A Sugar by Any Other Name Would Taste as Sweet

Sugar is enjoying a resurgence in popularity after years of being vilified for empty calories and its role in things like tooth decay, obesity and diabetes. As the negative effects of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) have become better known, sugar's profile has risen. Cane sugar, as opposed to cheaper beet sugar, has especially benefited from HFCS's bad press; it is actually being touted as a healthful ingredient. Yet cane and beet sugars are highly processed, refined and provide no nutritional value. Other, less refined, sweeteners have some benefits that sugar doesn't. Yet nearly all of them raise blood sugar, and have little nutritive value. So why bother?

We're hard-wired to crave things that are sweet. If we deny that for any amount of time, we're more likely to binge, rather than trying for some sort of moderation. After I wrote an article on eating gluten free that included a  brownie recipe, a few people commented they would have preferred something with unrefined sugar. I have a few as staples in my pantry: brown rice syrup (which I substitute in recipes for corn syrup), honey, maple syrup, and molasses. But I've seen many more on my grocery co-op's shelves, on ingredient lists, and in restaurant menus. I decided to do a little research on less refined sweeteners for baked goods that are more simple, good and tasty.

First, some terminology, since sugar can refer to most sweeteners, in this article. I'll use “table sugar” to mean processed, refined sugar (from beets or sugarcane) with the molasses taken out. This includes brown sugar, light or dark, which is table sugar with molasses added back in.

“Raw” sugar products are less refined and less processed, and are not really raw: juice from crushed cane is heated, then dried and broken up. If no molasses is removed, the result depends on the process used, and includes muscovado, Sucanat (a contraction of Sugar Cane Natural) and Rapadura. The latter two are brand names. All these are coarse, dark with molasses and have more moisture than regular sugar. Turbinado sugar, (one brand is Sugar in the Raw) is processed like white sugar except for the final molasses extraction, so it is light brown. Because some or all of the molasses is still in the sugars, these have more nutrients than table sugar.

I'll use “natural sweeteners” to refer to those other than table, brown and raw sugars. “Natural” is a disputed term, since most sweeteners are processed in some way; only raw honey is as it's found in nature. I'll use natural, though, as the opposite of human-made chemical sweeteners like aspartame and saccharine. Different natural sweeteners have some advantages over table sugar. They can't always be substituted one for one in recipes, but each does have some unique properties that can make it slightly more beneficial nutritionally than sugar, and particularly suited to certain uses.

Agave nectar is distilled from the blue agave cactus plant, which also produces tequila. Agave syrup or nectar is native to Mexico. With about 90 percent fructose, it is sweeter than sugar, and has more concentrated fructose than HFCS. Proponents claim it has a lower glycemic load and index than sucrose. It dissolves easily in liquids, making it a good choice in drinks, smoothies, or other recipes that use a simple syrup. Wholesome Sweeteners has an organic, Fair Trade certified Raw Blue Agave nectar they say is prepared at low temperatures and “mildly filtered".

Barley malt and brown rice syrups are sometimes processed together. Malt comes from sprouted then soaked barley that is cooked down to a syrup. It is about 75 percent maltose, which is less sweet than fructose, glucose and sucrose. Brown rice syrup comes from cooked, cultured rice; it is about 50 percent maltose. It has a distinct taste that some find unpleasant. Barley malt is used to make beer and bread. Because of their dark color and mild sweetness, barley malt and brown rice syrups are used like molasses -- in barbecue sauces, gingerbread, muffins, and other moist, dense baked goods. Eden makes a USA grown, organic barley malt syrup with only barley. Lundberg Farms makes an organic brown rice syrup and uses sustainable farming practices

Coconut sugar, sometimes called "palm sugar," is made from the liquid of flowers from the coconut palm tree and then boiled down. Native to the tropics and popular in Asian cuisines, it is similar in taste and appearance to brown sugar and higher in nutrients than other sweeteners. Many online sites state that the Food and Agriculture Organization of either the World Bank or the United Nations declared coconut sugar the most sustainable sweetener in the world. I could not, however, find an original source for this claim.

Date sugar is made from dried, ground dates. It is very sweet, but doesn't dissolve in liquid and burns easily, so it's more suitable for sprinkling on finished items. Several organic date sugars are available commercially.

Honey is the sweetest of the natural sweeteners. It has a distinct flavor that many enjoy, and adds moisture to baked goods. Honey is one of the few natural sweeteners local to Minnesota. While there are many Minnesotan honey producers, Ames Farm produces single-source raw honey, using hives near particular flowers and trees. This is different from commercial honeys, which are a blend from multiple sources, and tend to be labeled “clover” if light, and “wildflower” if dark. Beware labels on honey claiming “organic” “USDA Grade A” or “100% Pure.” There are no government certifications or grading of honey. Since bees have a wide foraging range, there's no way to ensure they're not exposed to pesticides and chemicals. Bee farmers like Ames, though, limit exposure by using specific sites for specific honey and not treating the bees with antibiotics, a common practice in commercial beekeeping.

