We’re Naturally Sweet, Thanks
Looking for alternatives to refined sugars? You’ve come to the right place. There’s a whole host of sweet delights on our shelves, waiting to liven up your cup of coffee, baked goods, marinades and dressings. Think refined sugars are your only choice? Think again.
Natural sweeteners like unrefined brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, barley malt and rice syrups, honey and agave nectar are common these days and for good reason. Each has a unique flavor and set of uses that’ll satisfy any craving for sweetness in everything from your salad dressings to your roasted pork loin. Want to know which natural sweeteners are the best choice for you? Keep reading.
Sugar on Top
These days, the main sources of commercial sugar are sugar cane and sugar beets, from which a variety of sugar products are made:
Granulated white sugar is common, highly-refined all-purpose sugar. Look for organic, unbleached varieties for a tastier, more natural choice.
Confectioners’ sugar (a.k.a. powdered sugar) is granulated white sugar that’s been crushed to a fine powder. That may sound painful, but it’s perfect for icings and decorations.
Unrefined brown sugar (a.k.a. raw sugar) is slightly purified, crystallized evaporated cane juice. This distinctive, caramel-flavored sugar comes in a variety of flavors including demerara, dark muscovado and turbinado.
Unrefined dehydrated cane juice is generally made by extracting and then dehydrating cane juice, with minimal loss of original flavor, color, or nutrients. (Unsure about how to use cane juice? Try a chocolate almond dream smoothie.)
The Buzz on Honey
It’s no small feat to be the world’s oldest-known unrefined sweetener. Because honey’s flavor and color are derived from the flower nectar collected by bees, honey has lots of pride of place. This accounts for the wide range of honeys available around the world. Note that dark honeys generally have a stronger flavor than lighter ones.
Since bees can forage up to a mile from their hive and are indiscriminate in their nectar choices, when a particular flower is named on the label of a honey container, it simply means that flower was the predominant one in bloom in the harvest area.
Here are a few of the most buzz-worthy varieties:
- Clover: mild flavored and readily available in colors ranging from water white to light amber
- Wildflower: generally dark with a range of flavors and aromas depending on the flowers that provided the nectar
- Alfalfa: light in color with a delicate flavor
- Orange Blossom: a distinctive citrus flavor and aroma and light in color
- Blueberry: slightly dark with a robust, full flavor
- Tupelo: fragrant, light and mild
- Chestnut: dark, tangy and slightly bitter with a high mineral content
Storage tip: Keep honey in an airtight container and, if used infrequently, at temperatures below 50°F. Liquid honey will eventually crystallize but can be returned easily to a liquid state by placing the container in warm water for a few minutes.
Health note: Honey should not be fed to children less than one year old because it can contain spores of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism.
Tapping into Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is simply the boiled down tree sap of the sugar maple tree. As for maple sugar, it’s twice as sweet as white sugar and has a delicious, caramel flavor.
Until the arrival of the honeybee (introduced from Italy in 1630) maple sugar was the only form of concentrated sweetener in North America. Both maple syrup and maple sugar are among the least refined sweeteners. (Try starting with maple orange glazed ham.)
With its strong, fragrant dark caramel flavor, expect great things from molasses. It’s about 65% as sweet as sugar, and is in fact produced during the refining of sugar. (The syrup remains after the available sucrose has been crystallized from sugar cane juice.)
Light molasses is from the first boiling of the cane, dark molasses is from the second, and blackstrap, the third. Though molasses can be sulfured or unsulfured, we prefer unsulfured molasses, meaning that the fumes used in manufacturing sugar aren’t retained as sulfur in the molasses.
Baking tip: If you’ve ever had gingerbread or spice cookies you know that without molasses, the world just wouldn’t be the same. Don’t believe us? Make these double gingerbread squares and you’ll see.
Barley Malt and Rice Syrup: Made from soaked and sprouted barley, which is dried and cooked down to make a thick syrup, barley malt is a sweetener that’s slowly digested and gentler on blood sugar levels than other sweeteners.
