It seems so simple at first glance—finding the right sugar for the right job. Probably you’ve used granulated sugar, which will work to sweeten almost anything: puddings, cakes, candies. And then there’s brown sugar, soft and moist with molasses, which adds chewiness to cookies and richness to crumbles and crisps. And confectioners’ sugar, light and fluffy with its very fine grain and the addition of cornstarch, is indispensable in making royal icing and giving a nice finish to doughnuts and a variety of other desserts.
But what if there are extenuating circumstances? What if your sister-in-law was just diagnosed with diabetes, her birthday is Saturday, and you are the official family cake baker? What if you are craving a big bowl of homemade strawberry ice cream but know that bikini isn’t getting any bigger? You could, of course, always turn to artificial sweeteners, some actually even taste pretty good and have been processed with cooking and baking in mind. But then there are the reported health risks to consider: the new studies spreading light on the dangerous effects of the chemicals we’ve been stirring into our coffee for years. It’s a challenge to weigh out the benefits from the concerns.
Take a walk down the baking aisle of most large supermarkets and natural food stores and you’ll find there are actually more alternatives than you would imagine. There is also a stunning amount of information available about these natural sweeteners—some scientific, some anecdotal, and some, well, clearly marketing rhetoric. It’s no easy task to sift through all the material and figure out what to believe. To help you out, here is a look at three of the most notable characters on the natural alternative sweetener scene.
The Ancient One
Using the agave plant for ingestible purposes is about as new as using fire to render a wild beast edible. A succulent closely related and often included in the Amaryllis family (daffodils and snowdrops are two of the plants in this group), the agave plant has been used at least as far back as the Aztecs for its edible flowers, leaves, stalks, and sap (or nectar). By far the most popular use of the agave sold in the United States is to make mezcal. The heart of the plant is harvested, shredded, pressed, and fermented into this alcoholic beverage. If Blue Agave is used and it has been grown in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, Mexico, it is called Tequila.
Agave syrup (or nectar as it is often labeled) naturally falls lower on the gylcemic index than regular table sugar. What this means is that although this sweetener is only slightly less caloric teaspoon for teaspoon than granulated sugar, it is absorbed more slowly by the body and therefore less likely to cause spikes in blood sugar levels, making it a good choice for diabetics and people trying to watch their weight. Agave syrup is also a great vegan substitute for honey.
Generally available in three varieties—light, amber, and dark—agave syrup is best suited as a substitute for other liquid sweeteners, such as honey, corn syrup, and maple syrup. The light and amber varieties are brightly sweet and mild in flavor and perfect when all you need is sweet, with little to no additional flavor. Dark (and some amber) varieties with their rich, nearly nutty flavor can easily stand alone on top of pancakes or as a sweet sauce.
Agave syrup can be used in baking, but plan on doing some experimenting. Brands of agave syrup vary in sweetness and viscosity, and how a particular recipe reacts to the change from a dry sweetener to a wet one depends on a host of factors. A good rule of thumb is to start by using about 1/2 cup of agave syrup to 1 cup of granulated sugar and reduce the total amount of other liquids in the recipe by about 1/3 cup. Give that a whirl, and then keep tweaking until your recipe turns out the way you want.
The path to American grocery shelves has been a rocky one for stevia. A powder processed from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant (more commonly know as the Sweetleaf or Sugarleaf plant), which is native to Paraguay, stevia has been commercially sold as a virtually zero calorie sweetener in Japan for 30 years. It is also used in South America, Australia, and New Zealand, but it wasn’t until December 2008 that the FDA granted stevia GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status in the United States. Previously, it could only be sold as a supplement on American shelves. The 2008 FDA approval, however, did not go unchallenged. The Center of Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.–based consumer advocacy group, expressed concern about the FDA approval, citing lab tests that suggest that high doses of the leaf may cause mutations that can lead to cancer. A joint global heath committee, however, found no toxic or carcinogenic effects for intakes up to 2 milligrams per 1 kilogram of body weight (about 15 packets a day). So, although the debate continues among nutritionists, government officials, and producers to some degree, the American consumer has embraced stevia. There are even rumbles that two major soft drink companies have plans to concoct stevia sweetened sodas in the very near future.
Stevia is about 250 to 300 times as sweet as granulated sugar. It is sometimes ground in its natural state into a greenish powder, but since its FDA approval it is most commonly sold further processed. Glycoside, the sweetening agent in stevia, is isolated and processed into a white powder. And often this powder is combined with other natural sweeteners before being packaged.
Now companies small and large have begun to produce and sell there own versions of stevia sweeteners—most commonly as the white powder similar in appearance to granulated sugar. Each brand varies somewhat in taste and sweetness, but for the most part they have a mouthfeel very much like granulated sugar but much sweeter. Check the particular brand you are using for the correct conversion, but a little stevia goes a long way. One-half teaspoon of stevia is often as sweet as 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, although, some brands claim a conversion of 1 teaspoon stevia to 1 cup granulated sugar. It is also important to remember that because you’ll be using less stevia in your recipe, the moisture and consistency may be thrown off. Try adding this moisture and bulk back in with applesauce or other fruit purees.
The Science Geek
Don’t let the chemical sounding name fool you; erythritol is a natural sweetener. It’s sold under several brand names on its own and is frequently mixed with stevia. Erythritol is found naturally in many fruits, such as pears, grapes, and melons, and in fermented foods such as soy sauce. It is a sugar alcohol, which means it is a carbohydrate but not a sugar. Sugar alcohols contain calories, but that comes out to about 0.2 calories per gram in the case of erythritol, qualifying it to be labeled as calorie-free in the United States. In addition to the fact that erythritol is low in calories, it’s not absorbed into the blood stream when ingested. About 90 percent of it is excreted unchanged. This means erythritol does not cause spikes in blood sugar levels.
Usually found as a white powder, erythritol has a single note sweetness with a slight cooling effect (sort of registers as minty on your tongue). Keep that mintyness in mind when choosing in which recipes to use erythritol. Well-suited to cooking and baking, erythritol has almost a one to one conversion to granulated sugar (it is ever so slightly less sweet, so you may want to add a pinch more erythritol). But take note: This sweetener does not caramelize the way granulated sugar does, so although it will work in the custard for a crème brûlée, you will have to sprinkle the old-fashioned stuff on top in order to obtain that signature crunchy top.
These natural sugar substitutes may not come near to addressing all of the dietary struggles of diabetics and won’t make that strawberry ice cream completely calorie-free, but they are natural, tasty, and easy to find alternatives to what most of us have known as just sugar.