By Annie Berthold-Bond and Nava Atlas, author of The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet
The array of products in the sweetener aisle of your health food store might seem rather mystifying to the natural foods novice, but with a little help, sweeteners like rice syrup, barley malt syrup, and date sugar, among others, can be used with great effect in baked goods of all kinds.
While the detrimental effects of refined sweeteners such as white sugar and corn syrup are still being debated, there’s little doubt that Americans consume far too much of it. While natural sweeteners aren’t nutritional bell ringers, they are generally considered to produce less of a shock to the body’s blood sugar level because among the nutrients found in whole food sugars are necessary minerals that help with sugar metabolism.
From a culinary standpoint, natural sweeteners offer bolder, more complex flavors than sugar, adding delectably different dimensions to baked goods and other treats.
Here is our directory of less refined sweeteners, including a chart of equivalents:
Agave Nectar: A natural liquid sweetener that is less viscous than honey, agave nectar comes in three grades: Light, medium and amber. Light agave is sweet but neutral making it great for recipes where the stronger flavor of maple or honey may interfere. The flavor of agave becomes more intense and earthy with the darker grades. Agave is extracted from the agave plant, and is low on the glycemic index. It is about 1 1/2 times sweeter than refined sugar.
Barley Malt: Dark, sticky and boldly flavored, barely malt sugar is nonetheless neither as assertive as blackstrap molasses nor as sweet as honey. Primarily maltose, a complex sugar that enters the bloodstream slowly. This sweetener offers trace amounts of eight vitamins and several minerals. Barley malt syrup is a wonderful addition to squash and pumpkin breads, bran muffins, and hearty rye or pumpernickel breads. Use it to glaze sweet potatoes and to make winter “malteds” combined with bananas and soy milk.
Date Sugar: Not actually a sugar in the conventional sense, date sugar is ground from dehydrated dates. What a great source of sweetness. Dates are high in fiber, and rich in a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. Date sugar can be exchanged measure for measure for sugar in baking, for cakes, muffins and quick breads. Use it in place of brown sugar to make crumb toppings for pies and fruit crisps. It can’t be used to sweeten beverages, though, as the tiny pieces won’t dissolve.
Fruit Juice Concentrates: Made from the juice of fruit that has been reduced about one quarter by slow cooking. Note that some commercial fruit juice concentrates have been stripped of flavor and nutritional value.
Fructose: Derived from fruit sugar, this sweetener, closely resembles granular white sugar but is more concentrated so that less is needed for a similar effect—about 1/2 cup fructose to 1 cup of sugar. Though fructose has little nutritional value, it is generally believed that it doesn’t disturb the blood sugar level as much as sucrose. Use it in place of sugar as an all-purpose sweetener in baking and cooking, and in hot and cold beverages.
FruitSource: A relatively new natural sweetening product, Fruitsource replaces not only sugar, but also fat, in baking. Made from a natural blend of grape and rice carbohydrates, it can also be used as a general-purpose sweetener for hot and cold beverages and in cooking. To use in baking, replace every cup of sugar with 1 1/4 cups Fruitsource and reduce fat by 50 percent; optimal oven temperature is 300 to 325 degrees.
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