Natural Alternatives to Sugar

Refined white sugar is certainly a popular subject in the health world at the moment and many people are turning to natural alternatives.  While there are plenty of natural substitutes available the best choice may depend on why you want an alternative.

Health benefits

Are alternative natural sweeteners a healthier choice?

Some alternatives contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that white sugar doesn’t have but usually the quantities are insignificant.  Others are highly processed or can also contain high levels of fructose – just like white sugar.  Researchers from Virginia Tech’s Biochemistry Department found that only date sugar and blackstrap molasses contained reasonable levels of antioxidants and that most other alternatives were often not much better nutritionally than white sugar.

Calories

Some sugar alternatives are lower in calories because they sweeter than sugar so you use less.  But if your sugar consumption (in any form) is so high that calorie content is significant it may be better to re-train your taste buds instead.

Taste

Some natural alternatives have very distinctive flavours.  If taste is what you’re after you may need to experiment as some are excellent for baking but will taste terrible in tea and coffee.

Agave has a delicate flavor.  It is sweeter than sugar so you can use less, but is very high in fructose and highly processed.

Barley Malt Syrup is similar to molasses in texture and has a distinctive malty taste.  It is ideal for baking and home brewing, but its flavor may be too intense for tea and coffee.  It is easily digested but not as sweet as sugar.

Brown Rice Syrup is made from boiling brown rice. It is more suited for cooking or drizzled over pancakes or porridge.   The research from Virginia Tech actually ranked brown rice syrup as less nutritious than refined white sugar, although others claim that some of the benefits of brown rice are retained in the syrup.

Coconut Sugar is made from the sap from the coconut palm that is heated to evaporate its water content and reduced to usable granules.  Despite the processing it does retain some nutritional properties and tastes similar to brown sugar.

Date Sugar is made from dried dates which are dehydrated, then ground.  It retains many of the nutritional benefits of dates and has a rich sweet flavor making a good alternative to brown sugar.  But date sugar is difficult to dissolve as it doesn’t melt.

Fruit Juice is a source of natural sugar suitable for adding sweetness to cakes and biscuits.

Honey is sweeter than sugar and often contains vitamins and antimicrobial properties.  Make sure you buy honey which has not been heated as heated honey loses many valuable health benefits.  Honey has different tastes depending on where the bees harvest the nectar and pollen.  Buy organic honey as some non organic brands are produced from bees which are fed refined sugar syrup.

Maple Syrup has a distinctive taste and also contains minerals.  Avoid maple flavoured syrup which is just coloured sugar water.

Molasses is a by-product of sugar production.  Many of sugar cane’s nutritional benefits are left in the molasses and blackstrap molasses is a good source of iron and calcium B6 and antioxidants.  It is thick and viscous and best used for baking.  It is sweeter than sugar so you can use less.

Stevia is a herb native to South America and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. The herb stevia is quite different to what we buy commercially.  Concernshave been raised intermittently about stevia over the years – without resolution.  It has not yet been evaluated by the FDA and there are no long term studies on the health effects of stevia.

Yacon is a relative to the Jerusalem artichoke.  Some claim there are health benefits of yacon, but large doses can cause diarrhoea and flatulence.

Zylitol/Xylitol is found naturally in fibrous fruits and vegies, corn cobs, and some hardwood trees.  It is a sugar alcohol, and sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed by the body so can lead to abdominal gas and diarrhoea.  It is also highly toxic for dogs – even in small amounts.