Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sugar Blues

I stole the title for this post from a book by William Dufty. It is a great book about the historical, social, and medical impacts of refined sugar in our diet and it's a pretty quick read. Mr. Dufty takes a strong stance against refined sugar because of his personal experience with diabetes, but the book is well researched and worth reading in your spare time. The history alone in the book was very interesting. For me it definitely helped to end an era of organic cane sugar in our household. It took a lot of experimenting but I have had no recipe that I could not find a substitute for the sugar. I started a new rule for our kitchen; if I can't make it myself or get it direct from nature, then it is not going in our food. No I'm not keeping an apiary these days, but it helped me clearly define what was refined and what was not. You may be wondering what difference it makes. After all maple syrup and honey may still rock your insulin levels like refined sugar, but (1) they are natural and (2) they contain health benefits that you simply don't get from regular sugar. Here is my guide to some common sweetener alternatives. There are numerous others than the ones listed below but I either do not know much about them or would not recommend them.

Maple Syrup
No not that brown colored high fructose corn syrup, but real and pure maple syrup. If you have never had it then you are truly missing out. It has a rich bourbon-like flavor that will vary depending on where it is from. Check the label, it should be grade A or B 100% pure maple syrup. Grade B is darker and has a stronger flavor. It will likely be a product of the U.S and Canada (if you are state side), however if you are geographically lucky and can find some local flare then I recommend going with that. As always try and support organic or small farms. Maple syrup will still kick up your insulin, but not as much as table sugar and it is full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; and it is sweeter so you can use less. Now for it's cooking uses, they really are endless. My husband likes to sweeten his coffee and chai tea with maple syrup. It is much sweeter than regular sugar and it pairs nicely with the bitterness of teas and coffee. I also use it to sweeten our homemade nut milks. Usually 1-2 tablespoons for 2-3 cups of liquid will more than suffice. You can also use it in baked goods. It will add moisture so you will have to adjust the other liquids when substituting (reduce the liquid by about 3 tablespoons for every 1 cup of maple syrup) and remember it is sweeter (so 1 cup of refined sugar can be replaced with about 2/3- 3/4 cup of maple syrup). It may cause the baked good to come out slightly darker because it caramelizes at a lower temperature than sugar, you can reduce the baking heat by 25oF or just enjoy your darker treat. I like to use it in sweet breads (it goes perfect with banana bread), and cookies (especially oatmeal cookies). It can also be used to sweeten sauces and dressings. A tablespoon added to homemade balsamic dressing is really nice. It also works well for honey mustard dressing (I guess maple mustard dressing in this case) and if you normally sweeten your soups or spaghetti sauces then this is a nice substitute.

We all really should be thanking the bees. Not only do they pollinate the majority of our food crops (for free) , but they also provide us with some of the most nutrient packed products on the planet (Go ahead and search propolis and royal jelly, I'll wait...) My favorite bee product though is honey. It has long been believed that eating local honey will help with allergies, it also has antifungal and antibacterial properties (I often cleanse my face with a mixture of honey and garlic, and I have been known to lather it on a cut), and surely you've heard it is good for a sore throat?Another great property of honey is that is can be caramelized like sugar. I like to make hard candies by cooking honey until it reaches the hard crack stage and then roll the taffy into balls. You can also cook it to the soft ball stage and use it for binding rice bars and other treats together. Honey can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio for maple syrup so read above for substituting tips. For me it leaves a stronger taste than maple syrup so consider the flavor of your dish and decide if a little honey flavor will go nicely with it. Speaking of honey flavor, it comes in many varieties. Honey gets it's name like wildflower or orange blossom based on what plant is in majority and closest to the hive. This is not a guarantee though, your hive of bee's next to a field of wild flowers will still likely pollinate some other angiosperms (SCIENCE!) around, so the name only divulges what the majority of the honey will be made from. This gives honey unique flavors, you should try out different one's to see what you like. Always try to buy local honey and it doesn't hurt to learn about the apiary practices; honey bee's are on rapid decline because of the use of modern insecticides so I try to find companies that are taking care of their bees and working toward the greater effort of global bee conservation. Also make sure you get raw or unpasterized honey, and check the ingredients, it should only contain one.

Agave Nectar
I'm not sure if this plant is more famous for tequila making or agave syrup but it is pretty cool either way. The agave plant is called the century plant because it stores up its whole life for one big reproductive event and then it dies, somtimes it can wait a whole century. This life strategy is why agave is full of sweet sap, but don't be fooled into thinking that store bought agave nectar is pulled straight from the plant, its not. Actually the juice from the agave plant is filtered, heated, and then concentrated. What's a shorter way to say that? Refined perhaps? Yes I know maple syrup is heated and concentrated but the difference here is that agave nectar is made from the juice not the sap of the plant. It takes a lot more proccesing to get the final product. I'm not totally anti-agave but it is my least favorite of the alternative sweetners. It is much sweeter than sugar and even a bit sweeter than honey so you can use less. Also, like maple syrup and honey, it has a lower glycemic load than regular sugar, but I still wouldn't feed it to diabetics. It is good for vegans (who do not want to eat honey), and you can also find raw agave that is heated at a much lower temperature that is supposed preserve the enzymes. I have found that it has a much milder taste than honey or maple syrup so consider it for dishes that you would not want any extra flavors in. It also works great in drinks, a small amount can sweeten tea's or, in the perfect pairing, a margarita. Be careful when baking, I haven't used agave for baking but I have always heard that it can cause your baked goods to burn more quickly.