Maple syrup is not as sweet as table sugar. It has a faint taste, and adds moisture, so it's very good for spice breads, muffins and denser cakes. Along with honey, maple syrup is a natural sweetener local to Minnesota. Wild Country Maple Syrup has won a number of awards for its organic, sustainable-forested syrup. (And I would be remiss not to mention Sapsucker maple syrup from Simple, Good and Tasty contributor Debbie Morrison's Sapsucker Farms.) This article from The New York Times questions the difference between organic and regular maple syrup. But producers maintain that by not using pesticides on the trees, by not using chemicals in the boiling process or on the equipment, and by sustainable farming and not over-tapping the trees, there is a significant benefit to the consumer and the earth.

Molasses has a strong flavor and will darken baked goods. It is a byproduct of sugar processed from cane or beets. Choose unsulphured for a less refined product and black strap for small amounts of nutrients like iron and calcium. It's best when combined with other sweeteners so its flavor doesn't overwhelm.

Stevia is not a sugar. It's an extract from the Stevia plant, and about 300 times as sweet as sugar; but it has no calories. It has a faint aftertaste and does not raise blood sugar. It was recently approved for use by the FDA, and is in products such as Truvia and Purevia. There is not yet any conclusive research on its safety or side effects. Because it's not a sugar, it does not react the same way in cooking and baking. It's good for sweetening drinks.

These are some of the most popular sweeteners available now. As I researched this, I found many conflicting reports, misinformation and misleading marketing. It's important to remember, just because HFCS is a villain doesn't make table sugars or natural sweeteners heroes. To the body, sugar is sugar. The calories are largely empty, and consuming too many leads to obesity, diabetes, and more. Yes, some natural sweeteners are better for the body or the earth than others, but as in all things, moderation is the key. Sharing baked goods is a good way to practice that, so here are three recipes that use natural sweeteners in ways that play to their strengths.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Maple Rhubarb Muffins, makes 12

 2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon. salt

6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 cup maple syrup

2 large eggs

¾ cup plain yogurt

1 cup finely chopped rhubarb stems

Preheat over to 375 F. Butter or oil 12-muffin tin.

Combine flour, powder, soda and salt in medium bowl. Cream butter on medium speed for a minute or two. Scrape bowl and add maple syrup. Mix briefly, then scrape down bowl.

Add eggs, one a time, and blend well; mixture may still be lumpy. Mix in half of dry ingredients. Mix in ¼ cup of yogurt. Mix in half of remaining dry ingredients, then ¼ cup of yogurt. Mix the rest of the dry ingredients then last ¼ cup yogurt.

Fold in rhubarb. Fill muffin tins about ¾ full. Bake until light brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool in pan five minutes. Remove and serve warm or let cool completely on wire rack.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Spiced Chocolate Honey Biscotti, makes 24 to 36

(Because of the honey, these are not as dry as traditional biscotti, but still delicious for dunking.)

1½ cups whole wheat pastry flour

1½ cups white whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

¼ teaspoon cardamom

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 Tablespoons butter, softened

¾ cup honey

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

½ cup naturally sweetened chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 F. Combine first seven ingredients in medium bowl. Cream butter for a minute or two. Add honey, scrape down bowl. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each; mixture may still be lumpy. Mix in dry ingredients.

Stir in oats and chips by hand. Divide dough in two. With floured hands, shape each half into a log on greased cookie sheet, about 9” x 4” by 1”. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown on top.

Lower oven temp. to 300 F. Let logs cool at least five minutes. Using a dough scraper, cut into 3/8 to ½ inch slices and place on sides. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, turning over half way through, until cookies are crisp throughout. Let cool thoroughly on wire rack. These improve with time, and can be stored for up to a month.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Kitchen Sink Snack Bars, makes 12 to 16

2 cups crisp brown rice cereal

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1 cup dried cherries

½ cup naturally sweetened chocolate chips

1 cup dried pepitas

¼ cup wheat germ

2 Tablespoons ground flax seed

½ teaspoon sea salt

1¼ cups brown rice syrup

½ cup honey

1 teaspoon vanilla

Grease 9” x 13” pan. Combine cereal through sea salt in large bowl. Place syrup, honey and vanilla in small saucepan. Stir over medium until combined and beginning to boil. Pour over dry ingredients, mix with spatula or wooden spoon. Press into prepared pan; can use wax paper to minimize mess. Let cool completely, then cut and serve or store.

I call these Kitchen Sink, because I use whatever is in my pantry. Experiment! Maple syrup instead of honey, plus nuts, seeds, oat bran, and different dried fruits all work well.

Kristin J. Boldon lives in Northeast Minneapolis with her husband and two sons. She grew up in Central Ohio, but moved to Minnesota in 1998 from the east coast. (We're glad she stayed!) Kristin has a B.S. in Business from Georgetown University and an M.A. in Religion from Temple. In her so-called spare time, she cooks, bakes, practices yoga, reads, and writes for the Eastside Food Cooperative's newsletter on health and wellness, and for her own blog Girl Detective. Her last post for Simple Good and Tasty was Finding Space in an Unlikely Place: Minnesota's First Rooftop Farm.