Growing up in Mississippi, we didn’t get to see much snow — maybe once every 3 or so years, we’d get a dusting thicker than an inch, and those times were met with exuberance (everything would shut down, including school). Many an emaciated snowman was built by scraping every last bit of snow off half a lawn, leaving the man not only skinny, but quite disheveled, his icy flesh filled with grass, dirt and leaves.
I remember when I was about 6, my younger sister (then 3) saw her first snow. She looked out the window at the world of white, and said observantly, “Someone spilt the sugar bowl.”
So today, as I look out on Indianapolis’s first snow of the season, and it’s not unlike those old snows of Mississippi — not all that pretty or thick — I find it an appropriate time to continue my series on sugar. Today’s is a fun day, because I get to talk about ways to use it (as opposed to the rather apocalyptic ways I’ve been describing it).
Today, a lineup of sorts. We’ll start with with the least refined sweeteners available, the ones we should try to reach for as much as possible when sweet is in order. It is important to note that, just because a sweetener is on this list, it doesn’t mean we can consume it without limits. Some of these sweeteners can throw off our blood sugar just like white sugar. But the reason we use them is that they often come with natural enzymes (aid in digestion), minerals and other valuable trace nutrients, and can have a lesser negative effect on the body’s blood chemistry. Even good things in moderation, right?
I use honey in our homemade granola, in breads, to sweeten tea, yogurt, and toast. When honey is truly raw, it has not been heated over 117º, which means that valuable enzymes and pollens have not been destroyed. What does this mean for your body? The enzymes help your body digest grains and the plant pollen helps defend your body against seasonal allergies. The best way to ensure that your honey is raw is to find a local source and ask them how it’s heated. The closer to home your source, the more likely your honey will contain the pollens you need for allergy relief. I buy a gallon of local raw honey at our farmer’s market for $35, and it lasts me about 3-4 months.
- If your honey crystallizes, simply put it in a glass jar and set it in a pan of simmering water. Stir until crystals dissolve. You can do this repeatedly, which is helpful when buying in bulk. (*** update: don’t try this if your kitchen is very cold, and therefore the crystallized honey is also cold. You’ll end up with two or more cracked ball jars before you figure out something in this setup is dreadfully wrong. I did this multiple times in the fall with no problem, but in the dead of winter it just won’t work.)
- Also, you’ve heard this before, and it’s true: never feed raw honey to an infant, as their bodies cannot yet deal with bacteria spores that bigger bodies can handle easily.
- Using honey in baking can be tricky, since it can throw off the wetness ratio. In your favorite recipes, try substituting small amounts and adjusting flour if necessary.
- Honey in the grocery store can be labeled as “pure honey” and still be adulterated with chemical sweeteners. The law only requires that honey be somewhere in the jar to be labeled “pure.” Nice work, FDA.
Maple syrup is loaded with trace minerals and amazing flavor. I would use copious amounts of it in my baked goods were it not so expensive. Because of this, we usually reserve it for topping pancakes and waffles, sweetening yogurt, and other applications where the flavor can shine in small amounts.
- Like honey, it is best to find a reputable source, as most grocery store brands can have loads of other stuff. We are fortunate to have access to Indiana maple syrup — but before that we purchased ours from Trader Joe’s (here’s hoping theirs is real and unadulterated).
- Since we tend to be cult-like followers of any words spoken by Christopher Kimball, Tim and I began using Grade B maple syrup early in our marriage. We still prefer it, with its richer, earthier undertones.
- A dehydrated form of maple syrup, good for baking, is maple sugar.
While molasses is also rich in trace minerals (especially iron), and therefore brings good things along with its sweetness, I tend to not use it as often due to the intense flavor. A little goes a long way, so if used I only do so for a small portion of total sweetener.
Rapadura (or Sucanat)
This is dehydrated cane sugar, ground into a coarse powder; like the liquid sweeteners above, it maintains natural mineral content. It has a caramel color and flavor, making it closer in taste to brown sugar than white.
This is one of my favorite sweeteners for baking, since it can be used 1:1 to replace white sugar in many recipes. The main drawback is that, since it’s not as fine as white sugar, it doesn’t dissolve very well in liquids. This, combined with the unmistakable brown color, make it hard to use in all recipes. I, for instance, don’t use it when making ice creams (other than flavors where the dark color and stronger flavor won’t matter).
- There was a time of controversy when the Sucanat brand was using questionable practices in producing their dehydrated cane sugar. From what I’ve read, they’ve gone back to the good way of doing things, so their product is interchangeable with Rapadura (which is good, since I can more easily find Sucanat in bulk).
- If you’d like to use this sweetener but are annoyed by its coarseness, you can grind it into a finer powder using a spice mill, coffee grinder, or food processor.
Other good/safe sweeteners
This is a fantastic alternative to artificial sweeteners. It is a powder derived from an herb, and is a safe, natural way to sweeten things such as coffee and smoothies. Since you just use a pinch, it’s difficult to use in baked goods. It also has a slightly cloying aftertaste which I find distracting; but if you’ve been using Splenda, try it for a safe alternative (it can now be found in the health food section of most grocery stores).
- Date sugar, coconut sugar
I have yet to use these, but they are ever on my list of “to-try’s.” Date sugar is made from the dehydrated fruit, and coconut sugar from the dehydrated sap of coconut flowers. Coconut sugar is approved for diabetic use because of its lower glycemic index.
- Malted grain syrups
This is something you might frequently see listed as an ingredient in organic processed foods and snacks (most frequently as malted barley syrup). They are not high in mineral content, but contain very little fructose, which is considered unsafe in large amounts. These can be good options when corn syrup is called for in recipes.
The main drawbacks to all of these sweeteners is their availability and cost. You aren’t likely to find many of them (especially pure forms) at Super Walmart or Target. And if not buying in bulk, when you do find them they are often exorbitantly priced. I recommend trying them out a little at a time, to see which sweeteners you prefer. Then make larger purchases in bulk, even splitting a very large quantity with a friend to get a lower price.
As far as other widely-available “natural” sweeteners such as agave nectar, as well as that infamous Belle of the Corn-belt, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), well, those are the bad and the ugly. And will be covered in the final, part 4, of this series (insert Debbie Downer sound effect).
Have I missed any? Have you found a favorite natural sweetener that’s not on my list?