For celebrations, holidays, special events and special treats. Regardless if it’s made using a natural sweetener, if we’re eating too much sugar, it’s just not good for us.
However, it’s Christmas time. I have some special Mexican cookies and Spanish polvorones to make.
I hope you found this introduction to natural sweeteners helpful. If you have experience with any other sweeteners not mentioned, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear how they taste and how you use them.