Sweet Solutions – Healthy Alternative Sweeteners for the Festive SeasonPat Crocker December 1, 2016
Are you hosting a holiday party for guests who are diabetic or counting calories? Are you following a Ketogenic Diet (low carb / moderate protein / high fat), or eating to prevent cancer and other diseases? Or are you simply cutting carbs in an effort to improve your immunity?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the questions above, then you may be aiming to eliminate sugary foods and beverages from your diet. In so doing, you would be in sync with the World Health Organization, which recommends that we limit added sugars to less than 10% of total calories consumed each day (with a goal of less than 5% providing ‘additional health benefits’).
Sugar is a super-sweet, short-chain (or ‘simple’), soluble carbohydrate refined primarily from sugar beets, sugar cane, or other plant sources. It is devoid of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and trace nutrients, and its only function is to provide energy, which is how sugar earned the title ‘empty calorie’.
What’s the difference between ‘added’ and ‘intrinsic’ sugar? Intrinsic sugars are naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and vegetables – their benefit lies in the fact that they are accompanied by vitamins and minerals as well as fibre and trace elements which play an important role in the metabolism of nutrients. The fact that intrinsic sugars are bound up in complex carbohydrates makes them able to deliver a slow, steady stream of food fuel (glucose) for energy that the body can easily balance with insulin.
On the other hand, refined sugars added to processed foods and beverages that are low (or devoid) in nutrients and fibre provide only a temporary rush of energy. Added sugars hit the bloodstream with such speed, the body is unable to produce the insulin necessary to metabolize them. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance, obesity, and ultimately diabetes.
The Glycemic Index (GI) measures how much a given food affects blood-glucose levels. A food with a high rating on the GI index (70 or more) has the effect of increasing blood-glucose levels fast; these include white bread, bagels, rice, candy, soda pop, etc. This in turn stimulates the pancreas to release insulin to bring blood sugar back down to a stable and safe level. On the other hand, foods that rate lower on the Glycemic Index scale (55 or less) have the effect of a slower absorption and digestion process, which means a more gradual and infusion of sugars into the bloodstream; these include vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains, unrefined carbohydrates).
A fast influx of sugar into the bloodstream not only upsets the body’s blood-sugar balance, the insulin secreted also promotes the storage of fat and weight gain which has been linked to obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
Keeping blood sugar levels healthy requires removing sugary foods and drinks from the diet. After that, the next step is to learn to enjoy the pure, naturally sweet taste of whole foods. What follows are healthy sugar substitutes to use in recipes when some kind of sweetener is desired.
- Carob Powder – Carob is a caffeine-free, naturally sweet chocolate substitute that comes from the pod of the Ceratonia siliqua tree. It helps with digestion, may aid weight loss, reduces blood sugar and insulin levels, and it lowers cholesterol levels. Carob powder (from finely ground, unrefined pods) has a delicious yet different flavour than chocolate, but it may replace cocoa powder one-for-one in recipes. Caution: Because it has virtually no fat, carob is often combined by manufacturers with hydrogenated, GMO plant oils to make solid chips and bars.
- Coconut Sugar (nectar, sugar crystals or beads) – Coconut sugar and nectar are made from boiled, dehydrated, coconut sap and contain 17 amino acids, vitamin C, B vitamins, and trace minerals. Organic, unrefined, coconut sugar beads and nectar are healthy alternatives because they do not cause blood sugar to spike as quickly (their glycemic index is 35, versus 70 for cane sugar). Use as a substitute for brown or white sugar.
- Honey – Raw, unpasteurized honey may play a role in preventing cancer, diabetes, and leukemia because it has immune-enhancing, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties and contains vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Use it in herbal teas to soothe sore throats, and substitute it for sugar in some recipes. It’s about 80% sugar and contributes about 21 calories per teaspoon. (GI = 48 to 55). Caution: The refined honey that has been added to conventional processed foods is likely to be pasteurized and stripped of any nutrients; do not give small children honey.
- Apples and Bananas – Adding mashed bananas or cooked unsweetened applesauce to recipes to reduce the amount of granulated sugar is a healthy habit. Try adding ½ cup of the fruit and reducing both the sugar and the liquid in the recipe by ½ cup. Take notes and keep experimenting to get your desired results.
- Caramelized Vegetables – When vegetables (or fruit) are roasted, their starches are transformed to sugar, a process that we call caramelizing. It makes them taste sweeter without adding sugar.
- Date Sugar – According to Rohé, date sugar is a whole food because it is simply made of ground, pitted dates. It does not blend well for baked products, but is used in smoothies or to sweeten some desserts.
- Grape Sugar – While grapes contain carbohydrates which the body turns to glucose, they have a low GI rating (59). According to preliminary research at the University of Michigan, eating a serving (1 cup) of fresh, raw grapes may help lower the risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.
