Sugar Alternatives and Artificial Sweeteners

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Photo by Matthew T. Stallbaumer
An assortment of sugar alternatives: maple syrup, barley malt, naturally milled sugar, honey, date sugar, brown rice syrup, and molasses.

Health food stores offer a multitude of sugar alternatives. Although these sweeteners are natural, that doesn’t mean you should consume more. But many do offer a few health advantages, as well as more interesting flavors than refined table sugar.

Amasake: A delicate liquid sweetener made by inoculating cooked sweet rice with another fermented rice called koji. It can be used as a base for custards, puddings and drinks or to lend a mild sweetness and moist texture to baked goods.

Barley malt syrup: Whole grain barley is soaked and sprouted, activating enzymes that convert carbohydrates into sugars. The sprouted grain is then cured and processed into syrup, which contains some potassium. About the consistency of molasses, but much lighter in flavor, this rich brown sweetener works well in breads, cakes, muffins and barbecue sauces.

Brown rice syrup: Similar to barley malt syrup, but milder in flavor, rice syrup is made by fermenting cooked brown rice with sprouted barley grain. The enzymes in the sprouted barley convert rice starches into sugar. Rice syrup can be used interchangeably with honey.

Date sugar: A true fruit sugar, date sugar is nothing more than ground dried dates. The resulting powder contains small amounts of several vitamins and minerals.

Fruit juice concentrate: When it comes down to it, fruit juice concentrate is very similar in chemical composition to regular sugar — it’s mostly sucrose along with some fructose. Even though they’re just fruit, concentrates aren’t as good for you as fresh fruit because the sugars are intensified while the fiber is left behind.

Honey: By far the best known of the alternative sweeteners. Honey has antibacterial properties — in fact, it outperforms conventional antibiotics when used as a dressing to treat burns, and actually promotes healing. Versatile honey can be used in just about anything. Use one-half as much honey as you would sugar in a recipe.

Maple syrup: Made by boiling down the sap of maple trees, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Maple syrup contains several trace minerals and some calcium and iron. A longtime favorite for dressing waffles and pancakes, it’s also wonderful in baked goods.

Molasses: A byproduct of making sugar, molasses contains most of the nutrients that are spun out of cane juice as it’s refined into crystals. Rich in potassium, molasses also contains calcium, as well as some iron, magnesium and trace amounts of several other minerals.

Naturally milled sugar: Unlike white sugar which is refined several times and whitened, naturally milled sugars go through a single crystallization process that leaves some of the trace nutrients of the cane juice behind. Available organically, these full-flavored sugars, such as turbinado, are cream-colored to light brown in color, depending upon the amounts of molasses present.

Artificial Sweeteners

Saccharin, which is sold as Sweet’N Low, was developed in 1879. While it’s widely used in consumer products, high doses of saccharin were found to cause bladder cancer in lab animals, so the FDA requires all products containing saccharin to carry a warning label.

In 1981 aspartame became available, and is labeled as NutraSweet when added to foods, or Equal when it’s sold as a powder. While it doesn’t promote tooth decay, aspartame can’t be used for cooking since its sweetness is decreased by heat. High levels of the amino acid phenylalanine found in aspartame can cause brain damage in people with a genetic disease called phenylketonuria (PKU) and pregnant women with high levels of phenylalanine in the blood, so all products containing aspartame must include a warning label.

Sucralose, sold as Splenda, was approved for use by the FDA in 1998. While sucralose is a heat-tolerant option for baking, it’s made through a chemical process that adds chlorine atoms to sucrose.