By Benjamin Goodin
The science of sugar can be overwhelming. Delve too far in, and you’ll be treading into complex chemical and biological reactions — frontiers in health and metabolism that aren’t fully mapped yet. With evident links to obesity, heart disease, and liver disease, we look to the chemistry of sugar to definitively answer the question, “is sugar bad for us,” and “do artificial sweeteners harm us?” The answer to both is “not really,” but there are many querulous exceptions to that ruling. Mostly, it’s the amount and type of sugars we take in that pose the real risk.
Because of the sweet, alluring taste of sugars, it’s tempting to overindulge, but it is especially easy to take in more than intended when eating prepared or processed foods. To increase appeal, many prepackaged and restaurant foods come with a surprising amount of added sugar. Given the powerful combination of convenience and bright tastes, it’s possible to take in far more sugar than you intend and certainly more than is healthy — to the tune of an average 90 grams of sugar per day for Americans in 2016, as compared to the recommended maximum of 25 grams for women and 37 for men. For those that like to think in the long term, that’s roughly 77 pounds of sugar a year, compared to a maximum recommended 20 to 31 pounds.
As the long-term effects and health impacts of novel and artificial sweeteners are not yet well understood, the current preference is for natural, whole sweeteners that have well-documented effects. That being said, too much sugar is always a bad thing; even natural sweeteners and naturally sweet foods can cause blood sugar spikes and an undesired influx of extra calories if not well managed.
It’s an often-sung reprise, but the best way to monitor and control any substance in your diet is to do the cooking yourself. Behind the curtain in restaurant and factory kitchens, much is done to win the affection of your taste buds, but loyalty often comes at the price of health. This is especially true in the case of the phantom added sugars. Of course, if your aim is to reduce your sugar intake or even to improve the nutritional balance of the sugars you take in, the best thing you can do is improve your understanding of the options available to you. Below are some of the common sweeteners available for use in your kitchen and your quest to fill yourself with nutrition, rather than 47 to 58 added pounds of sugar.
Applesauce is a surprisingly good substitute for white sugar suitable for baked goods at about one-seventh the calories. On a one-for-one basis, unsweetened applesauce can be exchanged for super-moist cookies and quick loaves. Reducing added liquids to the recipe by one-fourth will help the ingredients to stay formed together. Applesauce can even work overtime as a butter or oil substitute with the same exchange rate as sugar.
Banana purée or mashed bananas can create a mellow sweetness for baking that, like applesauce, is best for quick breads and cookie recipes. The flavor of the overripe fruit can complicate taste a bit, so be sure to use it in recipes where it will add some nuance or balance, like oat-based breads and cookies. Bananas are dense, even as a paste, so option out if height and fluff are what you desire. Exchanging an even cup of banana will not only give a hefty kick of potassium, but it would reduce calories by almost 600 as well.
Coconut Sugar isn’t made from the coconut fruit but from the refined sap of the coconut palm tree. It packs in trace nutrients and a lower glycemic index than sugar (GI of 35 compared to 65), but has about the same amount of calories. For all purposes, it looks, functions, and tastes very similar to brown sugar, so it is great for denser baked goods, meat rubs, and barbeque.
Date sugar is made from whole, unrefined dates, including the fiber-rich pit. The fruit is first dehydrated then ground to make this coarse sugar. Date sugar comes with all of the nutritional benefits of dates, which includes a bevy of B vitamins, potassium, antioxidants, and magnesium. It has a buttery, caramel-like finish and is an apt stand-in for brown sugar. Beware, though, if true caramelization is your goal, know that date sugar doesn’t fully melt at high temperatures.
Honey has been a sweetener for centuries, but it occupies an uncertain position as a sugar alternative. It has nearly the same glycemic index and calorie count of sugar, and it behaves in a very similar manner when baked. The results using honey are a bit more dense and moist than table sugar, but it dissolves evenly in hot liquids. The reason why many turn to honey over sugar is that honey manages to pack in much more nutrition. Eating honey gives an antioxidant boost, reduces inflammation, and lowers HDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Despite similarities to sugar, it is less harmful to your metabolism and blood sugar at a glycemic index of 50, but it is still a concentrated sugar that should be used in moderation.
Pure maple syrup is the reduced sap of the prevalent maple tree and is rich in antioxidants, and it manages to pack zinc, iron, and manganese in for an extra nutritional boost. It ranks lower than sugar on the glycemic index at 54 and has about three more calories per serving (1 tbsp at 52). The rich flavor of maple syrup is iconic, which could be a boon or a bane depending on what you’re using it to make, but it is fitting for sweets like hard candies. Otherwise, maple syrup reacts to temperature and liquid in a very similar manner to table sugar, so it is easy to do an even exchange for this minimally processed syrup.
Molasses is the secret ingredient for many grandmothers’ traditional kitchens. Molasses comes from sugarcane and beetroot, but is the less-refined byproduct of the same process that produces refined white sugar. As a result, molasses is thick, dark, and contains a truckload of antioxidants that don’t make it into white sugar. It’s full of calcium and potassium as well as iron, selenium, and B6 vitamins, yet only ranks at 55 on the glycemic index. Blackstrap is by far the richest and most nutrient-dense among the various shades of molasses. It has a slightly bitter, highly sweet, and darkly complex flavor profile, which means a little bit goes a long way. Molasses makes fast friends with dark breads, gingerbread, and grains, and it brings out the best sticky sweetness in savory pork, barbeque, and baked beans.
Monkfruit is a relative newcomer to the sugar substitute scene. A melon from regions in Southeast Asia, the monkfruit, or luo han guo, is dried and refined to create an almost zero-calorie sweetener that looks a bit like fine sand. The sweetener generally operates on a one-to-one exchange with table sugar, unless you are baking, then a half sugar, half monkfruit blend is suggested. It takes less monkfruit to sweeten up a beverage or as recipe finisher, considering that concentrations of the fruit run from 150 to 200 times the sweetness of sugar. It contains a number of antioxidants, and the sweet flavor comes from mogrosides, which digest differently than fructose and sucrose and are not associated with weight gain or liver damage. That being said, there isn’t research done yet to see if this very promising substitute has any long-term side effects. Monkfruit is often used in sugar blends to improve the flavor, so be sure to read the packaging and opt for the purest formulations possible.