I think one of the biggest changes one can make when switching to a diet of whole, unprocessed foods is to throw out the refined sugar and begin using natural sweeteners.
First off, why use a natural sweetener? Basically, natural sweeteners - although still sugar and to be used in moderation - actually contain nutrients and minerals that are beneficial to the body. This is because they are whole and unrefined, thus leaving their nutrition intact. Refined sugars, on the other hand, deplete the body of necessary nutrients (like B vitamins, which leads to depression and premenstrual symptoms), promotes Candida overgrowth, bone loss, and tooth decay! Refined sugars also lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease because they raise blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol.
What about the cost? Yes, natural sweeteners do cost more than refined sweeteners. The good news is that these sweeteners are becoming more and more readily available. I recommend watching the store for sales or buying in bulk through co-ops like Azure Standard. Ultimately, the cost difference is worth it for better health. Keep in mind that the goal is to reduce sugar intake overall, so these natural sugars will ideally last a long time in your kitchen.
Here is a brief look at some of my favorite natural sweeteners to use in the kitchen (keep in mind that this list is not all inclusive, these are just the sweeteners I use most frequently):
Raw honey (that which has not been heated over 117 degrees) is an amazing natural sweetener. It is loaded with amylase which is an enzyme that digests carbohydrates and nutrients. What makes honey especially beneficial for your health is the fact that it is very rich in antioxidants, which help to boost your immune system. It is also a natural cure for sore throats, wounds, and seasonal allergies. It aids the body in ridding itself of harmful free radicals and is great for individuals with diabetes and high cholesterol.
My favorite raw honey remedy: Mix raw honey with lots of cinnamon. Keep it on the counter and eat a small spoonful when you feel like you're getting sick. The antibacterial nature of the honey and cinnamon will help fight off the illness. This works and my son loves it!
For baking: 1/2 cup honey = 1 cup sugar. Reduce liquid in recipe by 1/4 cup. Reduce heat by about 25 degrees to prevent over browning.
(A note: To keep costs down, I do purchase pasteurized honey with no fillers. I use this in baking or when I know the honey will be heated and the valuable enzymes will be destroyed. Raw honey is still preferable, but it is more frugal to bake with pasteurized honey).
Sucanat stands for Sugar Cane Natural. It is sugar in it's most natural form - pure cane juice with only the water removed. Because of the way it is processed, all of the vitamin-filled molasses is preserved. Sucanat is grown organically and has no preservatives or additives.
Sucanat can be used to replace white and brown sugar in baking and adds a wonderful molasses flavor (although it is a strong flavor and may take some getting used to). Sucanat, unlike white sugar, contains iron, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin B6, potassium, and chromium. Another sugar, Rapadura, is very similar to Sucanat.
Maple syrup has been around for a long time, first being collected by Native Americans, then by European settlers and Canadians. And no, this is not your Aunt Jamima maple syrup! Pure maple syrup is extracted from maple trees.
In the United States, maple syrup is categorized into two grades: Grade A and Grade B. Grade A is broken down into three sub-grades: Light Amber (or Fancy), Medium Amber, and Dark Amber. Grade B is darker than Grade A Dark Amber. Typically Grade A has a lighter flavor than Grade B. Maple syrup is primarily sucrose and water, with only small amounts of other sugars such as fructose and glucose. It contains mostly potassium and calcium, but also has significant amounts of zinc and manganese. Maple syrup also contains trace amounts of amino acids. Compared to honey, maple syrup has 15 times more calcium and 1/10 as much sodium.
We love to drizzle maple syrup over our morning's hot cereal, pour a small amount onto pancakes or waffles, or flavor plain yogurt. We choose to buy Grade B maple syrup because it has a higher mineral content than Grade A (although, if you are looking at prices, Grade A is typically less expensive).
For baking: about 3/4 cup maple syrup = 1 cup sugar. Reduce liquid by about 3 tablespoons for every cup of maple syrup substituted.
Coconut sugar is produced from the sap of cut flower buds of coconuts. It has been used as a traditional sweetener for thousands of years in the South East Asian regions. It is also called Palm sugar, coco sugar, coconut palm sugar, or coco sap sugar. Coconut sugar and palm sugar are used interchangeably but they differ because palm sugar comes from the Palmyra tree and coconut sugar comes from coconut palm.
Coconut sugar has a low glycemic index, which means that it does not spike blood sugar levels - this is a great sugar for diabetics or anyone concerned about spiking blood sugar. It can be used as a 1:1 sugar substitute for white or brown sugar. Since it is a darker sugar, it will produce a darker baked good. The taste is very mild however, so it will be sweet like white sugar without a molasses flavor like Sucanat.
Coconut sugar has a high mineral content. It is a rich source of potassium, magnesium, zinc, and iron. In addition to these minerals, it also contains Vitamin B1, B2, B3, and B6. When comparing it to brown sugar, coconut sugar has twice the iron, four times the magnesium, and over 10 times the amount of zinc. Coconut sugar also contains amino acids - the highest of which is Glutamine. It is known to be essential in states of illness or injury and can be very helpful in healing things like a leaky gut.
Coconut sugar is one of my very favorite sweeteners to use because of its mild taste, low glycemic index, and high nutritional content.
Stevia is an herb in the sunflower family that is native to subtropical and tropical regions from western North America to South America. Stevia leaves are harvested and used as a sweetener. Stevia has up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar and has garnered much attention because it has a negligible effect on blood sugar levels and does not contain any calories.
My favorite stevia brand is Sweet Leaf because it does not have a noticeable aftertaste. It is also free of chemicals, additives, and alcohol. Some brands do have a noticeable aftertaste, which may be repulsive to some. Beware of stevia substitutes like Truvia because those are not pure stevia. Stevia comes in a powdered form and in a tincture form. I have not used powdered but if I did, I would look for a green powder because that means it is less processed.
My favorite way to use stevia is to sweeten our green smoothies, plain yogurt, homemade lemonade (2 quarts water, 1 cup lemon juice, and stevia to taste), or even oatmeal. I have not tried it in baking unless a recipe is designed for its use because it is not a 1:1 replacement for sugar.
Organic Sugar/Powdered Sugar
I typically use a traditional, unrefined sweetener in most of my baking but there are times when I need to use something that is more refined because of taste preferences or convenience. In those times, I reach for Organic Sugar (organic evaporated cane juice) or Organic Powdered Sugar. These sugars look almost identical to their refined counterparts but have a slightly off-white tint. These sugars are made from the sugar cane but do not go through as much processing as white sugar. Because of this, some of the nutrients are retained.
I use organic powdered sugar whenever I am making frosting. It has a nice smooth texture, mild taste, and is white in color. For those worrying about a corn allergy or wanting to avoid GMO corn, organic powdered sugar is the way to go because instead of containing corn starch, it contains tapioca starch. I use organic evaporated cane juice on occasion to sweeten homemade popcorn. Since these sugars are still refined (but less refined than white), I use these very sparingly in my kitchen.
I just have to end by saying that this post made me really excited! Did you see all those vitamins and minerals I listed? This is not permission to go hog-wild and eat all the sugar you want, for sugar is still sugar refined or not, but isn't it nice to know that when you do want to eat a dessert you can actually use a sweetener (and other ingredients) that are wholesome for your body and actually contribute to your well being, rather than deplete and diminish your health? I find that really exciting!
What is your favorite natural sweetener?