Rice syrup: Made in almost the same way, and is usually a combination of rice and barley. Some of the best Chai teas are sweetened with rice syrup, with deep and earthy results.
Agave: Nectar of the Gods: Agave nectar is a multipurpose sweetener obtained from the core of the Mexican Agave cactus, the same plant whose sap is a source of tequila. Agave nectar may resemble honey — its color ranges from pale to dark amber — but it’s slightly less viscous and dissolves easier in liquids.
Keep in mind that agave nectar is about 25% sweeter than sugar and that darker agave nectar has a more robust flavor with a pleasant hint of molasses, too. Agave lime pie anyone?
To try your hand at substituting natural sweeteners for refined sugar in recipes, keep this guide close by:
|Confectioners’ sugar||1 3/4 cups for each 1 cup sugar||No|
|Brown sugar||1 cup firmly packed for each 1 cup sugar||No|
|Turbinado sugar||1 cup for each 1 cup sugar||No|
|Maple syrup||3/4 cup for each 1 cup sugar||Reduce by 3 tablespoons|
|Honey||3/4 cup for each 1 cup sugar||Reduce by 1/4 cup|
|Barley malt or rice syrup||3/4 cup for each 1 cup sugar||Reduce by 1/4 cup|
|Molasses||1 1/4 cups for each 1 cup sugar||Reduce by 5 tablespoons for each cup used|
Refrigerate maple syrup to help it retain flavor and prevent slow fermentation and mold formation. When you store it right, maple syrup will keep for a year or more. If your syrup develops sugar crystals, don’t fret. Simply warm the syrup to dissolve them.
Choices in sweeteners
In recipes calling for white sugar, try substituting some applesauce or mashed ripe banana, puréed dates, raisins or prunes — adjusting the amount of liquid. They’ll add fiber and create a delicious, moist texture. Or, try one of the choices below:
Agave* is extracted from the agave cactus plant. It’s sweeter than sugar and may be suitable for diabetics.
Barley malt syrup* comes from sprouted barley that’s roasted and cooked down to a syrup. Its malt-like flavor is good for baking with squash, barbecue, and sweet and sour sauces. Mix a spoonful into milk or a non-dairy beverage for a “malted.” Be sure to read labels because brands sold at other stores may contain corn syrup or refined sugar.
Brown rice syrup* is made with brown rice and a culture that’s cooked to a syrup. Half as sweet as white sugar, its mild flavor is similar to butterscotch. It’s very good for cooking, baking, and in drinks or marinades. Be sure to read labels because some brands include barley malt and corn syrup.
Cane sugar is made from sugar cane that’s crushed mechanically to extract its juice. Several unrefined or unbleached forms are available and excellent in any recipe.
- Muscovado sugar is made from unrefined, evaporated cane juice. Unlike processing for white sugar, the molasses is not separated from the sugar stream when the cane is crushed. The juice is not spun but rather dried slowly to retain more plant material in the crystals and results in a pronounced flavor with a slightly sticky texture. It is unbleached and crystalline, retaining its natural molasses and trace vitamins and minerals.
- Organic, whole cane sugars sold under the Rapunzel and Wholesome Sweeteners brands, also are unrefined and unbleached and retain natural trace vitamins and minerals. The molasses is not separated from the sugar stream. Raw cane juice is filtered and heated to syrup, then dried. Rapunzel sieve-grinds its dried juice for a very fine granular texture (formerly called Rapadura sugar). Wholesome Sweeteners stirs its syrup to produce larger grains (called Sucanat).
- Turbinado sugar is made by heating sugar cane juice, then spinning it in a centrifuge or turbine to extract moisture and molasses for large, golden crystals. It’s closer to refined sugar than raw sugar.
- Demerara sugar is similar to turbinado. The cane juice is heated, filtered and spun in a centrifuge to separate the molasses from the large, crunchy crystals.
