As you stare through the pastry display case like a carbo-crazed zombie, the maple donut, ruby-red velvet cupcake, decadent brownie, and gooey cookie cunningly lure you in. Let’s face it, we’ve all fallen victim to these sweet indulgences from time to time, and their ubiquity at grocery stores, coffee shops, and restaurants hasn’t lessened our well-intentioned will power.
But, spikes in blood sugar and rises in both obesity and diabetes call for some serious self-control for not just adults, but kids, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children and adolescents age 2-18 years, are consuming 40 percent of daily their calories from empty calories from added sugars and fats.
Granulated sugar is the go-to for many bakers for its affordability, availability, and ability to trap and hold moisture, brown, and crystalize. But, with that baker’s perfection comes a hefty price tag on health.
Table sugar, or sucrose, is highly processed and stripped of most of its minerals and antioxidants. What you have left is empty calories — and a lot of them. White table sugar boasts a whopping 720 calories a cup, 200 grams of carbs, and contains 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose with a glycemic index of 60. Refined sugar is a big no-no for anyone trying to avoid insulin spikes or increases in blood glucose (blood sugar) levels, such as diabetics or those trying to lose weight.
The good news is you don’t have to omit sweet treats from your life; you just have to bake smarter. If you read our recent posts, the Guide to Healthy Sweeteners and Making Healthy Sweeteners Practical at Home and On the Go, then you’re abreast of the dangers of artificial sweeteners and refined sugars. According to metaphysician and holistic healing expert, Blyth Metz, Ph.D., “We are designed to enjoy sweet treats, as long as we make sure there are clean proteins and healthy fats within the treat to balance our body’s absorption of the sugar.”
While many people reach for honey as a natural sugar substitute, according to Ayurvedic medicine, honey should never be cooked. In Ayurveda, toxins, also known as “ama,” are the root cause of many diseases and illness. The process of heating honey creates unwanted particles that adhere to the lining of the digestive tract. However, you can enjoy these 10 natural sugar substitutes whether you’re baking or cooking.
Baking & Cooking With Natural Sweeteners
1. Maple Crystals or Maple Syrup
Health information: Maple syrup is terrific sugar substitute for baking, but you might not be familiar with the dehydrated maple crystals from maple tree sap. The crystals contain about four carbohydrates and 15 calories per teaspoon. Maple crystals and syrup are loaded with minerals, including calcium, potassium magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus. They also include iron and trace amounts of B2, B5, niacin, zinc, and folic acid — all important for a healthy immune system, heart, and reproductive system. Maple syrup has a low glycemic index of 54, and 50 percent each of glucose and fructose.
Measurements: Use 3/4 cup of syrup or crystals for every cup of sugar called for in a recipe. Recipes will be moister when maple syrup is used, so reduce liquids in the recipe by 2 to 4 tablespoons. Maple syrup tends to make baked goods brown more quickly than sugar, so lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Metz suggests using maple syrup for raw desserts like raw vegan ice creams, chia puddings, and raw vegan cheesecakes. She also advises using maple crystals for baked treats such as oatmeal cookies and almond flour banana bread.
Tips: Maple crystals syrup can be used in marinades, on cinnamon toast, in oatmeal or other hot cereals, in glazes, and in baked or raw desserts like cookies and candy. Always use 100 percent maple syrup, not table or pancake syrup, which is highly processed. Most brands of table or pancake syrup contain a high amount of corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup, according to Consumer Reports.
2. Coconut Sugar
Health information: Also called coconut palm sugar, coconut sugar is derived from coconut nectar, but doesn’t taste like coconut. It’s lower on the glycemic index than table sugar. Though high in calories, coconut sugar contains nutrients such as short-chain fatty acids like polyphenols and antioxidants as well as minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium. Coconut sugar is naturally high in amino acids. It also includes beneficial inulin fiber, which may slow glucose absorption, and has a low glycemic index of 35.
Measurements: Replace regular sugar with an equal amount of coconut sugar. For example, if the recipe calls for 1 cup sugar, use 1 cup coconut sugar.
Tips: This is an excellent substitute for brown sugar, but should be used sparingly due to its high calories.
3. Monk Fruit Crystals*
Health information: The sweetness of monk fruit (luo han guo) comes from antioxidants, called mogrosides, which are 200 times sweeter than sugar. They have been shown to have anti-cancer properties, according to Metz. One study on mice found that mogroside V inhibited the rapid progression of pancreatic cancer cells. Another study indicates that mogrodise IVe, a plant triterpene glycoside in monk fruit, can be used as a supplement for treating colorectal and throat cancers. One packet of monk fruit crystals contains zer0 calories and less than 1 gram of carbohydrates.
Measurements: Use 1/2 cup of monk fruit extract for every 1 cup of sugar called for in a recipe.
Tips: Monk fruit extract is heat stable, making it suitable for cooking and baking. Metz’s favorite recipe using Monk fruit is homemade lemonade that provides antioxidants and keeps you cool throughout the summer. At just 2 grams of sugar per serving, it’s a great alternative to store-bought lemonade, which boasts about 40 grams of sugar per serving. Here’s her recipe:
Homemade Lemonade With Monk Fruit
- Add 1/2 cup monk fruit to 2 cups of water in a small saucepan.
- Heat to melt the monk fruit crystal to achieve a glycemically light simple syrup.
