Walk into Mani’s, a popular Los Angeles bakery, and the chocolate-filled cookies, rich brownies, and cakes might have you mentally kissing your healthy eating habits good-bye. But stick around long enough and you’ll discover that the delicious-looking sweets lining the cases in front of you don’t have a bit of refined sugar in them. Instead, they’re made with molasses, agave nectar, fruit juice concentrate, and other all-natural sugar substitutes. What’s more, Mani Niall, the bakery’s founder and author of Sweet! (Perseus Books, 2008) maintains that these natural sweeteners are healthy and easy ingredients to use when you’re baking.
“Using alternatives to sugar can actually make your favorite dessert recipes taste much different—in a good way,” he says. “They can be richer, with surprising and more interesting textures.”
Good news, since dietitians agree that getting too much sugar can wreak havoc on your health. Sugar not only ramps up your glycemic load, causing spikes and crashes in your blood glucose levels that leave you feeling sapped, it’s also a nutritionally “empty” food. In other words, it’s completely devoid of nutrients and lacks the enzymes the body needs to metabolize it. The result? Sugar taxes the digestive system in ways it wasn’t meant to be taxed. Add to that sugar’s high calorie count (and the other high-calorie ingredients it’s often paired with), and you’ve got a food that should be eaten only in moderation.
But we do love our sugar, and most of us eat far too much of it. Research shows that many of us get a whopping 325 calories of the sweet stuff each day. And while we may think it’s only hard to avoid sugar this time of year, most of us consume much more of it than we think year-round. “Hidden sources of sugar have a way of creeping into our shopping carts,” says Tara Gidus, RD, a nutritionist in Orlando, Florida. “Breads, marinara sauce, salad dressings, ketchup, and many beverages are often loaded with processed and added sugars, making it crucial to read labels.”
OK, so too much sugar is bad for us, but how can anyone cut back now with Thanksgiving and the holidays—and their sweet temptations—right around the corner? “These natural alternatives to sugar contain important nutrients and minerals that promote health and also help digestion,” says Thomas S. Lee, NMD, a naturopathic physician in Reno, Nevada. Even better? There’s a good chance they’ll make your grandmother’s pumpkin pie or gingerbread cookie recipe tastier than ever too.
The king of nutritious natural sweeteners, molasses is the thick syrup that remains after all the nutrients have been “refined” out of the sugar cane and beets. These are no ordinary leftovers, however. Blackstrap molasses has more calcium than milk, more iron than eggs, and more potassium than any other food, and it’s an excellent source of B vitamins. Other nutrients in molasses include copper, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, pantothenic acid, and vitamin E. Although blackstrap molasses contains the most vitamins and minerals, Niall cautions to use it sparingly, unless specifically called for in a recipe. “Blackstrap has a very strong flavor and can be overpowering—a few tablespoons usually suffice,” he says. “Regular molasses is great for adding a moist, chewy texture, like in gingersnaps.” It also works as a glaze or marinade for meat.
A sweetener native to North America, maple syrup has a “rich, woodsy flavor and aroma,” says Niall. Produced by evaporating water from the sap of sugar maples, this syrup has fewer calories and more nutrients than sugar. “One ounce of pure maple syrup supplies 22 percent of the daily value for the trace mineral manganese,” says Lee. Maple syrup also contains the mineral zinc, known for supporting the immune system. You’ll find different grades of syrup based on color, with the lightest being grade A, but nutritionists recommend using the darkest variety, grade C, because it’s undergone less processing. (Grade A can actually contain formaldehyde runoff from certain machines used to process it.) Niall also favors darker grades, because of their fuller flavor.
This sweetener may look like a coarser version of refined sugar, but it actually consists of ground-up dates, which makes it rich in fiber and other good stuff. “It has more protein and fat than simple sugars,” says Lee, “making it a more complete nutritional food.” It’s also loaded with calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and copper. The one downside: It can be tough to find, and chances are you’ll have to buy it at a health-food or specialty shop. Date sugar’s thick, granulated texture makes it a little trickier to use than other sweeteners, because it doesn’t completely dissolve or cream up like cane sugar when mixed with other ingredients. While this means you won’t want to use it in hot drinks, it does substitute well for brown sugar in cookie, piecrust, and quick bread recipes.
Extracted from the agave plant, a cactus found in South America, Mexico, and the Western and Southwestern US, this syrup-like natural sweetener is made from the same juice that’s fermented to make tequila. Sweeter and less viscous than honey, agave nectar ranks notably low on the glycemic scale, making it a great option (in moderation) for diabetics. What’s more, agave is rich in nutrients—like vitamins B, C, D, and E, as well as calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, selenium, and chromium. An added bonus, says Niall: Agave syrup doesn’t spoil or crystallize, and it helps keep baked goods moist. It’s also wonderful on its own, spread on toast, or as a simple syrup in cocktails. Because agave is quite sweet and also runny, use 3/4 cup agave for a cup of sugar and reduce the amount of liquid a recipe calls for by 1/4 cup.
Fruit Juice Concentrate
“While concentrated fruit juice does go through some processing, it is a nice alternative to sugar,” says Gidus. “There are still good nutritional qualities in concentrate because it’s made from fruit.” Most concentrates are made by slow cooking fruit juices or fruit juice blends until they form a thick, sweet syrup. Read the labels carefully, however—in a nod to our collective sweet tooth, many juice blends contain added sugar. Niall suggests using thawed frozen apple juice concentrate in your baked goods recipes; its flavor especially complements those that call for fruit. Be sure to choose concentrate labeled 100 percent fruit juice, which does not have added sugar. While you can generally substitute fruit juice concentrate for sugar on a one-to-one basis, Niall shies away from conversion tables, urging experimentation according to personal taste. Add flour or cornstarch to absorb the extra liquid when using as a replacement for granulated sugars.
By Wendy McMillan, a freelance writer in Longmont, Colorado
Decorate Desserts without Sugar Using . . .
- Naturally sweet fruit and veggies, such as berries and carrots. Slice finely and arrange in a simple design.
- Currants and finely ground dried fruits and nuts. Sprinkled on top of cookies or brownies, this can mimic the look of powdered sugar.
- Honey or agave nectar. Drizzle on top of muffins, quick breads, and other baked goods.
- Cream cheese sweetened with maple syrup. A good icing alternative on cupcakes and muffins.
- Mint leaves, orange peel, and lemon zest. All work well as a garnish.