{Becca's Healthy Hints} Natural Sugar Alternatives

I've been asked by many of my friends and followers to list the natural sugar alternatives I use in my cooking and baking and the reasoning for each. So, I am going to lay them all out here with detailed info on the pros and cons of each as well as where you can find them for purchase. I will also include the sweeteners I choose not to use and why. I am fully aware that this is a subject that can be very overwhelming for most and I will try to be as concise as possible so as not to confuse.

When discussing the use of sugars and alternatives, we should first of all look at the Glycemic Index. Wikipedia describes it like this:
"The glycemic index, or glycaemic index, (GI) provides a measure of how quickly blood sugar levels (i.e., levels of glucose in the blood) rise after eating a particular type of food. The effects that different foods have on blood sugar levels vary considerably. The glycemic index estimates how much each gram of available carbohydrate (total carbohydrate minus fiber) in a food raises a person's blood glucose level following consumption of the food, relative to consumption of pure glucose. Glucose has a glycemic index of 100."

The sweeteners you will find in the Groombridge Household.

When I introduce the ingredients in my recipes, you may have heard me mention that the sugars I use are low on the glycemic index and therefore will not cause your blood sugar to spike. This is an amazing discovery for someone suffering with diabetes, a sugar allergy or hyperactivity! If you could enjoy a healthy life WITH foods you enjoy without having to take large amounts of medication that would sound pretty good right? Well, using these substitutes can help make that a reality!

Before I delve in further, I would like to highlight a fellow blogger that I stumbled upon through the foodie blog/gluten-free online community. You've witnessed me trying to emphasize "clean eating" as opposed to "gluten-free" because I am trying to drive home that, gluten-free does NOT necessarily equal healthy and good for you. Due to the fact that a lot of us can get caught up in trying to replace gluten-filled goodies with the gluten-free alternative, we can end up eating processed foods that are just as full of junk as normal processed goodies and they usually provide fewer nutrients! While it's not a bad idea to avoid gluten, not everyone HAS to. It's much more important that we all eat more produce, fresh food items and less processed/packaged foods. It's for this reason that I introduce you to Taylor Miller over at GlutenAway. Taylor is a 16-year-old young man living with Celiac Disease AND a rare type of Adrenal Disorder and he shares his story and resources so that others can hopefully feel like they're not alone in a world where kids can be cruel. I think he's doing a great job in advocating for his generation, but I also want to promote his site because I agree with the method he chooses to use in following his gluten-free diet...he has embraced the concept of eating in a more NATURALLY gluten-free way, not just substituting normal junk for gluten-free junk. That alone is pretty amazing for a teenager in my opinion. Most teenagers couldn't be bothered with eating a healthy diet, but he realizes the importance of it if he is going to not only function, but also thrive in the circumstances in which he finds himself every day.

Taylor has a YouTube channel as well and he shares some videos entitled, "What the Heck? Wednesday" where he focuses on a particular ingredient that either he or a subscriber chooses. He researches it and then gives a commentary on the pros and cons of that ingredient as well as his recommendation on whether or not to use it. I asked him if I could share one of his videos in this post because I agree with it 100%. This particular video gives information on Agave Nectar with which you can find very conflicting information. It is touted as a healthy alternative to sugar, but after extensive research I tend toward not using it.

(Be sure to have your speakers turned all the way up...this was one of Taylor's first videos and his mic wasn't the best. He has since replaced it and has gone on to share several more videos on various ingredients you may be wondering about so be sure to check them out!)

Read on after the video for some more info on agave as well as my list of favorite sugar alternatives, where to find them and the recipes in which I use them.

Most of us have heard the terrible information about artificial sweeteners and what they do to our bodies. They aren't natural and they provide no nutritional value. (Plus they rarely taste good!) It really is a good idea to avoid these completely. I know that can be tough if you are a dessert loving  or gum chewing person, but you can see more on that below.

Now, you may be asking, "Well, what about Splenda? That's safe for diabetics, right? It's derived from sugar." Splenda is artificial. Period. According to peertrainer.com, the process sucrose goes through to become sucralose involves replacing certain parts of the sugar molecule (3 hydroxyl groups) with chlorine atoms. I've seen what a tiny bit of chlorine can do if it splashes on my clothing...I don't want it inside my body! I know that may seem over the top, but if you look into it yourself I think you'll be surprised at what you find. Splenda has also been very much linked to liver and kidney damage. I won't go much further on it, but encourage you to research it for yourself and decide whether or not it should be a part of your diet. There are numerous resources available for this information.