- Add your simple syrup to 2 quarts of cold, purified water
- Juice 10 lemons and add to your simple syrup/water mix
*Low glycemic; ketogenic, and diabetic-friendly
4. Blackstrap Molasses
Health information: Molasses consists of approximately 50 percent each glucose and fructose. Dark molasses boasts the highest antioxidant levels of all sweeteners. Blackstrap molasses contains the nutrients that get stripped from table sugar, including high levels of calcium, iron, and potassium as well as copper and B vitamins. It has a low glycemic index of 55.
Measurements: Replace 1 cup of sugar with 1-1/3 cup of molasses. Reduce liquid by two tablespoons for each cup replaced. Or, add 1 tablespoon of flour for every 1/4 cup of molasses used if there’s no liquid added to the recipe. Lower oven temperature by 25 degrees F.
Tips: Molasses has a distinct, bitter flavor and works best for dark colored foods such as beans, cookies, dark bread, barbecue sauce, glazes, and pies with fall fruits or vegetables.
5. Jerusalem Artichoke
Health information: Jerusalem artichoke syrup is high in vitamin C, niacin (B3) and thiamine (B1), which provide energy, as well as a significant spectrum of essential minerals, according to metaphysician and holistic healing expert, Blyth Metz, Ph.D. These vitamins are stable during heating and processing. Jerusalem artichoke syrup is dark, like molasses, and has a slight bitterness to it; this plays into the alchemy of how it aids your digestion since it’s also a prebiotic.
Measurements: Substitute Jerusalem artichoke syrup for one-half of the sugar in any recipe, for added nutrition and moisture. Replace the other half of the sugar in the recipe with dry sweetener, such as golden monk fruit crystals, maple crystals, or coconut sugar.
Tips: Metz advises using this unique sweetener in dark treats like spice cake, brownies, and chocolate muffins (which she makes with almond flour and oatmeal to beef up the protein and nutrients).
Health information: Stevia-based sweeteners are 200 times sweeter than sugar. One packet contains between zero and one calorie and one to four grams of carbohydrates, depending on the brand. Stevia has a glycemic index of zero.
Measurements: Replace 1 cup of sugar with 1 teaspoon of stevia.
Tips: Reduce the baking temperature by 25 percent. You can also increase baking powder or soda, to help the food rise and add texture, since stevia won’t do either. Also, you can add a fruit puree for moistness. If you desire some browning, leave at least 1/4 cup of sugar in the recipe to improve texture.
*Low glycemic; ketogenic, and diabetic-friendly
Baking & Cooking With Raw Sugars
7. Raw Dates/Date Paste
Health information: Made from ground dates, date sugar or date paste delivers many nutrients including potassium, calcium, and a host of free-radical-busting antioxidants. Dates have a low glycemic index of only 42.
Measurements: For 1 cup sugar, use 2/3 cup date sugar.
Tips: Best for use in baked sweets such as cookies, cakes, brownies, and bars.
8. Raw Agave
Health information: Agave boasts more calories than white, granulated sugar and is comprised of about 80 to 90 percent fructose with the rest being glucose. When baking, always choose raw agave since it’s processed at a much lower temperature. It’s best for recipes that require little sweetener due to its high fructose content.
Measurements: For every 1 cup of sugar, replace with 2/3 cup of raw agave. You will also need to lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Since it is a syrup, you’ll need to reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by about 25 percent since your baked goods will brown faster.
Tips: Raw agave nectar may have more calories than white table sugar, but you’ll use less of it and therefore ingest fewer calories.
Health information: Bananas are packed with fiber, including pectin, antioxidants, and some nutrients including magnesium and potassium. One medium-sized banana contains 9 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) requirements. Bananas are excellent for both digestive and heart health. The glycemic index value of an average banana is 51.
Measurements: For every 1 cup sugar the recipe calls for, use 1/2 cup mashed banana. Bananas are also an excellent substitute for eggs and butter. In both cases, you would use equal amounts; replace one egg or one cup of butter with one mashed banana.
Tips: Use ripe bananas. To account for the moisture in the banana, use 2 to 3 tablespoons less liquid than your recipe calls for.
Baking & Cooking With Sugar Alcohols
Health information: Xylitol belongs to a class of sugar alcohols that are non-nutritive, low calorie, low carbohydrate sweeteners. It has around 40 percent fewer calories than real sugar and an extremely low glycemic index.
Measurements: Use 1 cup xylitol powder to replace every 1 cup sugar the recipe calls for. However, if you use xylitol crystals for cooking or baking, Metz advises using half the amount of sweetener the recipe calls for.
Tips: Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that can be used in baking, but due to potential gastrointestinal issues, it’s best used in recipes that require a small amount of sweetener. Xylitol is heat stable and even provides some volume and texture, unlike other types of sweeteners. Do keep in mind that texture, moistness, and browning will be affected by using the sugar substitute. Note: Xylitol is toxic to dogs.
*Low glycemic; ketogenic, and diabetic-friendly
Download the Chart
To view our printable, condensed guide to baking & cooking with healthy sweeteners, click the image below.
Today, you have a choice between numerous healthy sugar alternatives. When you substitute them for sugar in baking and cooking, you may have to make some allowances. Depending on the sweetener you use, the color may be lighter, the texture may be drier, and the volume may be flatter. But I promise — you won’t have to compromise on the most important aspect — your health.