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Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) promotes local food knowledge, production and market opportunities for farmers and community members throughout our region.

Beyond Refined Sugar: Healthier Alternatives

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Beyond Refined Sugar: Healthier Alternatives

Steve Peters

Alt Sweeteners

Alt SweetenersHappy New Year! I thought I'd share an article I wrote in Rutland Bites, my weekly food column in the Rutland Reader. As we enter into 2013, as with every New Year, many of us will attempt the latest diet plan in order to achieve better health. Many of these plans require cutting out entire food groups, which can have some logic to them, I suppose. However, in my non-dietician opinion, they often seem unsustainable in the long run. Otherwise, wouldn’t you still be doing whatever it was you resolved to do a year ago?

Instead of a temporary plan, I’d rather make smarter choices about the foods I’m already eating. A major one of those is sweeteners. I don’t even want to guess at the amount of sugar I consumed this holiday season. Between gingerbread cookies, pies, cakes and candy, it’s sure to be an alarming amount.

In 2012, the United State Department of Agriculture estimated that the average American consumes 76.7 pounds of sugar and sweeteners — mainly highly refined and processed varieties — each year. And last year, researchers at the University of California even declared sugar to be toxic. Though this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering we already know too much sugar can lead to heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The problem isn’t necessarily sugar itself, rather, the amount we are consuming. Added sugar — that which is added to foods as opposed to naturally occurring in fruit — currently makes up 16 percent of the total calories in the American diet. What alarms me about this even more is that for many, that 16 percent of our diet has no nutritional value because the sugars we often consume are so refined and processed.

This year I will make a conscious attempt to consume less sugar. The first step is to avoid processed foods, which I already do to a great degree. But also, when using sweeteners in my coffee, tea, cooking or baking, I will use ones that actually have some value to them.

Here is the lowdown on six alternatives to refined table sugar, not including artificial sweeteners, which I don’t use. Replacing refined sugar in baking and cooking will take a little experimentation to achieve the sweetness, flavor and consistency that you prefer. And while these alternatives come with some health advantages, they should all be used in moderation.

Maple syrup Vermont is the highest producing state of maple syrup in the U.S. so you should know this one fairly well. But did you know that aside from its distinctively sweet taste, maple syrup is high in magnesium, zinc and calcium? In addition to topping pancakes and waffles, maple syrup is also good on oatmeal, fruit, vegetables like squashes and carrots and in baking. Use ¾ cup maple syrup in place of 1 cup sugar and reduce liquid by 2-3 tablespoons if needed in a recipe.

Honey Compared to typical table sugar, honey is similar in nutritional value with only a few antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Raw honey, in which heat has not been applied, is sure to have more. With honey, you don’t need to use nearly as much compared to refined sugar because it is so highly concentrated. Use ¾ cup honey in place of 1 cup sugar and reduce liquid by ½ cup if needed in a recipe.

Brown rice syrup Made by culturing cooked rice with enzymes that break down the starch, brown rice syrup is a thick syrup that is half as sweet as regular sugar. It has a flavor similar to butterscotch and has a tendency to make foods harder and crispier. Although it is usually all-natural and organic, as well as allergen free, it is still highly refined and concentrated. Use 1 ¼ cups of brown rice syrup in place of sugar, using ¼ cup less of another liquid if needed in a recipe.

Unsulphured blackstrap molasses More than just a gingerbread sweetener, blackstrap molasses is the byproduct of refining cane sugar into table sugar. One tablespoon will provide 15 percent of your daily iron, 14 percent copper, 10 percent vitamin B6 and 8 percent magnesium — vitamins and minerals that all help in maintaining your energy supply. Try using it in your coffee and tea. Use 1 1/3 cups molasses in place of 1 cup sugar and reduce another liquid by 5 tablespoons if using in a recipe. In baking, also add ½ teaspoon of baking soda per cup of molasses.

Agave syrup Produced from the juice of the agave core, agave syrup is a popular alternative to honey that is just a little sweeter and thinner. It has a high fructose content, which like corn syrup, can lead to weight-gain; however, its low glucose content allows it to be slowly absorbed through the body and prevent spikes in blood sugar levels — making it a good option for diabetics. Use 2/3 cup agave nectar for each cup of sugar and reduce another liquid by ¼ cup if using in a recipe.

Turbinado cane sugar Made from 100 percent natural sugarcane, cane sugar contains the natural molasses that is removed from refined sugars and has a golden color and distinctive taste. Though it is almost identical to brown sugar, it has a different flavor and larger crystals. Its health advantages are debatable, but since it is less refined it maintains the trace minerals and vitamins that refined sugar loses. Use as you would table sugar.