Agave nectar is lower on the glycemic index which means it won't cause your blood sugar to spike as much as with some other sugars/syrups however; it's not giving you any more nutrients than you can get from other sources, it's not lower in calories (in fact, it's quite high) and it's expensive! If a recipe calls for agave nectar, it's pretty safe to assume that you can use raw honey or maple syrup instead and get the same results. So, along with artificial sweeteners like Equal, Sweet & Low, Splenda etc, this is another sweetener that I see no reason to have in my home.

 Since I mentioned honey, I'll list it next. Honey is an amazing food that I hope you will keep around your home and learn to love it. No, it's not low in calories and yes it is sugar so it needs to be used in moderation, however it is lower on the glycemic index that table sugar, it is derived naturally and it's loaded with antioxidents.

I do like to stress that we should be using RAW, unrefined honey. In the refining process, many of the nutrients are depleted. So, it's a little more expensive, but it's worth it to invest in raw honey. It's also a natural preservative and never goes bad so stock up on it when it's on sale! We use honey in our tea, in my Zucchini Brownies and we also mix it with cinnamon as a natural supplement to keep our little family healthy (more on that below). I find my raw honey in the health food sections of the grocery stores as well as the Healthy Habit here in Chatham (where it is actually very similar in price to refined honey!). I am sure in the US you can find it in most grocery stores, health food stores, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

Maple Syrup is next. I've said it before and I'll say it again...we live in Canada, there is no excuse for not buying pure maple syrup! Yes, it is more expensive than the cheap stuff, but I always stock up when it's on sale because it keeps in the pantry and fridge for a very long time. Real maple syrup is 100% natural, has antioxident properties and provides us with many vitamins & minerals including manganese, riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium.  It is low on the glycemic index and helps prevent and control heart disease, diabetes and obesity. It also has a unique taste for enhancing plain ol' waffles and pancakes as well as some of the goodies I have shared and will share in the future. This delicious chocolate fudge is made with pure maple syrup and if you play around with the amounts of the ingredients you can produce a natural "magic shell" topping for your ice cream sundaes! The cheap "syrup" contains NO maple syrup at all! Most of their ingredient lists begin with High Fructose Corn Syrup and Corn Syrup and continue with additional ingredients that are either hard to pronounce or we don't have a clue what they are. Stick with the real deal on this one!

This next one is a favorite of mine and I have probably used this alternative the longest because I discovered it when I was trying to cut calories to lose weight...Unsweetened Applesauce! I have found that I can usually cut out HALF of the sugar a recipe calls for with unsweetened applesauce and it turns out beautifully. I use large amounts of unsweetened applesauce in both my Chewy Granola Bars and Chocolate Chip Cookies. Another reason to love this alternative ingredient is the price...If you buy generic you can get a bottle of unsweetened applesauce for less that $2! My youngest son's bedtime snack is regularly a bowl of applesauce with some berry sprinkled in.

I stress the UNSWEETENED because we're talking about eliminating refined sugars. It would be counter-productive to use sweetened applesauce to replace table sugar and it also adds extra empty calories that we don't need. I love this ingredient as well because it is extremely inexpensive and easy to find. You can find it in any grocery store, just be sure to look at the ingredients and make sure it is only apples.

Another favorite you will see me use a lot is Coconut Palm Sugar. Isn't it beautiful? :) Palm sugar is a naturally derived sugar from the nectar of the coconut palm tree and it tastes and behaves very much like brown sugar. I have also used it to replace regular table sugar in some recipes and it works beautifully (other than turning things brown...my mother-in-law has born witness to my brown GF angelfood cake!). I have used it to make toffee, fudge and of course the Chocolate Chip Cookies and Chewy Granola Bars.

This is one of the alternatives that is going to cost more, but again, when your health is at stake it's worth the extra money. usually these natural sweeteners are sweeter so recipes don't require as much. I purchase my palm sugar at Bulk Barn and Superstore here in Chatham, but I have also purchased at Costco (best deal) and I'm sure in the US there are even more locations where it is available.

