Making meals healthier is a worthy goal, and replacing refined sugar with alternatives is a sound way to cut down on added calories.
More than just adding to your day’s calorie count, refined sugars may be linked to other adverse health outcomes such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease. On the other hand, using sugar substitutes can cut down on calories and provide the same sweet taste packaged with beneficial nutrients like fiber and protein.
Many well-known sugar substitutes are artificially made and thus sweeter than refined sugar; others occur naturally from plants in various forms. For the best sugar swap for your cooking and baking needs, read on to learn about the natural and artificial sweeteners available in most markets today.
Raw honey is an excellent sugar substitute because it’s full of vitamins and minerals—everything from antioxidants, iron, zinc, and vitamin B6 are in raw honey (pasteurized honey loses a lot of nutrients, so try to find raw honey from a trusted local source). While raw honey is a great substitute for refined sugar, bakers need to know that it can’t be used in all applications. Because honey isn’t heat-stable, it shouldn’t be used for baking. Instead, sweeten items with honey after they’re baked or when the mixture has cooled to room temperature. This rule is true for things like hot tea, as well—wait until your tea is at a palatable temperature before stirring in honey as a sweetener.
All three of these sugar substitutes come from natural plant sources and are great substitutes for refined sugar, but they don’t contain many nutrients because they’re processed into liquid form. When baking, you may need to add more bulk to your recipes to maintain the desired consistency. Fortunately, they’re heat-stable, so you can bake with them effectively. Using one of these liquids will also slightly alter the flavor, so experiment with tastes to determine which sweetener pairs best with your concoction.
Used in South America for centuries, the stevia plant’s leaves can provide a natural sweetener for many dishes. Because stevia is roughly 200 times sweeter than refined sugar, be careful to adjust your measurements accordingly. You can find good recipes here that use stevia in appropriate quantities. Some people report a metallic aftertaste from stevia, but experimenting with different potencies can eliminate this concern. If you have diabetes or are cooking for those who do, stevia is one of the American Diabetes Association’s recommended sugar alternatives. But be aware—the FDA has not approved whole stevia leaves for use in the United States, only the purified form called stevioside, so check labels carefully if you’re purchasing from independent retailers.
A relatively new refined sugar substitute, monk fruit has antioxidants that provide sweetness up to 200 times that of table sugar. Many people like monk fruit sugar because it doesn’t have a noticeable aftertaste like many other options. The American Diabetes Association lists monk fruit (luo han guo) as a recommended sugar alternative, so it might be a good option if you’re trying to accommodate this dietary need. Plus, in contrast with some other alternative options, monk fruit provides potential benefits such as anti-inflammatory properties.
A superb alternative to refined sugar (especially in fruit-based baking such as pies and muffins), date paste is rich and almost creamy, so adding it to your baking can give a deep flavor that other substitutes don’t match. Especially popular in desserts such as brownies, date paste is easy to make on your own if you can’t find it available in stores. Simply soak dates in hot water until soft, then blend in a food processor (using some of the soaking liquid) until you get the desired consistency. Because the date paste is bulky, you can substitute it one-for-one in your recipes. Using dates instead of sugar gives you more potassium, fiber, and iron!
The FDA has approved many well-known artificial sweeteners, including saccharin (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda). All considered “high intensity” and “non-nutritive” sweeteners, these alternatives can be a great option for those who want to reduce calories. Because these options are much sweeter than refined sugar, make sure to adjust your recipes accordingly. In addition, because they don’t provide any nutritional value, it’s essential to make sure you balance their use with plenty of vitamin-rich foods in the rest of your diet.
Whether you’re looking to simply reduce calories or incorporate more nutrient-rich sugars into your diet, these refined sugar alternatives are great options for a healthier home.