Holidays are perfect for baking. Festive cakes, pies, and cookies always represent the season. When you enjoy cooking as much as I do, using the healthiest, best tasting, and most natural ingredients possible becomes top priority. For this reason, I use natural sweeteners for baking. What's the difference? Plenty! Natural sweeteners have their own unique flavor and nutrients; and when enjoyed in moderation, can go a long way towards satisfying a hearty sweet tooth.
Sugar consumption has reached epidemic proportions in the United States! Most of the sugars consumed are highly processed and mostly devoid of real nutritional value. Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, granulated fructose and refined white sugar are most commonly consumed. Many commercially available sweet foods and beverages contain artificial sweeteners that are made by complex chemical processes. You won't find artificial sweeteners at Whole Foods Market, but at conventional grocery stores, you'll find them in everything from hot cocoa mix to yogurt…and lots of other stuff in-between. These purely synthetic compounds do not exist in nature, and as such, our human bodies may be ill-equipped to handle them.Natural sweeteners, in contrast, are perfect alternatives.
As consumer demand for whole and natural foods continues to grow, more quality natural sweeteners become available. You'll find plenty to choose from, and depending on what you are baking or using it for, each has its own flavor and compatibility with certain foods, beverages and baked goods.
Remember, of course, that sweeteners are sweet, natural or not, and should be used in moderation. Here are some natural sweeteners to get you started:
Unrefined dehydrated organic cane syrup (Sucanat or Rapadura): Made only by dehydrating pure sugar cane syrup, you use it as you do brown sugar, cup for cup. It's perfect for gingerbread, chocolate chip cookies, spice cake, pumpkin pie, date nut loaf, fruit cake, fruit crisp, brownies and chocolate cake. Try it in Chai tea, too!
Unrefined brown sugar, also called raw sugar: Unlike Sucanat and Rapadura, this sugar is slightly refined and steam cleaned. It is labeled as evaporated cane juice and is found in many forms including Demarara, dark Muskovado, and Turbinado sugar. Use it in place of conventional white sugar or brown sugar. These Maple Sugar Walnuts are holiday-perfect.
Palm Sugar: This is my new favorite sweetener! Also known as coconut sugar, it's a great fat-free sugar alternative that is new to many markets. It's made from the nectar of the coconut palm blossom, but it doesn't taste like coconut at all. It is delicious and according to the package has a low glycemic index (35) so it doesn't cause a large spike in blood sugar like other sweeteners can. Use as a replacement for brown sugar, cup for cup. Try this mixed with mustard and basted over chicken, salmon, or a holiday ham.
Pure Maple Syrup: Pancakes and waffles are a given, but this age-old favorite is great on cereals - hot or cold - in cookies, cakes, muffins, breads and granola. Use ¾ cup maple syrup for each cup of sugar, and reduce liquid by three tablespoons. Try this Maple Applesauce Cake.
Molasses: Known for its iron content, molasses is earthy and strong-flavored. It's a "must" for good ginger bread and gingersnap cookies. Not as sweet as regular sugar, it's often combined in recipes with other sugars. Great for spice cake and whole grain bread! When substituting molasses for sugar, use 1¼ cups and reduce the liquid in the recipe by five tablespoons. Here's a recipe for molasses-sweetened Indian Pudding.
Honey: This time-honored syrup comes from flower nectar collected by bees. Honey ranges in flavor and color with the darker varieties being stronger in flavor. Many types of honey are available raw and unheated, preserving the natural health benefits and enzymes. I use raw honey in beverages or stirred into yogurt or hot cocoa. You don't need to use raw honey when you are cooking with it though. There are many great recipes for honey in cakes, pies, cookies, frostings, marinades, salad dressings and plenty more. When cooking with honey, use ¾ cup for every cup of sugar called for, but be sure to reduce the liquid by ¼ cup. I love this Greek Yogurt with Honey Thyme Walnut Crumble.
Agave Nectar: This popular sweetener comes from the Mexican Agave cactus plant (also used to make tequila). It is similar to honey but not quite as thick. It's about 25% sweeter than sugar and is sweeter than honey, too. When using agave, start small and work your way up. Agave sweetens this Sprouted French Toast with Cashews and Peaches.
Want to know more? Check out our Guide to Natural Sweeteners.
Got a favorite natural sweetener and a great way to use it? I would love to hear.