The Skinny on Sweeteners

Choosing natural sugars can have health benefits

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Huckleberry scones made with coconut sugar at Bright Star Bakery in Talent. All photos provided by Bright Star Bakery.

A Hawaiian vacation gave Sherry Bowman-Harkness a glimpse at sugar cane’s transformation into ubiquitous food.

The sugar factory, recalls Harkness of the tour taken when she was a teenager, was dirty, infested with vermin and indifferently managed. The realization that so many consumer products flowed from open vats of impure sugar slurry, she says, significantly altered her diet.

“I didn’t eat sugar for years,” she says.

Harkness instead experimented with natural, whole-food substitutes for cane sugar while pursuing a doctorate degree in natural health and certifications in herbal medicine and nutrition. Her Harkness Wellness in Rogue River counsels clients across the country for conditions ranging from allergies and obesity to cancer and kidney failure. “Chemicals create a lot of our illnesses,” she says of synthetic additives widely used in processed foods.

For clients who know their health is failing, Harkness prescribes a monthlong regimen of no processed foods, no grains and no dairy. Any sweeteners must originate from natural foods, including coconuts, dates and even mashed and pureed fruits, such as bananas and applesauce. And she coaches clients to carefully read labels for anything they put in their bodies. “It’s in your medicine; it’s in your toothpaste,” she says of refined and synthetic sugars.

Sugar exists in nature in many forms. Common types are derived from tree sap and fruit pulp, from some grains and even floral nectar that bees masticate into honey. For all of cane sugar’s popularity, particularly as an alternative to high-fructose corn syrup, there are more than a dozen other, all-natural choices.

“I noticed a lot of people were asking for cane sugar-free stuff,” says Laura Gaudioso, whose Bright Star Bakery in Talent specializes in vegan and gluten-free treats, as well as goods suitable for paleo and keto dieters.

Years of recipe development, before Gaudioso’s 2018 arrival in Southern Oregon, yielded cookies, muffins, granola and scones for sale at local farmers markets and independent grocers. Bright Star’s wildly popular sweet potato brownies are enhanced only with applesauce and dates, says Gaudioso. “It’s just all whole food.”

Gaudioso and Harkness agree that fruits are chock-full of sweetening potential for people who can digest fructose. Gaudioso makes her own date syrup by boiling down the water she uses to soak dates for rehydrating and incorporating into baked goods. She also favors maple syrup over agave syrup, which is highly refined, and honey, whose flavor overpowers other ingredients. Occasionally, she uses molasses.

Coconut sugar, say Gaudioso and Harkness, is the easiest substitute — in equal quantity — for cane sugar. For low-carbohydrate recipes that don’t elevate blood sugar, both women cite monk fruit powder, which is most commonly packaged in a blend with the sugar alcohol erythritol for baking. Unlike stevia, also recommended for its low glycemic index, monk fruit doesn’t have a distinctive aftertaste.

“It works well for diabetics,” says Harkness. “It’s a good alternative for people who know they have to get healthier.”

Sweet Potato Brownie (Sweetener: Dates and Applesauce)

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More to Explore

Try these sweet alternatives to cane sugar

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Agave nectar: Produced from the juice of the core of the agave, a plant native to Mexico, it contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium, but has a higher calorie count than sugar (60 calories per tablespoon versus 46 calories per tablespoon, respectively). It remains controversial in nutrition circles for its high fructose content — much higher than high-fructose corn syrup, linked to weight gain, high triglycerides, heart disease and insulin resistance. Claims of low glycemic index because of agave’s low glucose content still are being evaluated.

Brown rice syrup: Combined with sprouted rice or barley, cooked brown rice yields this sweet liquid that contains about 13 calories per teaspoon and is less sweet than sugar. The syrup breaks down relatively slowly, providing more of a time-release energy flow than sugar does and contains some magnesium, manganese and zinc.

Coconut sugar: Made from coconut palm sap, this sugar is high in potassium, iron, antioxidants and calcium. (This is not “palm sugar,” which is from a different type of palm tree.) Coconut sugar has a low-glycemic index and also is considered a raw food. It can be substituted in the same quantity for cane sugar.

Date sugar: This sweetener is an extract of dried dates. It contains some essential minerals such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and selenium. You can also find or make date syrup.

Maple syrup: From the sap of maple trees, it is filtered and boiled down to an extremely sweet syrup that contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals (like manganese and zinc) than honey. “Maple-flavored,” imitation syrups are primarily made of high-fructose corn syrup, sugar and/or artificial sweeteners.

Monk fruit: Also known as Lo Han or Swingle, this small, round fruit native to southern China has zero calories. In Eastern medicine, the monk fruit is used as a cold and digestive aid and is 150-200 times sweeter than sugar.

Stevia: Made from the leaves of stevia plants, related to sunflowers, it has zero calories and zero carbohydrates. Some people do not like the aftertaste of stevia, which is more than 200 times as sweet as sugar, so use it sparingly. The American Diabetes Association includes Stevia as one of the top sugar substitutes recommended for people following a ketogenic diet.

 

Photo: Pumpkin Pies (Sweetener: Crust: Coconut Sugar, Filling: Maple Syrup)

No cane sugar treats

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Photo: Chocolate Almond Chip Keto Cookie (Sweetener: Monk fruit and eryithrol)

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