Ahhhh summer time. Ice cream, S’mores, sweet iced tea: sweet treats that spell S-U-M-M-E-R. We love our sweets. According to the USDA, the average American consumes up to 170 lbs of sugar every year. I know you are probably thinking "I don't consume that much!" But sugar hides in nearly every refined, denatured, industrially processed food that is on grocery store shelves today. So unless you are making the vast majority of your own food, you are likely consuming far more sugar than you realize.
While many of us may not be aware of the sheer volume of sugar hiding in packaged foods, most of us worry about the effect of sugar on our health and waistlines. And with good reason: Highly refined white sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup, and other “conventional” sweeteners, are stripped of any nutritional value, grown with heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, are GMO crops, spike our blood sugar levels and cause many health problems (insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and more). The good news is there are alternative sweeteners that retain their nutrients, contain more complex sugars, are absorbed more slowly and are less likely to disrupt blood sugar stability.
Below is a list of healthy options to satisfy your sweet tooth. The sweeteners listed here have been chosen for nutrient-content and low-blood-sugar impact. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, rather a guide to start experimenting with different ways of introducing healthier options into your nutrition routine.
Honey: Honey is heavenly in beverages and homemade ice cream. The healthiest honey is raw, not heated. It’s important to get honey from a trusted source, because much of the honey that comes in those cute little squeeze bears has been heat treated and likely has corn syrup added. Local honey is a great choice if you have access to it. One of my favorite brands is YS Honey, if you can’t find a local source. Honey has a rather pronounced flavor, so if you are new to using honey in recipes, start with a lighter honey. Darker honey tends to have more robust flavor, and is definitely worth a try if you are feeling adventurous.
Honey is a rich source of enzymes, which aid digestion. Try this cool refreshing lemonade on a hot day:
Juice of 1 lemon, freshly squeezed
3 cups of filtered water
2 tablespoons raw honey
A handful of ice
Put in the blender and blend until honey is dissolved. The fresh lemon adds an extra boost of enzymes. Sprinkle a pinch of grated lemon zest on top and enjoy!
Or try this wonderfully refreshing beverage:
Steep a generous handful of fresh mint leaves or 3-4 peppermint tea bags in 2 cups of freshly boiled water for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, squeeze the leaves or tea bags to get all the minty goodness out of them.
Add another 2 cups of cool water to the tea. Add 2 – 4 tablespoons raw honey and stir to dissolve the honey. (The tea is cool enough for the honey if it is cool enough for you to comfortably put your finger in it. Liquid at above 110 degrees or so will burn your skin, and will reduce the health benefits of the honey.)
Pour over ice. Add a sprig of fresh mint leaves for an extra fancy touch!
Maple Syrup: This is another sweetener that has a strong, distinct flavor. It is also a less-refined choice that retains some nutritional value. Maple syrup is available in sugar form (it’s just dehydrated maple syrup). There are different “grades” of Maple Syrup. Grade A syrup is lighter in color and taste, Grade B is darker in color and has a more robust taste. There are no other differences other than that. Buy organic to avoid residues of formaldehyde and other chemicals used to keep tap holes open longer.
Try the same lemonade recipe as above but substitute maple syrup for the honey.
Investing in an ice cream maker will go a long way towards having healthy sweet options available. All you need is whole milk and cream (Preferably raw if available, definitely organic), some honey or maple syrup, a touch of vanilla and you will be amazed at how easy and delicious homemade ice cream can be. There are thousands of recipes available if you want to get fancier with your ice cream flavors, but simple is great too. And it’s easier on the wallet than buying ice cream at the store.
To use alternative sweeteners in baking, there are a few important caveats to know. Less-processed sweeteners behave differently in baking, and have different flavors than the neutral sweetness we have learned to expect from white sugar. One option, in recipes calling for white sugar, is to substitute some applesauce or mashed ripe banana, puréed dates, raisins or prunes — adjusting the amount of liquid. They’ll add fiber and create a delicious, moist texture.
I don’t recommend using honey in baking because heating it destroys the health benefits. Stick with using honey in cold beverages or ice cream, or other sweets that don’t require heating.
To use maple syrup in baking, use the following guidelines:
1 cup sugar = 1 cup of maple syrup or maple syrup sugar. Reduce other liquid by 1/3 to ½ cup if using syrup, or add 3-4 tablespoons of flour if no sugar is called for in the recipe.
Other good options for baking include:
Cane Sugar: Made from sugar cane that’s crushed mechanically to extract its juice, Organic, whole cane sugars are unrefined and unbleached and retain natural trace vitamins and minerals. The molasses is not separated from the sugar stream. Raw cane juice is filtered and heated to syrup, then dried. Rapunzel sieve-grinds its dried juice for a very fine granular texture (formerly called Rapadura sugar). Wholesome Sweeteners stirs its syrup to produce larger grains (called Sucanat). Whole cane sugar has a robust, molasses flavor.
Turbinado sugar is made by heating sugar cane juice, then spinning it in a centrifuge or turbine to extract moisture and molasses for large, golden crystals. It’s closer to refined sugar than whole cane sugar, and has a correspondingly less strong taste.
1 cup sugar = 1 cup of any form of cane sugar
Date Sugar: A whole-food sweetener made of dried, pulverized dates, date sugar is rich in iron, potassium and vitamins, while the high fiber content slows absorption. Date sugar does not dissolve, but is delicious in baking and crumb toppings. It burns easily, so bake with care.
1 cup sugar = 1 cup date sugar
Coconut Sugar: Made from the sap of the coconut tree, Coconut Sugar is another less-processed alternative that retains some nutrients and fiber. It tastes more like brown sugar than it does coconut, and because it has a darker almost earthy flavor, it's wonderful in baking recipes using chocolate or warm spices.
1 cup sugar = 1 cup coconut sugar
Note that Date Sugar and Coconut sugar are both less sweet than refined sugar. These are good choices to start getting your taste buds used to less sweet tastes. After using these healthier sweeteners for a while, you may find that other sweets you used to enjoy taste too sweet.
Now it’s your turn: What are your favorite summer time sweet treats? Do you have a favorite alternative sweetener? Share your thoughts in the comments!