I love desserts, and that's something I believe I have in common with the rest of humanity. However, for health reasons, I made a decision many years ago to steer clear of desserts made with refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and to cut down on my consumption of dairy products, so it was a fun and interesting challenge to create desserts that would keep me and my clients happy.

The following is a list of natural sugars that are less processed and are considered to be lower on the Glycemic Index than the simple sugars. Simple white sugar is pure sucrose, whereas many of these sugars are more complex in that they contain sucrose, glucose, fructose or maltose. They make a good substitution for sugar for making desserts and sweet treats. Obviously, if your health is compromised or if you're on a calorie-controlled diet, it's best to minimize sugars in the diet and to rely on fresh fruits and the sweeter vegetables to satisfy your sweet tooth.

When using liquid syrup to replace the sugar in a recipe, make sure to reduce the liquid used in the recipe by about 1/4 cup liquid to 1 cup syrup used.

  • Maple Syrup. Maple syrup is collected from the sap from the sugar maple tree. The sap is boiled to evaporate the water content and leaves an amber-colored syrup. Grade A maple syrup, which has three varieties—light, amber and dark—and is a higher-quality syrup with a mild flavor, is best used for drizzling on pancakes or waffles. Grade B syrup has a stronger flavor and is mostly used in cooking. Maple syrup is said to be high in calcium and other minerals such as manganese and zinc.
  • Agave Syrup. Agave syrup is extracted from the agave cactus and has become very popular recently as a sugar substitute. It is said to be low on the Glycemic Index and considered a safe sugar for diabetics. It is sweeter than sugar, so if using as a sugar substitute, you can use a little less. There has been some controversy over the integrity of claims made about the benefits of agave syrup recently, with some claiming it is a processed food and not a "whole food," and that it is heated to high temperatures in the manufacturing process. I believe there are companies who are producing a higher-quality "organic" product, and that in small quantities, it is a healthier option than using white sugar.
  • Rice Syrup. Rice syrup is made from cooked brown rice that has been inoculated with an enzyme that breaks down the starches. It is then boiled and concentrated to produce a syrup. It has a mild sweet flavor and is one of my favorite sweeteners to drizzle on desserts or use in making cookies and other baked goods. Rice malt is made using a different process than the enzymes and is actually best for baking, because the enzyme-treated syrup will tend to make the baked goods runny.
  • Barley malt. Barley malt is a dark-brown syrup, a little bit like molasses, that's extracted from sprouted barley. It has a strong, distinctive flavor and can be used alone or in combination with other sweeteners. It's about half as sweet as white sugar and is high in B vitamins, which are important for stress relief, and is also used to promote bowel regularity.
  • Honey. Honey is made from plant nectar extracted by bees with many varieties, depending on the plant it comes from. The best form of honey is organic raw honey, which has not been heat-treated. Honey is a simple sugar and is best avoided by people with blood sugar issues, but it has many health benefits: Raw honey has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties and is often recommended as a remedy to treat upper-respiratory problems, including cough and cold symptoms. It has also been shown to boost the immune system. Manuka honey is produced by bees that utilize the nectar of the flowers that grow on the Manuka plant (indigenous to New Zealand). Medical research and anecdotal reports indicate that active Manuka honey can be used for various health problems, including stomach-related conditions such as acid reflux, heartburn and stomach ulcers, as well as sore throats, gum disease and skin disorders. It helps to heal wounds when applied directly to the skin. Manuka honey is also a natural antibacterial agent that has absolutely no known side effects when used for medicinal purposes. It also will not conflict with medication a person may be taking to treat the condition.

    When substituting honey for sugar in baking, use about 1/2 to 3/4 cup honey in place of 1 cup of sugar and reduce the liquid used by about 1/4 cup. Honey also causes baked goods to brown more quickly, so reduce the temperature by 25 degrees—if it's starting to brown too much on top, you can cover loosely with foil.
  • Concentrated fruit juice. Concentrated fruit juice is made from pure fruit juice that has been simmered down to make a concentrate. The most popular concentrates used in making desserts are apple, pear or grape. When using in place of sugar, use about 3/4 cup concentrate to 1 cup of sugar and reduce the liquid by about 1/4 cup.
  • Stevia. Stevia is a South American herb that has been used by the Guarani Indians in Paraguay for centuries. Stevia is calorie-free, and the natural form is 20 to 30 times sweeter than sugar. The concentrate is up to 300 times sweeter than white sugar, so a little goes a long way! I personally have not had very much experience cooking with stevia, but it is the preferred sweetener of many, especially those on calorie-controlled diets. It comes as a liquid concentrate or as a white powder and can be used in place of sugar for making desserts. I don't particularly recommend it for baked goods. By the way, the stevia plant is high in antioxidants which help the body combat the damage from free radicals and is said to help with hypertension.

Baklava was always one of my favorite desserts, so I hope you enjoy my Heavenly Baklava recipe that I'm bringing you this week, made with coconut oil in place of the butter normally used, and sweetened with maple syrup rather than sugar.

Wishing you to have a healthy and sweet life!

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