One of the most enduring food challenges of this decade is the struggle against sugar consumption. Sugar by itself is not bad. But research showed that we were consuming far too much. Then came the quest for the perfect sweetener. Only, these were sometimes even more harmful. Finally, we seem to have hit a full circle. The trend has now shifted to finding natural sugar alternatives. The source of these sweeteners is also widening, from fruits to starches.
Healthy Sugar Alternatives
In our quest to find a natural alternative to sugar, we are now looking for even healthier alternatives. In 2020, sugar alternatives will shift from stevia, maple syrup, and honey to syrups made from fruits and starches, predicts Whole Foods. This includes syrups made from fruits like pomegranates, dates, monk food and coconut or starches like sweet potato and sorghum. These syrups can be swapped for sugar in regular recipes. What makes them different from sweeteners is the lack of any kind of chemical additives. In fact, you can make some of these yourself at home.
The emerging alternatives to sugar rely on natural sources like fruits for adding sweetness. Syrups extracted from fruits and starches are used in surprising ways to reduce reliability on sugar.
While it is still a novel concept in the West, pomegranate molasses are widely used in the Middle East. The Syrian dip muhammara is made with pomegranate syrup. Made of a concentrate of pomegranate juice, not only is this thick treacly syrup delicious, but it also brings a welcome complexity of taste. An animal study published in the Journal of Applied Pharmaceutical science revealed that the regular intake of pomegranate molasses can help in resisting reducing weight, protect against the adverse effects of free radicals, and decrease tissue neurosis.
How to use it: You can use pomegranate molasses in dips, salad dressings, meat glaze or over roasted vegetables and meats. The sweet-tangy taste is surprisingly good when used with meat, fish or shellfish. In his cookbook Ottolenghi Simple, the Israeli chef Yottam Ottolenghi lists pomegranate molasses as one of the essentials that can elevate any dish.
Where to get it: You can find pomegranate molasses in Middle-Eastern grocers. Alternatively, you can easily get it online.
Monk fruit syrup
The monk fruit syrup is made by extracting the juice from the fruit pulp. It is available in both powder and syrup form. Named after the monks who cultivated the fruit, the monk fruit has become popular because of the ‘no-calories’ tag. But this is only partially true. Most of the commercially available monk fruit syrups have additives like maltodextrin, erythritol, and sucralose. So, look for pure syrups that are undiluted or have a heavy concentration of monk fruit.
Monk fruit syrup is today used in many commercial products as a sweet additive. The FDA classifies monk fruit syrup as non-nutritive, but safe to use. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, monk fruit sweeteners are safe for children, pregnant or breastfeeding women as well as people with diabetics. No ADI (acceptable daily intake) limit has been set for monk fruit because animal studies have not shown any adverse effects, even with high consumption of the sweeteners. However, the long-term impact of the fruit is not sufficiently understood, it warns.
How to use it: One of the reasons behind monk fruit’s popularity among sugar alternatives is its pleasant taste. Unlike many sweeteners, artificial and natural, it does not leave an unpleasant aftertaste. It is also far more potent than sugar. Depending on the concentration of monk fruit in the syrup, it can be 100 to 250 times stronger. So, be very careful when adding the syrup. Just a few drops may be sufficient in place of a tablespoon.
Where to get it: You can look for pure monk fruit syrup at the nearest health food store. However, do check that it is 100 percent pure. Alternatively, order it online.
Like coconut sugar, coconut syrup is also derived from coconut sap. According to an article published by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute in Philipines, coconut syrup offers certain advantages over ordinary sugar. Apart from sodium and potassium found in most refined sugar, coconut sugar also contains zinc and iron. Although quite high in carbohydrates like refined sugar, it has a low glycemic index. When buying coconut syrup, do make sure that you read the label. Many of the commercially available products are made with sugar and coconut milk. If you cannot find the pure syrup that is extracted directly from the sap, look for syrups made from coconut sugar and water. You can also make it at home by combining the two under heat.
How to use it: Because of its fairly strong flavor, it is best used as a sugar alternative in coconut-based recipes, such as cookies, cakes or pancakes.
