This month I am writing about the natural sugar alternatives that are available in the shops and how to use them in cooking. Recently we looked at the importance of eating a low glycaemic load (GL) diet and the negative effects that too much insulin can have on our health generally with specific reference to those with cancer or who are post cancer. It may be helpful to re-read that blog along with this one so I have included a link below.
By writing this blog I am not encouraging a sweet tooth but I do know that at times the craving for something sweet is difficult to ignore and that some of us seem to have a naturally sweet tooth which can get the better of us. So these alternatives are quite a blessing for those who do struggle.
The idea of eating well is to try and keep the glycaemic load of the diet down by choosing foods with a low glycaemic number. Remember that the lower the number, the less of an impact the food will have on insulin release and the better for our health. I did write that sugar and refined processed foods have a high glycaemic number but you will see from below that these alternative sweeteners are quite the opposite.
I am going to list the products and then add some ideas and a recipe of how they can be used. They can all be bought from most leading super markets. It is worth noting here that although these alternatives to sugar are made from natural ingredients there is obviously some element of processing to produce the finished product. Many nutritional purists will not use them because of this but I am using them simply because they have a low GL and minimal impact on insulin release, which is the reason for their use.
Natural alternatives to sugar
Sweet Freedom syrup
This is made from vegetable extracts and has a glycaemic load (GL) of 9. It has a similar calorie value as sugar but without the negative effects on insulin release.
Agave syrup sometimes called agave nectar
This is made from the cactus plant and has a GL of 9. This too has a similar calorie value as sugar.
This is made from the bark of a tree and has a GL of 7. It has 33% less calories than sugar so quite useful if you are concerned about your weight.
This is made from the leaf of the stevia herb and has a slight liquorice flavour. It is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It can be bought as the unprocessed green powder but the liquid is easier to use. Stevia is calorie free which makes it a very good alternative for those watching their weight.
When I talk about sugar alternatives people often ask about honey. Most honey has a GL between 59 and 70 so quite high on the GL scale but acacia honey has a GL of 37 so a little more acceptable. However honey tends to be slightly sweeter than sugar so less will probably be needed.
This is honey that has not been heat treated or ‘purified’, and it has been shown to have many health benefits. It has powerful anti-oxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties and is full of enzymes. It is also rich in nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. It has been shown to reduce inflammation and speed up healing. This would come direct from a local beekeeper. Because heat destroys its benefits it would be best to use it for salad dressings and in raw desserts rather than baked goods.
We of course know Manuka honey because of its well reported benefits and its cost!!!. It has been shown to have antibacterial properties, to boost the immune system, and guard against the common cold. Manuka honey has a GL of 59 but if eaten with a food that has a lower GL count like porridge or unsweetened muesli the negative effect of the high GL of the honey will be negated by the addition of the whole grains. Remember when buying manuka honey to look for the initials UMF or Unique Manuka Factor to show that it is the real thing.
Pure maple syrup (not a blend, read the label) has a GL load of 54 but despite this it is very useful as a sugar substitute because it is very mineral rich and slightly sweeter than sugar so less will be needed. It is also completely natural so if you are concerned about the processing of the xylitol, agave syrup, or the sweet freedom, this would be a good alternative. It works well in cooking.
This is a little more unusual and would need to come from a health food shop. It is the dried flesh of the lacuma fruit that has a very sweet distinct caramel flavour and can be used instead of sugar or honey. Because it is a powder it is great to add to drinks and desserts. Nutritionally it is sound as it is rich in fibre, and includes a range of vitamins and minerals.
How to use natural sweeteners
These natural sweeteners can be used instead of sugar in cake/pudding recipes, drizzled or sprinkled over porridge or muesli, added to drinks like smoothies, and to sweeten stewed fruit. In fact whenever a recipe calls for sugar then one of these can be used. When I cook I use the same weight of alternative sweetener as sugar so a 100g of sugar I would use 100g of alternative. Most cakes that we make these days are all in one rather than the long traditional creaming method so the syrup type sweeteners like agave or sweet freedom are ideal. Also note that when I do occasionally make a cake I always try and enhance its nutritional value by adding grated carrots or beetroot or some ground almonds or nuts and seeds (so not the traditional WI Victoria sponge!!) . For example, I make a lot of flapjack for packed lunches and use sweet freedom syrup instead of golden syrup. I add some chopped dried fruits like dates or apricots, a mixture of seeds, and sometimes chopped nuts, so all of these additions elevate the flapjack to something quite healthy and with a low GL
Here is a easy to make cake recipe using courgettes and xylitol.
Chocolate Courgette Cake
200g/7oz of wholemeal flour
½ tsp of bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp of baking powder
½ tsp of salt
100g/4oz of xylitol or stevia
180ml/6oz of light olive oil
180g/6 oz dark chocolate
225g/8 oz of courgette (grated)
55g/2 oz of broken walnuts.
1. Grease and line an 8” cake tin. Preheat the oven to gas 4/160’C.
2. Put the flour, bicarb, salt, baking powder and xylitol in a bowl.
3. In a separate bowl beat the eggs with the oil into the flour mix and mix well. Pour in the melted chocolate, mix well, then add the courgette and nuts and mix well.
4. Put into the cake tin and bake for 25-30 mins until firm and springy to the touch. Cool in the tin for 10 mins before putting on a cooling rack to cool completely.
A recipe using raw honey. It only uses a few ingredients and is very simple to make. It is very tangy which will suit those who need to wake up the taste buds or need to cut through any unpleasant taste in the mouth due to treatment.
5 avocados peeled and stone removed
200mls of lime juice (about 6 limes)
1 tsp of lime zest
190g of raw honey
175mls of coconut butter melted to room temperature;
1. Simply blend all of the ingredients together in a processor until smooth and creamy. Pour into serving dishes and leave to set in the fridge for a couple of hours.
I hope that you try some of these recipes. Most good cookery books dedicated to healthy eating will have recipes using these alternative sweeteners. You may even have a favourite that you would like to share with us.
Blog originally written by Caroline February 2015 – links checked April 2020