Kym shares a few common sugar alternatives, and infuses them with herbal favourites from the top drawer of her treat resource box.
I have had my share of sugar cravings: late night assignments, high stress tasks with impossible deadlines, and hormone-induced chocolate crusades. I have experienced my share of post-sugar-banquet guilt too.
Sugar cravings tend to manipulate us when at our weakest; always when we don’t have the time or the mental capacity to make good food choices. We have never been so conscious of the foods we put in our mouths, nor the confusion that accommodates popular health culture.
I have found it invaluable to maintain an arsenal of sugar alternatives. Establishing some firm foundations on decent sweeteners can empower our choices, gifting our minds and bodies the kindness they deserve for better health.
Mesquite is a South American native, where it was used for hundreds of years for medicinal and culinary purposes. Its wood was mostly used to smoke meat. Mesquite tree pods are harvested, finely ground and milled to make the sweet flour that is easily substituted for any other sugar.
Happily, mesquite has a good source of soluble fibre. This ensures it has a positive effect on blood sugar levels by slowing absorption through the gastro-intestinal tract. For this reason, mesquite is considered to have a low glycemic index. Other beneficial nutritional incentives include considerably high protein and mineral content.
Mesquite is a relative newcomer to the Australian market, with only a select few brands offering this appealing caramel-tasting sugar alternative. It can be used as an alternative sugar for anything and is especially delicious in smoothies and baking. Use in a ratio of 1:1.
Monk fruit (or ‘Lo Han Guo’ to the locals) was a favourite of Buddhist monks throughout South East Asia. It is yet another centuries-old culinary masterpiece (around 1200 AD) revived for the 21st Century.
In its traditionally eaten raw form, monk fruit looks like any other melon you would find at the supermarket or grocers. Although the raw fruit is nothing to write home about (sorry Mother Nature). The extract made from the juice of the monk fruit is around 200 times sweeter than sugar (sucrose). A little monk fruit goes a long way!
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, monk fruit has been used to improve digestion and encourage weight loss, while contemporary health benefits highlight a positive effect on blood sugar balance and reducing cholesterol. Monk fruit is also high in vitamin C, making it a good source of antioxidants.
Use monk fruit in fluid extract or granulated powder form.
Stevia is sourced from the sweet leaf of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It is another all-natural, blood-sugar-friendly sugar alternative with zero calories, low GI, and is also gluten free.
Stevia is a versatile, super sweet sweetener. At about one hundred times sweeter than sucrose, no one ever needs very much. Stevia drops are ideal for tea and coffee because you can be totally sure you’re getting the same amount of sweetening with each cup.
Stevia is easy to substitute in baking too. When you are using a pure product, (as found in health food stores, for instance) 1/2 teaspoon of powder has equal sweetness to one cup of sugar! However, then your recipe needs a bit of extra liquid (remembering that sugar dissolves when heated) and compensate for that with 1/3 cup of beaten egg white, mashed banana, other fruit puree, juice or yoghurt.
However, note that supermarket brands have fillers as bulking agents and therefore have a very different ratio. It’s a bit hard to work out from the label what is a filler and what is not. Meltodextrin is a common filler, whereas erythritol is an artificial sweetener that is also used as a carrier. Some products have up to 95% filler (or non-stevia). Even the stevia in these products is not necessarily organic. So better to shop at your health food store, read the labels and know that you have a more concentrated form. This will save you from using so much, and stretch your budget further.
An innovative sweetener is xylitol, and here’s why: when sugars are broken down in the body or artificially, they make sugar alcohol (among other molecules). Xylitol is a product of this sugar breakdown. It remains sweet but has had the complex molecules removed – so it is easier to digest. Bonus!
Furthermore, xylitol is an ideal sugar alternative for those conscious of reducing their total kilojoule load for effective blood sugar balance, and therefore is a useful in conditions such as diabetes and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
As with stevia, xylitol can be used as a sweet alternative in cooking.
Everyone who’s anyone has heard of the almighty manuka honey. I could quite literally write a book on the health-promoting properties of manuka, especially as an ingestible and topical antimicrobial agent. Manuka honey remains one of those resources that can be used for just about anything. Its an excellent source of antioxidants with extensive, scientifically proven, healing qualities (that’s another whole article).
As a sweetness alternative, manuka is the bee’s knees (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) and a first choice ingredient for a good herbal tea. It can be substituted in cooking for normal honey, molasses or any other viscose ingredient. Manuka can replace refined sugar in baking. ½ to ¾ cup of manuka honey to 1 cup of sugar and reduce liquid by ¼.
What makes honey ‘manuka honey’? Put simply, those little bees can’t get enough of that manuka tree (Leptospermum scoparium). It is the bioactive properties present within this tree, and the honey making process, that makes manuka a unique treasure. Be sure to use only ethically sourced honey to keep our bee populations happy, healthy and sustainable.
Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is a small plant owning a treasure trove of goodness hidden below the topsoil, and contained within the tuber (think sweet potato). When boiled down, the shredded tubers create a delicious and health promoting syrup of sweet alternative goodness. I imagine, a little known alternative sweetener when compared to our list of aforementioned superstars.
Yacon is a prebiotic, made up of fructooligosacchardies (the sweet part). These feed good gut bacteria and improve digestion, immunity and enhance blood sugar control. Win, win, win!
Yacon has half the kilojoules of sugar, measures 0-1 on the glycemic index and is a suitable substitute in cooking. This a great one to grow, harvest and make at home, especially with the kids.
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