Sweet Nothings
Try these natural options to white sugar

By Melissa B. Scott

Americans have long had a love affair with white sugar. Cited in songs, sayings, and nicknames, sugar enjoys sweet success. In fact, the average American manages to chomp down nearly 150 pounds of it each year. Yet nutritionists across the board recommend cutting back because of sugar’s negative association with obesity, tooth decay, and even increased risk for coronary heart disease (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2002, vol. 102, no. 3). Diets high in sugar may also contribute to insulin resistance, decreased bone density, and a variety of nutrient deficiencies, especially calcium (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003, vol. 78, no. 4 Suppl).

But if you cut back on white sugar, is it still possible to enjoy your favorite sweets? You bet, say the nutritionists. “The key is to satisfy your sweet tooth naturally and intelligently,” says Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, author of The Fat Flush Plan (McGraw-Hill, 2001) and Get the Sugar Out (Three Rivers Press, 1996). Minimally processed natural sugars contain beneficial nutrients, and some do not raise blood sugar as rapidly as white sugar does. The following is a list of options to look for at your natural foods store.

Liquid sweetness
Molasses. Molasses, derived from sugar cane and sugar beets, tops the list of healthier alternatives. Your grandmother probably had a bottle of this dark syrup in her pantry; in fact, molasses was America’s sweetener of choice from colonial times until World War I, when white table sugar became cheaper. Molasses, especially blackstrap, is one of the most nutritious sweeteners available, containing iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. If you find molasses difficult to substitute in recipes calling for white or brown sugar, try granular sucanat, a blend of molasses and crystallized white sugar, which combines the nutrition of molasses with the baking properties of sugar.

Honey. This golden liquid enjoys recognition for its healing abilities. Doctors recommend it for soothing a sore throat, and some cultures use it to help heal wounds. A recent study on rats found that honey did not lead to the same tissue-aging properties as fructose, nor did it raise triglycerides (Journal of Nutrition, 2002, vol. 132, no. 11). Honey may also contain beneficial antioxidants that reduce age-related disease risks (Lancet, 1998, vol. 352, no. 9123). Although honey is generally less processed than white sugar, it actually is sweeter and has more calories per tablespoon.

Maple syrup. Native Americans probably were the first to cultivate and concentrate maple tree sap to use as an energy source and sweetener. Pure maple syrup contains calcium and potassium, vitamin E, and trace amounts of B vitamins. Just a drop provides more sweetness than equivalent amounts of other sweeteners, says Jennifer Workman, MS, RD, author of Stop Your Cravings (Simon & Schuster, 2002). Be sure to avoid the low-calorie syrup substitutes made with fillers such as corn syrup and artificial flavorings.

Grain and fruit derivatives
Barley malt and brown rice syrup. Sugars derived from grains, including barley malt and brown rice syrup, retain some complex carbohydrates and provide a slower insulin response than white sugar. Barley malt also contains B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and vitamin E. However, those with severe gluten intolerance may want to avoid barley malt because it could contain trace amounts of gluten. Both grain-based sweeteners impart a hearty, earthy flavor.

Date sugar and xylitol. Fruit derivatives capitalize on fruit’s natural sweetness, with the added bonus of holdover nutrients. “Date sugar is one of my favorite natural sweeteners,” says Gittleman. “It’s even allowed on sugar-restricted diets since it is just dried fruit.” Made by pulverizing dried dates, granular date sugar is rich in fiber and potassium.

Xylitol, a sugar alcohol found in fruits and berries and often derived from birch sap, may help reduce dental cavities and produces negligible effects on blood glucose, making it useful for low-carbohydrate diets and people with diabetes. However, because xylitol is incompletely absorbed by the intestines, suddenly introducing high doses may cause bloating and loose stools in susceptible individuals. Consequently, nutritionists recommend starting out with lower doses and slowly building it into the diet.

A sweet herb
Stevia. Although stevia is relatively new to the U.S. market, it has been a staple in South American and Japanese cooking for decades. Stevia rebaudiana, an herb, is 300 times sweeter than sugar but contains no calories. According to Gittleman, it is an excellent sugar replacement. “It does not impact blood sugar levels the way white sugar does,” she says. Although several companies market stevia in individual packets, it is sold as a dietary supplement, so look for it in the herb and supplement section of your natural products store.

With any sweetener, moderation is key. But by choosing natural sugars over highly processed types, you’ll satisfy your sweet tooth and move toward better health.

“I hope readers will learn the difference between healthy sweetener options and unhealthy ones,” says Santa Barbara, California-based Melissa Scott. “Each sweetener has a unique flavor and when used properly, the right sweetener can really bring out the flavor in a dish.”