Similar to the other areas of my pantry that were in need of an overhaul, I was on the lookout for sweeteners produced from crops that had been farmed without chemicals and pesticides. I was looking for sweeteners that didn’t contain additives and preservatives, and were as close to their original source ingredient in form and flavor as possible.
And as far as flavor goes, the good news is that many of the alternative sweeteners are amazing. They maintain the flavor and some of the qualities of their source, in contrast to white sugar that is stripped down to pure sweetness.
A few favorite sweeteners:
Agave nectar: Lighter, cleaner, and less cloyingly sweet than honey, but with a similar appearance, agave nectar is a fantastic mild-tasting sweetener that is gaining widespread popularity. It is renowned for having a low glycemic index, which is of particular importance to diabetics and anyone who has problems with blood sugar regulation. Look for 100 percent pure agave nectar. The darker amber variety retains more of the plant’s natural nutrients.
Blackstrap molasses is a full-bodied sweetener that runs thick and black as tar. It is made from successive boilings of sugarcane, and because many of the minerals and nutrients are preserved throughout the process, it is rich in potassium and a good source of calcium, vitamin B6, and iron. Like maple syrup, molasses is sold in grades having to do with whether it is from the first, second, third, or fourth boiling of the sugarcane, blackstrap coming from the last. Again because this sweetener is a concentrate, buying organic is important.
Brown rice syrup is beautiful syrup is a thick, slow-moving, silky slug of butterscotch-colored goodness made by cooking sprouted brown rice in water that is then evaporated. What remains is luminescent, not-too-sweet syrup that retains some of its antioxidant properties. Look for organic or sustainably produced brands.
Date sugar is made by reducing dried zahidi dates to a cooked paste, dehydrating the paste, and then breaking it into granules. I use it more as a seasoning-type sweetener, to shape the flavor of a recipe than as a foundation and volume-building sweetener, in part because it is quite expensive and temperamental (it burns at a lower temperature than white sugar.
Natural cane sugars: There is a spectrum of natural cane sugars available, the big hurdle is figuring out which ones to buy. There is no standardization when it comes to labeling and not all naturally-labeled cane sugars are of equal quality or integrity. At one end of the spectrum are products like Sucanat (pure dehydrated sugarcane juice) and Rapadura, which are the least processed. The trade-off is that they are dry, irregular, and a bit dusty in texture.
Beyond that there are the rich, delicious “raw” cane sugars like Muscovado or Barbados, Demerara, and Turbinado which unlike commercial brown sugars get their natural brown color from the local sugar cane juice.
Honey: Some honeys are thick, dark, and brooding; others are light in color and bright on the tongue. Navigating your way through the vast landscape of honey varietals involves a lifetime of tasting. A honey appropriate for pairing with an artisan cheese might be very different than a honey for baking with, so taste different types, take notes, and try different pairings. Look for raw, unfiltered, unprocessed honey and be aware that darker honeys contain higher levels of antioxidants. Farmers’ markets are typically a great place to find honey producers who can talk you through the nuances of the different varietals.
Maple sugar, a dusty-textured, buff-colored sweetener, is made by evaporating the water out of maple syrup. It is on the pricey side, but has a lovely, deep, round maple flavor that helps you forget about the hole it leaves in your wallet. This is another sweetener I tend to use as an accent, sprinkled over yogurt, dusted on top of crepes, and sprinkled over scone, cookies, and muffins as they come out of a hot oven.
Maple syrup: The maple syrup market is a minefield of artificially maple-flavored syrups with little to no maple content, so be sure to read labels. Pure maple syrup is rich in important minerals like zinc and manganese and comes from boiling down the sap of maple trees. Available in various grades depending on when the sap was harvested from the tree, syrup produced from tapping early in the season yields a lighter, finer syrup designated grade A. I actually prefer grade B, which comes from sap harvested later in the season; it’s thicker and more luxurious in flavor and color. Buy pure 100 percent organic maple syrup.
I do my best to avoid any artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, and any number of other sweeteners that don’t meet the above criteria.
To wrap up this topic for now, I should mention that I certainly crave the occasional sweet treat, and I don’t feel bad about it. I’ve found that if I cut out processed foods, eat healthy foods throughout the day, and indulge in the occasional sweet treat. I can typically strike a nice, satisfying balance.
So what are you waiting for? Don’t be afraid, grab an old favorite recipe and switch up your sweet source and get ready to be pleasantly surprised!