Also in the Chocolate Chip Cookies I use Xylitol. Now, if you want to use organic cane sugar instead that is probably going to be better for you than the regular refined white sugar, but if you haven't tried xylitol I encourage you to. Again, it is pricey so use in moderation, but it can be substituted equally for table sugar with almost half the calories and a whole lot of sweetness AND it is actually good for your teeth! How often do we hear about how bad sugar is for our teeth? Well, xylitol actually reduces tooth decay and has been seen to help reverse cavities. Be careful to look at ingredients though...some gums you find in the grocery store checkout line will contain xylitol, but they will still also contain aspartame which we all should eliminate from our diet for various health reasons. Xyla and Spry are chewing gums found at health food stores (The Healthy Habit here) that contain ONLY xylitol. Also, make sure to purchase birch-derived xylitol, not the corn-based version. Now it wouldn't be fair if I didn't share this next tid-bit of info...xylitol can be a mild diuretic. Everyone is different so it may not effect you at all. But recently I was involved in the Fast Metabolism Diet and Birch Xylitol was allowed as a sweetener. I found that if I ingested more than a couple tablespoons I spent the rest of the evening in the bathroom. TMI, I know, but don't say I didn't warn you. :)

Lastly, I want to touch on Stevia, a natural sweetener derived from the Stevia plant. It comes in both powder and liquid form and has 0 calories. I don't use this sweetener very often only because it can usually have an aftertaste if you use too much. I've heard that certain brands have less of the aftertaste, but I haven't found one yet.

I tend to use the powder form for my morning green tea and will use the liquid form occasionally in making homemade dairy-free chocolate chips. I try to purchase the powder with just the one ingredient of the stevia leaf. Some of them will also include rice maltodextrin and I have found through research that this is an additive that I prefer not to use if possible. There is a Stevia Baking formulation, but I haven't used it a lot for the same reason...extra additives. Basically I like that this alternative is natural, but I prefer to use others for baking purposes. If you give it a try and have good results, please let me know! I am always willing to be convinced to try it more!

Kaleb LOVES his Banana Pudding!
Finally, I just want to give special mention of the naturally sweet Ripe Bananas and Dates. There are so many things you can make with these 2 ingredients that yield wonderfully sweet results without ANY additional sugar. Check out my Clean-Eating Banana Pudding to see how I use them and if you are in the mood for something chocolaty, simply add 1/4 c unsweetened cocoa powder and you've got yourself some naturally sweetened chocolate pudding! And as for the dates, I will be sharing an amazing brownie fudge recipe in the near future that utilizes dates and maple syrup as the sweeteners. It is to die for! You can also use dates in the homemade Almond Milk if you want to add some sweetness to it.

Don't forget about Cinnamon when you're cooking and baking with various sweeteners! It helps regulate blood sugar which makes it an extremely beneficial part of a diabetic's diet. It's so easy to sprinkle on both sweet and savory dishes. Plus, our family has been the healthiest we've been in a long time due to, we believe, the use of a honey and cinnamon mixture. We haven't suffered with colds or flu all winter long which is pretty amazing! Just mix together 1/4 tsp cinnamon with 1 tsp raw honey and eat it on a spoon, that's it! I make large batches of it using the ratio of cinnamon to honey and we take some almost every day.

I don't recommend just tossing all the sugars in your house and replacing them...that wouldn't be wise on my part. I am always trying to save money when feeding my family and throwing things out goes against that idea. However, I do recommend that you phase them out. Try using 1/4 c brown sugar and 1/4 c palm sugar in the Chocolate Chip Cookies until you've removed all the brown sugar in your house. Same for the white sugar. Pretty soon your household will only contain sugars that are working for your body and not against it!

And be sure to check out Taylor's website for other recipe ideas! And if they call for sugar or brown sugar, simply replace with the palm sugar or xylitol and you're good to go! If you have any further questions please contact me, I am happy to clarify anything for you!

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Treat yourself well!

Do you use alternative sweeteners already? What are your favorites?
Mine are definitely Unsweetened Applesauce and Palm Sugar.

Do you have a condition which requires you to limit your sugar intake? How do you adjust your daily eating habits?

Do you get overwhelmed when trying to help your family eat healthier?
Believe it or not, I STILL do! There are some days when I want to just throw all the principles I have learned out the window! But then I remember how terrible we feel when we revert back and that is motivation enough to keep going. Plus, my Husband is hugely appreciative and supportive and that really helps!