Date Syrup
This is one of my favorite alternative sweetners. Not to be confused with date palm sugar (which is made from the sap of the tree that bears this fruit) this is actually just a simple syrup that you can make from dates. You can use either rolled coconut dates or just regular dates (just take the pits out). Soak them for at least 30 minutes (if you have an awesome blender, which I do not, you can probably skip this step) then mix with water and blend until you get an even consistency. There isn't a recipe to it, if you want a sweeter syrup just add more dates.You need enough water to be able to blend it so just adjust as you go. This sweetner works really nicely in baked goods, raw desserts, and for nutmilks and smoothies. The date flavor is generally mild, but if you don't like the flavor try using a mixture of this and another sweetner like maple syrup. Dates are pretty sweet so you don't need as much syrup as you would regular sugar, also they are a great source of fiber and pottasium, two things most people do not get enough of in their diet. They are really a dessert on their own, you can stuff pitted dates with just about anything you can imagine and eat them whole; I'm not a fan of this because they are way to sweet for me, but a lot of people really enjoy it, and it makes for some fancy appetizers. You also don't have to make a syrup, sometimes simply chopping them or giving them a spin in the food proccesor will suffice. Blending with other ingredients like nuts, cocao or coconut in the food proccesor will cause the ingredients to stick together, you can make great energy bars and "truffles" this way. You can sometimes find "date sugar" which is made from even more dehydrated and gound dates, but really, just make it yourself. You can also try raisins, prunes, dried apricots, cherries, and blueberries.

Date Palm Sugar and Coconut Sugar
These sugars are made from two different plants but packaging often confuses the two ( coconut palm sugar - what?) I put them together here because though they are different plants the resulting sugar is very similiar in use. The sap from the date palm or the sap from the coconut palms flowers is collected and then heated to concentrate the sugar. You can find it in little blocks or all ready nicely ground into a tradtional sugar crystal consistency. These sugars are great to use in tempromental dishes that really require that sugar crystal consistency. These do have an almost caramel taste and are darker in color than plain white sugar, it is more like a brown sugar. I made lemon meringue pie with this sugar and though the flavor turned out great, it was a brown color, which really throws people off of the "lemon". I don't use this sweetner much now, but it is easier when you are first switching off of regular sugar because it can basically be substituted in a 1:1 ratio for most recipes. I recently read and article about the sustainability, or rather lack there of, of date palm sugar. Definitely get this one fair traded, fair traded not only insures that farmers are paid a fair price but there are also standards for sustainable stewardship of the land.

Fruit Juices
Real 100% juice is a great way to sweeten dishes. Pineapple and apple are some of the sweetest and go really nicely in sweet breads, smoothies, and sauces. I can make a mean BBQ sauce with pineapple and orange juice. When using juices for baking it is best to use some juice and some other sweetener as juice is not as sweet as the other more concentrated sugar alternatives. Also you'll need to reduce the liquid in the recipe. Make sure your juice doesn't contain added sugars and be creative; pineapple juice in zucchini bread, apple juice to sweeten a smoothie, and cherry juice in brownies.

Black Strap Molasses
Okay so this one is kind of sugar. Molasses is the leftover product of sugar refining; regular sugar has all of the nutrients removed but they are left in the molasses. It is a great source of iron, manganese, copper, and many others. It definitely has a strong flavor and I would not use it often but it is essential to some recipes, like ginger snaps; it also tastes great on beans and I have used it to sweeten a smoothie in a pinch. Definitely use 'black strap' and always check the label to make sure no corn syrup is sneaking in.

I do not actually know a lot about stevia but I put it here because it is an important and popular low calorie alternative sweetener. It is also used by some diabetics because they find it does not interfere with their blood sugar. Stevia is not biologically a sugar at all, it is made from the leaf of the stevia plant and it taste sweet (a lot sweeter than sugar). It has a bit of an herbal taste and it typically comes in liquid (extract) and powder (green and white) form. Not that many years ago it was only sold as a supplement but now it  is approved by the FDA to be sold as and in food items. I don't use this sweetener because (1) I don't need the reduced calories nor am I diabetic and (2) it kind of freaks me out. Let me explain that second one, whole leaf stevia, which is often in mixed tea bags seems fine to me, but the super sweet liquid that has no calories and doesn't spike your blood sugar levels sounds to good to be true. In my experience if it sounds to good to be true then it is. That being said I'm open to looking at research as it comes out and I would definitely recommend using this over any other artificial sweetener (those dangerous little blue, pink, and yellow packets of chemicals). I have read both negative and positive studies on the side effects of stevia. A quick internet search on the subject brings up some cases of people feeling dizzy, having muscle pain, low blood pressure, and general ill-digestion issues after consuming stevia. Since I all ready suffer from dizzy spells and low blood pressure I try to avoid this sweetner. I am not trying to scare you, it really is just personal choice and whenever I come across a recipe using stevia I am always able to substitute honey or maple syrup for it. One of my favorite bloggers regularly uses stevia and she has a great post about how it is healthy.  If you want to use stevia packaging should provide more information on substituting.  I do hope more research is done with stevia so I can feel more comfortable about using it.

 In general, I TRY not to stress to much about sugar. The greatest thing about reducing your sugar consumption is that your tongue will become more attune to the natural sweetness in food. To me almonds and coconuts are very sweet on their own and I even find pure apple juice a little to sweet. Believe me this is coming from someone who really had has a sweet tooth, my tooth just has a different view of sweetness now.

I would love to hear about other alternative sweeteners. What's your favorite? 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comments! If you are having trouble posting a comment please make sure you are accepting cookies from this site or it may not work.