Date sugar* is a whole-food sweetener made of dried, pulverized dates. Some brands add oat flour to make it free-flowing, others add oil for softness. Rich in iron, potassium and vitamins, the high fiber content slows absorption. Date sugar does not dissolve, but is delicious in baking and crumb toppings. It burns easily, so bake with care.
Fruit juice concentrates are fruit juices cooked down to a syrup and frozen. Their fruit flavors are a plus or minus depending on your preference. Non-organic grapes can have especially high levels of pesticide residues, so choose organic grape concentrates.
Honey is made by honeybees from plant nectar. Unheated and unfiltered raw honey is cloudy and contains healthful propolis and pollen. Although it is a simple sugar, less is needed because it’s sweeter than white sugar. Honey is a very versatile sweetener and is excellent in baking. It should not be given to children younger than two to protect against infant botulism.
Maple syrup* is the boiled sap of sugar maple trees. Grade A is light and from early sap runs. Grade B is from later runs and has a stronger flavor. Buy organic to avoid residues of formaldehyde and other chemicals used to keep tap holes open longer. Crystallized maple syrup is available as a sprinkle. Refrigerate to inhibit mold.
Molasses* is a by-product of refining sugar cane. Blackstrap is slightly sweet, comes from the final press of sugar cane and is a source of iron and calcium. “Unsulphured molasses” indicates no sulphur dioxide was used in extraction or as a preservative. Refrigerate to inhibit mold.
Stevia is derived from a perennial shrub with leaves 30-times sweeter than sugar. It has no calories and may be useful for people with diabetes, hypoglycemia or candida. Available in powdered, liquid, concentrate, tea or tablet form.
Xylitol today typically comes from corncobs and if not organic, may be genetically modified. It tastes similar to cane sugar, is low in calories, and reportedly does not cause cavities. It may be suitable for diabetics.
Zero is a brand name for a certified organic calorie-free erythritol, a type of sugar alcohol. It’s derived from organic sugar cane juice, which is fermented, filtered and crystallized.
* These sweeteners contain more complex sugars, are absorbed more slowly and are less likely to disrupt blood sugar stability.
To replace white sugar in a recipe, try these substitutions
|Sweetener||Amount to replace 1 cup sugar||Adjustments to recipe|
|* If you use barley malt or brown rice syrups in baked goods, be aware that a natural enzyme in these sweeteners may liquefy the consistency of the batter. This is more likely when eggs are not used. To prevent liquefying eggless recipes, first boil the barley malt or brown rice syrup for 2 to 3 minutes, cool, then measure and use.
** For each 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, reduce salt by 1/4 teaspoon.
*** Do not substitute more than half the sugar in a recipe with molasses; blackstrap molasses is not sweet.
Tip: If the recipe doesn’t call for any liquid, add 4 to 6 tablespoons of flour for each cup of liquid sweetener substituted for sugar.
|Agave||3/4 cup||Reduce liquid in recipe by one-third to one-half. Reduce baking temperature 25 degrees.|
|Barley malt syrup*||1 1/3 cup||Reduce liquids by one-fourth. Add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda for each cup syrup to help baked goods rise.**|
|Brown rice syrup*||1 1/4 cup||Reduce liquid by one-fourth and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda for each cup syrup to help baked goods rise.**|
|Date sugar||1 cup||none|
|Frozen juice concentrate||2/3 cup||Reduce liquids by one-third and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda per cup of concentrate.**|
|Honey||1/2 cup||Reduce liquids by one-eighth. Reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees and cook a bit longer.|
|Maple syrup||1/2 to 2/3 cup||Reduce liquid by one-fourth and add 1 teaspoon baking soda per cup of syrup.**|
|Molasses||1 1/3 cup sweet molasses||Reduce liquid by 6 tablespoons and add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda per cup of molasses.***|
|Stevia||Read labels for powder, liquid or concentrate.||Follow suggestions on product label.|
|Sugar cane juice
(Rapadura, Sucanat, muscovado, turbinado, demerara)
|Xylitol or Zero, granulated||1 cup||none|