Gimme some of your sweet lovin’: 12 natural alternatives to sugar (part one)

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This sugar addiction of mine has gone on for a little too long, and believe me…I’m well aware of how it could play out (health wise) if I continue feeding the beast, but it’s not like I want to willingly rot out all of my molars, make a daily date with an insulin-delivering needle or offer fuel to cancer cells lurking in the shadows. There’s just something about the sweet stuff that makes me feel…well…all warm and fuzzy inside. Some people wrestle with cigarette habits, others knock back cocktails without thinking twice, and then there’s me -- I’ve never met a sweet treat that I didn’t truly love to bits.

Sugar even comes from a plant, so how bad could it actually be? Just 22 atoms of hydrogen, 12 atoms of carbon and 11 atoms of oxygen, all rolled into one singularly sweet molecule. Infinite medical studies have determined that while nom-noming on a steady diet of sugar doesn’t actually trigger diabetes, it can lead to excess body fat, which kind of stinks when your knees get all wobbly in its presence.

But when you’re addicted to nibbling on something sweet (and the wave of endorphins that accompany that indulgence), you conveniently forget about the sobering consequences of such a daily action. Instead, you find yourself declaring over and over again that tomorrow you’ll finally cut it out of your diet. That’s it. No more fooling around. Oh wait…just one more time. Garghhhh!

For all the sugar freaks out there, I hope that this summary of the top natural sweetening alternatives will help you to make smarter dietary choices that don’t smack of sacrifice or chemical yucksville. I, for one, am certainly going to dabble in a few of these delights throughout the coming weeks and months. I may even bake with them, too!


BARLEY MALT SYRUP


Half as sweet as white table sugar, this thick, dark brown whole grain-derived syrup – made with soaked, sprouted barley that is strained and cooked – pours just like molasses but possesses its own distinctive, mild-n-malty flavor. If you’re suspecting that it’s integral to the beer industry, you’d be correct. Also known as malted cereal syrup, dark malt syrup, barley syrup or malt syrup, this natural sweetener is among the most nutritious and – dare I say, healthiest – of the alternative options available in grocery stores today due to its 100 naturally occurring enzymes and 3% protein content. Scoring a modest 42 on the glycemic index, its maltose is metabolized slowly in the body. Ideal when used in baked goods, it can be easily substituted in any recipe calling for rice bran syrup, molasses or white sugar (at a ratio of 1 1/3 cups of syrup for each cup of sugar – but be sure to decrease the liquid in your recipe by 1/4 ).

Recipes Using Barley Malt Syrup: Multigrain No-Knead Bread and Homemade Soft Pretzels


BEE FREE HONEE


All the vegans in the house might want to make this fruit-based sweetener a regular part of their culinary repertoire…although it’s delectable enough to tempt everyone else, too. While it’s hard to believe that apples, lemon juice and a touch of cane sugar could meld into such a hot-and-bothered easily squeezable delight, the deep amber syrup that results is literally a dead-ringer for the real deal crafted by busy little bees. I know, I know…it has a little sugar in it, but it’s well worth the splurge if you’re looking for a little sweetening panache without the full-throttle spike. This cruelty-free product with its distinctive apple-y tang is as delicious as it is versatile and it’s even a squidge more affordable than conventional honey, too. You really should give it a try. It’s THAT good.

Recipes Using Bee Free Honey: Crunchy ‘Apple Honey’ Granola... or pour it directly into your mouth, silly ;)


BLACK STRAP MOLASSES


With a glycemic index of 55, black strap molasses – which contains B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, calcium and copper -- is technically the nutritious ‘sludge’ that remains after sugar cane is processed into white refined table sugar, demonstrating that all sugar is not created equally. Offering alkalizing effects on the body, half of the sugar that a recipe calls for can be replaced with molasses (using 1 1/3 cups of molasses for 1 cup of sugar, plus a 5 tablespoon reduction in your recipe’s overall liquid requirement).

Recipes Using Black Strap Molasses: Apple Almond Gingerbread and Swedish Rye Bread


BROWN RICE SYRUP


What happens when brown rice starch is romanced by dried barley sprout enzymes? The resulting liquid is strained, cooked into a deep amber tone, filtered and subjected to a final water removal process so that it pours nice and thick, just the way that we like it. Aside from its nutty, butterscotch undertones, this naturally-produced sweetener is appealing because it is nutritionally beneficial (containing magnesium, iron and potassium) and offers a slowly absorbed source of energy, meaning that there is no risk of experiencing a sugar rush thanks to its relatively low glycemic index of 25. When using brown rice syrup in baked goods, expect them to be somewhat firm and crisp, using 1 1/3 cups for every cup of white sugar called for (plus cut the amount of liquid in your recipe by ¼ cup).

Recipes Using Brown Rice Syrup: Peanut Butter Chocolate Brown Rice Syrup Krispie Bars or Brown Rice Syrup Brownies


COCONUT PALM SUGAR


Obtained from the sap of the coco nucifera plant, pure coconut palm sugar has a flavor reminiscent of caramelized honey (with the added benefit of a vast array of micronutrients, B vitamins and minerals) and is regarded by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as being among the most sustainably harvested sweeteners around. It also scores a 35 on the glycemic index, making it a slowly metabolized sweetener, but its relatively high fructose content serves as a reminder that even this sweetening alternative should be consumed in moderation.

Recipes Using Coconut Palm Sugar: Cinnamon Rolls and Coconut Palm Cream Cake


DATE SUGAR


Bursting with a high mineral and nutrient content (particularly folic acid and fiber), dates are naturally sweet, so it’s hardly surprising that when they’re dehydrated and ground up, the coarse sugar that they produce is just as lip-smacking good. The resulting mahogany crystals – which are unfortunately not low-glycemic -- can be substituted in the exact same ratio as standard white sugar, but if you’re using it in any type of batter, a little hot water must be added to dissolve and distribute the natural sweetness throughout your recipe.

Recipes Using Date Sugar: Oatmeal and Coconut Date Cookies and Light Whole Wheat Flax Nut Bread

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For 'part two' in this series, please check back later this week for the sweet conclusion.

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/kelvinbeecroft

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