Where to get it: You may get coconut syrup at some specialty Asian store. Stay away from syrups that use refined sugar with coconut milk. You can also make your own syrup. You can also get the syrup (or coconut sugar if the syrup is not available) online.
The sticky dense sweet taste of date syrup is one of the best substitutes you can find for sugar. The process for making the syrup is simple, if slightly time-consuming. You have to soak the dates, boil and then purée the cooked dates. Squeeze out the liquid to get the thin syrup. You can reduce it for a more concentrated sweetness. The raw syrup is made by simply pureeing the soaked dates with some water. The latter contains more fiber.
How to use it: You can store the syrup in an airtight container in the fridge for a few weeks. The date syrup is a very flexible sugar replacement. You can use it as you would maple syrup, on pancakes, oatmeal or biscuits. You can add it to drinks for added sweetness. In baking, 1 cup of sugar can be replaced by 2/3 cup date syrup. However, you will have to adjust the liquid volume by about 15 to 25 percent. It is best used in dense cakes with a rich caramelly taste. Raw date syrup is not just sweet and full of fiber, it is also an excellent binding agent. You can use it to mix your oatmeals when making granola or to make vegan cookies and cakes.
Where to get it: Buy your dates from the nearest health food store. The softness of Mejdool or Barhi dates is perfect for the syrup. Failing that, just get your common dates. Overnight soaking will soften any good quality date.
It may be making waves now, but sorghum syrup has been around for some time now. If you are living in the American South, it is part of your traditional recipes. Sorghum is native to Africa where it is used as a grain. The sorghum plant arrived in America in the 17th century with the African slave trade. It is here that it was developed as a syrup.
How to use it: Heat 1/2 cup of sorghum syrup and then add 1/8 tsp baking soda. The syrup will become foamy and thick. Sorghum syrup has a complex taste that has more depth than plain refined sugar. You can use it in place of honey or maple syrup, drizzle it over pancakes, cornbread, or in oatmeal.
Where to get it: You can get pure sorghum syrup at farmer’s markets or online.
We are all familiar with the joys of a sweet potato pie, although it is usually smothered by marshmallows and sweet syrups. But how about removing the added sugar and letting the natural, mellow, dense, but gentler sweetness of sweet potato shine through? As more and more people are looking for alternatives to sugar, sweet potato has gained popularity as an alternative.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, it is also rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, fiber and potassium. Sweet potato is not as sweet as alternatives like dates or even bananas. So, you may need to add some sugar. But even 1/2 cup less is still less than what you would normally use.
How to use it: To use, boil or roast the sweet potato and then mash them. You can use this in smoothies or as the base for porridge in place of oatmeal. You can even use it as a binding agent in baking. However, the sweetness can vary. So, a taste test is essential when adjusting the sweetness.
Where to get it: You can get sweet potato at any nearby grocer or whole food store. You can also try farmer’s markets for different types of sweet potatoes.
Why use sugar alternatives?
Sugar has been the bête noire for every dietician and health fanatic for some years now. The problem lies in the amount of sugar we eat, which is far more than the recommended quantity. Sugar is added to several packaged foods, such as bread, cereals, teas, soft drinks, and even processed food. This is added sugar, surplus to requirements and extremely harmful for health. According to an article published in 2019 in Harvard’s Heath Publishing, this added sugar has an extremely harmful effect on obesity, diabetes, heart, and liver.
Part of the problem with sugar is that it is very addictive. As per a research published in 2018 in the journal Frontiers of Psychiatry, there is a strong existence of sugar addiction, proven through animal and human studies. It exhibits most of the signs of addiction, such as craving, increasing consumption for longer time, tolerance, harmful use, and withdrawal.
Why Sweeteners are Not Working?
Commercial sweeteners were initially marketed as the solution for our sugar craving. More than your morning tea or coffee, sweeteners were aimed at the massive processed food industry. These sweeteners were added to soft drinks, diet foods and even cereals meant for kids. But things again came under a cloud when studies revealed that sweeteners were rarely good for you. In fact, they may be even more harmful. According to a study published in the journal Molecule, most FDA-approved artificial sweeteners were toxic to digestive gut microbes.