With adult and childhood obesity now a national concern, parents need to be on the lookout for processed sugars that sneak into family foods, from cereals to condiments.Refined sugar has no upside other than its flavor; it contains no fiber, no minerals, no proteins, no fats, no enzymes, and has a glycemic (GI) index of 65, which is high. (GI index measures how much your blood glucose increases after eating a particular food.) So the next time a recipe calls for sugar, experiment with one of these natural alternatives; some have fewer or even zero calories, or exert less impact on blood sugar. Keep in mind, however, that sugar in any form should be enjoyed sparingly.
Sweetener: Agave nectar
What it is: Golden-brown liquid traditionally derived from the boiled sap of the blue agave plant. Less viscous than honey, but thicker than maple syrup, it’s intensely sweet.
Health impact: Glycemic index (GI) of 15, the lowest of any sweetener. (Note that GI only measures glucose, so numbers don’t tell the whole story; agave is 92 percent fructose and only 8 percent glucose.) Contains more calories per teaspoon (20), than white sugar (about 15).
Best in: Soft-textured foods such as smoothies, drinks, salad dressings, pies, cheesecake, and custards. Can also be used in breads, cakes, and cookies.
How to use: Substitute 2/3 cup agave for 1 cup white sugar; in baking, reduce other liquid by about one-third.
Sweetener: Brown rice syrup
What it is: Dense liquid made by fermenting brown rice with enzymes to convert starches to sugars. Thick, creamy texture, pale golden color, and mild sweetness reminiscent of butterscotch.
Health impact: Relatively low GI of 25 (contains 50 percent complex carbs and 5 percent glucose). Same calories as sugar but only half as sweet, so you may need to use more.
Best in: Soft-textured dishes, such as pies, hot cereals, and sauces. Tends to make baked goods heavy and hard, so better for crunchy items, like cookies, biscotti, or granola.
How to use: Substitute 1 1/2 cups brown rice syrup for 1 cup sugar; reduce liquid by 2 tablespoons.
Sweetener: Date sugar
What it is: Dehydrated and ground dates. Grainy texture; deep, earthy color and sweetness.
Health impact: Minimally refined and processed; rich in minerals, plus 1 gram fiber per tablespoon. Relatively few calories (12 per teaspoon).
Best in: Baked goods such as crusts, spice cookies, nut breads, or anything with a dark color and dense texture. In light-colored cakes, cookies, or puddings, will appear as brown flecks. Doesn’t dissolve in liquid, so not ideal for beverages, puddings, or pies.
How to use: Substitute 2/3 cup date sugar for 1 cup white sugar. Browns quickly and burns easily, so shorten recipe cooking time by several minutes. Don’t use in recipes where sugar needs to melt.
Sweetener: Organic granulated sugar
What it is: Unbleached, less processed granulated sugar cane.
Health impact: Essentially the same calories and GI as white sugar, but retains some of the mineral-rich molasses. Eco-bonus: Some brands, such as Florida Crystals, are certified carbon neutral.
Best in: Anything that uses regular sugar; similar texture, and adds no color. Demerara or turbinado organic sugar (“raw sugar”) is slightly browner, with larger crystals.
How to use: Substitute 1:1 for regular sugar.
Sweetener: Palm sugar
What it is: Granulated or chunk sugar made by boiling the sap of coconut palm-tree flowers. Looks similar to brown sugar; has a more robust flavor than white sugar or honey, with hints of caramel and maple syrup.
Health impact: Relatively low GI of 35; same calories as white sugar, but slightly less sweet.
Best in: Recipes where a mild maple-caramel flavor will complement other tastes, such as oatmeal cookies, bean dishes, and sweet marinades. Because it dissolves easily and provides bulk, the granulated form is ideal for baking.
How to use: Substitute 1 1/8 cups palm sugar for 1 cup white sugar.
What it is: Derived from a shrub; now available in leaf form (ground or whole leaf) and as a chemically refined liquid or powder concentrate. Usually sold in the supplement section. The raw leaf is 60 times sweeter than sugar; in concentrated form, stevia is 150 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Health impact: In South America and Asia, people have used raw-leaf stevia safely for centuries as a flavor enhancer. With zero calories, it exerts no impact on insulin levels (some studies suggest stevia may actually help control insulin levels). Late last year, the FDA granted “no-objection” status to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to use stevia-based products in beverages.
Best in: Ideal for sweetening tea, lemonade, or other liquids. Lacks bulk, so it’s trickier for baking—works in cookies, granola, and pies, but not as well in breads, cakes, or anything where texture matters.
How to use: In baking, replace 1 cup sugar with 1 teaspoon stevia powder (or liquid), plus 1/3 cup of a bulking agent, such as egg whites, applesauce, mashed bananas, pumpkin purée, or yogurt; increase liquid by 2 tablespoons. Can add a bitter aftertaste, so go easy.
What it is: White crystalline alcohol powder once commonly derived from birch bark, now mostly refined from corn, berries, and plums. Similar in appearance and sweetness to white sugar.
Health impact: Doesn’t metabolize as sugar, so has no effect on insulin levels. Contains 9 calories per teaspoon, about half that of sugar. Extremely effective in preventing tooth decay; may have positive effects on bone health. Note: extremely toxic to dogs.
Best in: Dissolves easily in liquid; ideal for beverages and smoothies.
How to use: A direct substitute for sugar. In recipes calling for high quantities, use equal parts xylitol and another natural sweetener to reduce xylitol’s potential bloating or laxative effects.