Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sugar Alternatives for the Health Conscious

As I venture through my thirties, I find myself becoming more aware of the products I put into my body. Last week, the World Health Organization advised that sugar should make up just 5 per cent of our daily calorie intake, which is half of its previous recommendation And one of the sad facts of the North American diet is that even if you avoid all desserts, you're still putting way more sugar into your body than it needs.  Sugar is hiding in everything from cereals (even the "healthy" ones), to fruit juices (even the "natural" ones), salad dressings, pretty much everything on a fast food menu, and so on.

Even worse than regular white table sugar are the alternatives that are marketed to dieters and diabetics. Products like Equal, Splenda and other aspartame-based products are pumping chemicals into your body which may or may not have health risks such as cancer attached to them.  I'd definitely prefer to avoid those.

Don't even get me started on High Fructose Corn Syrup.

So, what are we supposed to do, living in a world surrounded by sugar?  Ideally, the best course of action would be to change your taste buds.  Train them not to crave the sweet anymore.  If you're serious about this, my best advice would be to follow the Whole 30 plan for one month.  It's HARD.  But I did it.  And you can too.  And it's worth it.

If you're not quite ready to go that far, here's a list of the sugar alternatives that I like to keep on hand in my pantry:

Coconut Sugar
Coconut Sugar (aka coconut palm sugar) is derived from the sap of the coconut palm.  The sap is heated to remove water content, and then crushed into granules.  It looks and tastes similar to brown sugar.  It's low on the glycemic index, and can be used at a 1:1 ratio in most recipes.  Coconut sugar is gaining popularity in North America and can be found in many grocery stores (I actually saw some in No Frills, our local discount grocer, last night!), or it can be ordered online.

Maple Syrup
Maple Syrup is personally, one of my favourite sweeteners to use.  It is readily available, and easy to use.  When replacing sugar with maple syrup in baked goods, you will probably need to reduce the amount of other liquids by about a quarter to a third. Slightly less easy to find in stores is maple sugar, which is the dehydrated, granulated form of maple syrup.  But it may be easier to replace in recipes.

Honey (Raw, Local)

Honey, particularly raw, local honey if you can find it, is an excellent choice as a sugar alternative.  It has health benefits beyond many sugar alternatives as it aids in local allergies and is packed with vitamins.  It is sweeter than table sugar, and packs more calories.  Honey has a different flavour than most other sugars, so it may not always be the best substitute in baked goods - but it is definitely excellent in a cup of tea.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol and is commonly found in chewing gum, as it's known for its tooth remineralizing properties.  In its granulated form, it is very low on the glycemic index and can be replaced 1:1 with sugar.  It has fewer calories than sugar and is absorbed slower by the body, which makes it an excellent alternative for diabetics.  The one down-side to xylitol that I've read about is that it may produce a laxative effect if consumed in high quantities.  I've personally never experienced this, but since reading it, I avoid using it as a substitute in recipes calling for a large amount of sugar.

Stevia is derived from a plant in the sunflower family.  It comes in various forms:
granulated, powdered, or liquid drops being among the most popular.  The liquid form is often flavoured.  Stevia is popular as a sugar substitute because it has zero calories, zero carbs and is at zero on the glycemic index.  Depending on the brand, stevia can have a licorice-type aftertaste, so it's not necessarily my favourite of the sweetener alternatives, but it definitely has its place on this list.

**Note: One other sugar alternative that I do not personally use is Agave Syrup.  I've read a lot of pros and cons on agave, and I'm not convinced that it's any better than table sugar, or any of the sugar alternatives I currently use in my own home.  Feel free to discuss your thoughts in the comments!

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