I like to add a handful of organic seedless red or green grapes to smoothies, dips, and sauces as a natural sweetener and to take advantage of their phytonutrients – resveratrol, anthocyanins, quercetin, and catechins.
This recipe, suggests grinding the coconut crystals (beads) to make them blend into the bark for a smooth texture. For a slightly gritty texture, do not grind them. (Makes 8 ounces.)
- 6 Tbsp raw coconut crystals
- 6 Tbsp coconut oil
- 6 Tbsp carob powder
- ¼ cup unsweetened, organic cranberries
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped almonds
1) Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
2) Grind the coconut crystals to a fine powder in a coffee or spice grinder.
3) In a small saucepan, melt oil over medium-low heat. Stir in the sugar and carob powder. Pour into the prepared sheet. Sprinkle cranberries and nuts over, refrigerate for about 10 minutes or until set. Store in a parchment-lined, airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 weeks or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
GLUTEN-, SUGAR-, NUT-FREE BARS
This no-bake treat is easy to make and it keeps well over the holidays. I prefer it without the icing. (Makes: 16 two-inch square bars)
- ¾ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
- ½ cup sunflower seeds or hemp seeds
- ½ cup rolled oats
- ⅓ cup carob powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1½ cups (325 g) coarsely chopped pitted dates
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- ½ cup soft coconut oil
- ¼ cup pure maple syrup
- 3 Tbsp carob powder
- Pinch sea salt
1) Lightly oil the sides of an 8” x 8” x 2” baking pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper.
2) Make the Bars: In the bowl of a food processor or high-performance blender, combine coconut, seeds, oats, carob and cinnamon. Process about 30 seconds, or just until ingredients are fine. Add dates, vanilla, and salt. Process for 1 minute, or until the mixture begins to stick together and starts to form a ball. Add a tablespoon of warm water if necessary to make the mixture stick together.
3) Transfer to the prepared pan and press evenly to form the base for the bars.
4) Make the Icing: In a small bowl, combine oil and maple syrup, using a wooden spoon to whip them together. Add carob and salt and beat to combine. Spread evenly over the bars and refrigerate the bars for 30 minutes to 1 hour, or until icing and bars are firm. Cut into squares and store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator or up to 3 months in the freezer.
(In part 2 of this article, Pat Crocker provides more information on healthy alternative sweeteners – including maple syrup, stevia, and molasses – along with common terms used by manufacturers to disguise the sugar in their products.)
Herbal Power Balls
I treat these gems as medicinal truffles because they are definitely a ‘sweet’, and yet they deliver the medicinal benefits of herbs. Be sure to use organic ingredients. I recommend taking two or three power balls every day. (Makes 4 dozen balls.)
You can change up the herbs depending on the effect you want.
Ingredients:For immune-boosting bites, use the following herb blend:
- 4 Tbsp astragalus powder
- 2 Tbsp milk thistle powder
- 2 Tbsp ground cinnamon
- 2 Tbsp of either eleutherococcus powder or maca powder.
- ½ cup chopped pitted dates
- ½ cup chopped, unsulfured, dried apricots or prunes
- 2 Tbsp finely chopped candied ginger
- ½ cup large flake rolled oats
- 3 Tbsp sunflower seeds
- ¾ cup cashew or peanut butter
- 2 Tbsp carob powder or unsweetened cocoa powder plus more for rolling
- 1 tsp pure vanilla
- Maple syrup or honey if desired
- 1 to 3 tsp coconut oil
- For anti-inflammatory bites, use this anti-inflammatory herb blend:
- 4 Tbsp ground turmeric
- 2 Tbsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp black pepper or prickly ash powder
• Abbott, Elizabeth. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008.
• Relationship of Sugar to Population Diabetes Prevalence – reported in the journal Plos one, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/ogs8tzrhttp:/
• Rohé, Fred. The Complete Book of Natural Foods. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1983.
• What you need to know about high fructose corn syrup – an article posted on the website, EatRightOntario: http://tinyurl.com/gujfmh4
As a professional Home Economist (BAA, Ryerson Univ., Toronto) and Culinary Herbalist, Pat’s passion for healthy food is fused with her knowledge and love of herbs. She has honed her herb practice over more than four decades of growing, studying, photographing, experimenting with, and writing about what she calls the helping plants. In fact, Crocker marries the medicinal benefits of herbs in every original recipe she develops. An award-winning author, Pat has written 22 herb/healthy cookbooks, including The Healing Herbs Cookbook, The Juicing Bible, and most recently The Herbalist’s Kitchen (Sterling, 2018), and Healing Cannabis Edibles. She has over 1.5 million books in print and translated to over 11 languages. Watch for her next book, Cooking and Healing with Cannabis to be launched in 2020.