How sweet it is: Learning about sugar substitutes

Dear Kitchen Shrink,

I have a bad sweet tooth, but refined sugars make me light-headed and queasy, while artificial sweeteners give me a terrible aftertaste. Any suggestions for sweet alternatives would be much appreciated.

— Karen Cane (no kidding)

Refined sugars are destructive cousins to the evil artificial sweeteners. The former give a dose of “naked” calories that rob the body of vital minerals and vitamins, rot the teeth, and have been linked to degenerative diseases; the latter have been labeled “neurotoxins” implicated in causing seizures along with a host of cancers. The three main bad boys used as sugar substitutes are saccharin, aka Sweet’N Low; aspartame, found in Equal and NutraSweet; and sucralose, in Splenda. Here is my sweet list of healthier alternatives that are more dental and diabetic friendly as well.

Stevia — South America’s sweet revenge

Stevia rebaudiana is a shrub that grows wild in Paraguay and Brazil. Its leaves contain glycosides that give this herb a powerful sweet punch — about 10 times sweeter than table sugar — while the refined white powder extracts tally more than 200 times sweeter without sugar’s unhealthy traits. Stevia, a zero-calorie sweetener, can be used as a sugar substitute for cooking and baking, in hot and cold beverages, and has been used in assorted Japanese-style dried products.

And since Stevia does not raise blood sugar levels, it can be used by diabetics. Standing advice, as always, moderation.

Agave nectar — a vegan’s honey

Agave nectar is a natural sweetener produced south of the border from assorted species of the agave plant, including the blue and salmiana agave. Sweeter than honey, agave is less viscous, as it is produced from the expressed juice of the plant’s core. The end product is a syrupy liquid with nuances of color from light to dark amber that are determined by the varying amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium in the nectar.

The light form is neutral and sweetens delicate foods such as chilled fruity soups, cakes, pies, lemonade and iced tea, while the darker varieties have a more robust caramel color and flavor used to punch up the tastes of seafood, chicken and meat dishes, and “straight up” on waffles, pancakes or as an ice cream topping. It dissolves quickly, making agave a good replacement for honey, particularly for vegans.

Agave syrup is comparable to fructose in terms of its glycemic load, so it’s a great sugar substitute for diabetics.

Sucanat — the other sugar

Sucanat is a contraction of the phrase “Sugar Cane Natural,” and is a nonrefined dried cane sugar that retains its rich molasses content and flavor. Sucanat, with small brown, grainy crystals, can easily be substituted for brown sugar. Sprinkle it on your oatmeal; bake it in muffins, cakes and cookies; or use it to sweeten dressings and sauces. Sucanat is considered the highest ranking in nutritional value of all sugar canes, so when the sweet cravings strike, reach for Sucanat.

The land of milk and honey

Honey produced by honeybees is a healthful food source that derives its sweetness from fructose and glucose. It contains small amounts of several vitamins and minerals, especially folate, potassium, vitamin C and calcium, as well as assorted antioxidants.

Honey can be eaten by those with diabetes, but like other carb-containing foods, should be taken in moderate amounts and monitored for its effects on blood sugar levels. One last word of caution — since honey frequently contains endospores, it should not be given to infants under 1 as these organisms can morph into toxic bacteria in the young intestine.

One of my family’s faves made with healthier sweeteners is a spicy honey cake. You don’t have to sugarcoat this one.

Spicy Coffee Honey Cake

  • 1 3/4 cups of honey
  • 1/2 cup of raisins
  • 1 cup of strong coffee
  • 1/4 cup of grapeseed oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups of Sucanat or organic brown sugar
  • 3 1/2 cups of unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon of baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup of toasted sliced almonds
  • 1 tablespoon of orange zest

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. In a small saucepan, heat the honey and coffee to a boil, and cool. In a food processor or bowl of an electric mixer, blend the oil, sugar and eggs. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and spices. Combine the dry and wet mixtures, and blend in the almonds, raisins and zest. Grease two 9x5-inch loaf pans. Pour the batter into the pans and bake for 1 hour or until golden brown.