Everything You Need to Know About Natural Sweeteners

There’s too much white sugar in our food. It may be sweet, but its dark side could lead to health problems. Why not consider alternative, healthy natural sweeteners?

There are quite a few naturally healthy alternatives to processed, white sugar. But it’s not just about how sweet your tea will be. These alternatives will sweeten your recipes and can also provide countless health benefits. They can be enjoyed by just about everyone, too, as they’re the most recommended sweeteners for diabetic and overweight people. Let’s get on with the introductions, then. Meet molasses, stevia, maple syrup, panela and many more!

Brown or cane sugar

We’ll start off in more familiar territory with brown sugar. It’s one of the best known options and, as such, is probably the easiest to find – most likely, at your local supermarket. Apart from colour, what differentiates brown sugar from white? To begin with, it’s much less processed than its counterpart. Because it hasn’t been refined (usually over bone char) to decolourise it, both brown and cane sugars contain vitamins (vitamin A, B1, B2) and natural minerals from sugar cane or sugar beet. You’ll want to be informed about the sugar you’re buying, as some manufacturers cheat by selling white sugar that has been dyed a light brown colour. Don’t be deceived, as it might be a refined, white sugar with a bit of molasses added back into it. Brown sugar is quite economical, so it’s great for use in baking desserts and sweets. If you’re looking for something to add to your cuppa, however, we’d suggest the following:

Cane sugar

Panela

Panela is a block of pure, unrefined whole cane sugar. It’s made by evaporating the juices from the cane and is widely used in Latin America, especially Colombia. Of course, it’s not nearly as common as brown sugar, so you may have to search harder for it – but it’s worth the effort. Try health food shops or order it online from places like The Eden Project. Like honey, it acts as an expectorant, so is ideal as a medicinal remedy. You’ll find it soothing and therapeutic if you drink it with warm water and lemon to help get rid of a cold, flu or a sore throat. Panela contains 50 times more minerals than refined sugar and its calcium, potassium, magnesium, copper, iron and phosphorus content practically make it a superfood.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is only 60% as sweet as sugar, but its uniquely delicious flavour makes it a wonderful treat on pancakes or in baked goods. Derived from the sap of the maple tree, this syrup has a long history in North America and has been steadily gaining popularity in other parts of the world, particularly Europe. Smooth and tasty, it also boasts a number of health benefits. It is especially high in manganese – 100 grams contains a whopping 165% of your RDA. Maple syrup also provides calcium, potassium, iron and zinc. The real showstopper, though, is its antioxidant content. Research has shown that there are at least 24 different antioxidants in this sugar alternative, so it’s top amongst healthy sweeteners. Recent studies have also identified a cancer-inhibiting compound called quebecol, which is phenolic and is also found in blueberries and red wine.

Pouring maple syrup
Photo: Bloomberg

Molasses

Molasses – sometimes called cane syrup – comes from cane sugar. In some parts of the world, it’s referred to as ‘honey’ because it does resemble honey, even though it tends to have a stronger flavour and darker colour. When it comes to molasses, the darker in colour, the more nutritious it is. For instance, black strap molasses (as its name would suggest) is almost black and it’s a great source of vitamin B6.

Athletes, children, and those who suffer from anaemia, exhaustion or stress will find it particularly useful, as it’s rich in vitamins and minerals: calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and manganese, to name but a few.

Stevia

Recently, stevia has earned quite a reputation. Originating in Paraguay, this plant’s raw leaves are 40 times sweeter than sugar. In its ready to use form, stevia’s reportedly 10 to 15% sweeter. It’s slightly hypotensive, can improve your dental health and circulation and it aids digestion.

You’ll find no calories in stevia, so it is ideal for people who are on a diet or watching their weight.

Because it doesn’t alter blood sugar levels, it’s good for diabetic people. In fact, some research has shown that drinking infusions three times a day can help naturally regulate these levels.

If you really want to take advantage of its properties, drink stevia in pure extract or powder form. You can even eat the plant leaves directly. If you’re not keen on its flavour, which is similar to liquorice, try the purified extract. This transparent form won’t be as therapeutic, but it will sweeten your food and drinks without adding extra calories and without the harmful effects of sugar or artificial sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame K).

Agave Nectar

Extracted from a sort of cactus that resembles aloe vera, agave nectar (or syrup) has a texture and appearance that is similar to honey. Its taste is mild and it’s perfect for diabetics, provided it’s consumed in moderation. Why is it so good for people with diabetes? Its glycemic index is naturally low.

As with the sweeteners we’ve previously mentioned, agave also has a number of beneficial properties. However, not all are created equal. Read the labels and ensure that you’re only buying syrup that has been processed at cool rather than at high temperatures.

Agave’s mellow flavour is ideal for sweetening infusions, juices and smoothies. You can also successfully substitute it for sugar in many recipes.

As with most things, moderation is key. If you’re suffering from illness, speak to your GP before introducing a new food into your dietary routine.

Images courtesy of Kulinarno, alsjhc, Bloomberg and sweetbeetandgreebean.

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