Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Quick Guide to Natural Sweeteners

For about a year now I've been trying to find a good substitute for refined sugar when baking. My main goals were trying to get the glycemic index down to an acceptable level while still having it be "natural". So just so everyone's clear here...natural comes from nature, not made in a lab. High fructose corn syrup is made in a lab and so is erythritol and xylitol, the later two are both marketed as "natural" sweeteners.  High Fructose corn syrup's glycemic index is 87, just to give you a good reference. 

Let's review:
  • Raw honey (above)- glycemic index 30.
    • A great sweetener. It will gave your baked goods a mild nutty taste that I love. Raw is the key though. There are some honey producers that think that adding sugar and other chemicals to their honey is a good thing. But I do not. Always check your honey, or better yet, just buy it locally from your farmers market. 
    • Baking will take a bit of adjustment. If you are substituting with a liquid sweetener, reduce liquid in recipe by 1/4 cup. Honey is also sweeter than refined sugar, use 2/3 up honey to every cup sugar called for. You may also need to add 1/2 tsp extra baking soda to help your baked goods rise. Lastly, reduce your heat by 25 degrees so that things won't burn. 

  • Agave syrup- glycemic index 15-30.
    • Agave has become very VERY popular lately. I liked this picture above because it actually showed where the agave syrup is coming from. After it is harvested, it is refined down to a syrup that is similar to high fructose corn syrup but with more vitamins and minerals. Fructose is fine, we eat it ever day in fruits, honey, and many other natural foods. The glycemic index of agave is amazing....but where it gets processed in the body is the problem.
    • Agave fructose is broken down in the liver and then stored as fat, not as readily used for energy. And for a liver that is not accustomed to processing so much fructose on such a regular basis, I worry about overworking the liver! We Americans like our sweets, so unless you're into moderation, I would not use agave regularly as a sugar substitute. 
    • Use it here and there. Sweeten tea or ice cream with it. And reduce liquid by 1/4 cup if you decide to bake with agave. 

  • Coconut (palm) sugar- glycemic index 35.
    • So far my favorite for baking. I'm satisfied with the fact that in order to taste good, baked goods might need some sort of sugar. And I don't think anything bad can come from a coconut! 
    • It is completely natural with a low glycemic index and a lovely taste. The type I buy is the granular type. It doesn't work well in macaroon recipes, but every other baked good I've tried works well. 
    • There is some debate over weather coconut sugar is being harvested sustainably. I have had a hard time finding info on it. It seems to be the producers of other coconut products that seem to be having issues with the palm sugar industry because it is making their prices rise. 
    • Healthy Tip: To slow the amount of sugar going into my kids bloodstreams, I like to add a few tablespoons of coconut milk and/or ground almonds to whatever I'm baking. The extra good fat slows the sugar down. 

  • Maple syrup- glycemic index 54.
    • Okay, this stuff is beyond tasty and there is no question whether or not you should have this in your kitchen! 
    • It is natural, the nectar of the maples. It's glycemic index is a bit too high for me to use it in baking instead of sugar (and too expensive!), so I say in moderation. And mostly for flavor. 
    • And again, reduce your oven by 25 degrees to avoid burning, add 1/2 tsp. baking soda to help things rise, and lastly reduce liquid by 1/4 cup. 

  • Brown rice syrup- glycemic index unknown?
    • It was hard to find a glycemic index of brown rice syrup. It is composed of 3 different sugars all with a glycemic index above white sugar. Other sources say its index is I'm confused and if anyone can help clarity, please do. 
    • I like this picture, because it shows exactly how sticky and thick it is to use. The best use for it that I've found is for chewy granola bars. 
  • Erythritol- 0 glycemic index
    • There are plenty of pictures of this alcohol sugar, but I thought this picture above made the point. It's not a food! It's not natural. And when I drank ice tea sweetened with it a week ago, I wound up with the most horrible migraine ever. 
    • So no, i wouldn't recommend using erythritol. 
    • Xylitol is also an alcohol sugar, made in a lab. So no, it's not natural even tough it has a great glycemic index. It does seem to have some good dental benefits though. 
  • Stevia- 0 glycemic index
    • This is one of my favorite sweeteners. It's natural and has no effect on your blood sugar. 
    • Stevia's main drawback can be it's taste. It has a sweetness that is 100 times greater than refined sugar and the sweetness lasts, it doesn't just go away after eating. It's important to use it correctly. I've found a few tricks that seem to make it work well. 
    • I use mostly liquid stevia. And 2-3 drops equals 1 cup of white sugar. But it is best to use part coconut sugar and part stevia. I usually use 1/2 stevia and 1/2 coconut sugar. This is good enough to fool even the pickiest. 
    • It doesn't work in every baked good, but I have a tab that outlines some of my favorite recipes that can be made with stevia. 

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