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Dr Marcus Laux
Satisfy Your Sweet ToothPDFPrintE-mail

You and I know that refined sugar (sucrose) is bad for you on every level, and after finally weaning yourself off sugary sweets and snacks, the insulin surge that results from holiday indulgences can rekindle the old cravings you thought you’d beaten for good. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are strategies you can use in your holiday cooking to give you those genuine sweet treats without after-holiday sugar blues and regrets. One of those strategies is using sugar substitutes. Not artificial sweeteners with health issues of their own, but natural sweeteners that taste lovely and are actually rather good for you in moderation. The best ones provide real nutritional value: vitamins, minerals, even some fiber. To get the most benefit, though, you need to be able to choose the right sweetener for the use at hand.

Sugar Isn’t Just a Sweetener

  • It’s a flavor enhancer. When a recipe overdoes the sugar (which most do), the excessive sweetness overshadows the flavor of the other ingredients. Cut back on the sugar just enough, and you’ll highlight the taste of the pumpkin and spices in the pie.
  • It’s a browner. Without the sugar in a marshmallow, for example, you can roast it ’til the cows come home and it’ll never develop that golden color and caramel-like flavor; it’ll just incinerate. With heat, sugar adds golden highlights to meringue, and cookies, and the crust of a loaf of bread.
  • It’s structural. The scaffolding that makes cakes, cookies, breads, and brownies light or heavy, lofty or squat, cakey or chewy, depends on the proportion of sugar to the other ingredients.
  • It’s a moisturizer. Baked goods with too little sugar tend to be light and dry.
  • Try sugar subtraction first. That’s right, just cut the sugar in the recipe, by as much as half. (Cut a little at a time to find the right balance.) If you’re happy with the color, structure, and moisture but you prefer more sweetness, replace some or all of the sugar with one of the substitutions below. Where appropriate, sweetness can be enhanced by using top-quality fresh spices such as an honest vanilla extract, real cinnamon (rather than cassia, which is what most grocery store “cinnamon�? is), and freshly grated nutmeg (use a microplane grater). Another trick, if you’re not lactose-intolerant: Try replacing up to 1/4 of a recipe’s sugar with organic powdered milk. You’ll be surprised.

Ten Sweet Substitutions

Cooking is all about the chemical reactions between the ingredients, so some recipes will tolerate lots of sugar meddling; others will be more sensitive. Make a list of your favorite holiday recipes, and start experimenting with sugar subtraction and substitution. Above all this holiday season, enjoy, even indulge yourself in goodness! Which one of these you’ll want to use depends on your personal taste and the intended use. (See below for some guidance.)

  • Honey. A truly natural sugar source, as long as it’s unprocessed, or “raw.�? Truly unprocessed honey will be nearly opaque, and may still contain bits of the comb. If you can, buy honey locally, directly from the folks who own the bees. It’s chock full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants, and is about 25–50 percent sweeter than sugar. It also browns nicely.
  • Maple Syrup. Buy organic and USDA grade B (which is made from maple sap harvested later in the season, is darker, and has a stronger maple flavor—and even more nutrients). A good substitute for honey, because cooking is okay, and it contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of healthy minerals, especially manganese, potassium, and zinc. Indian sugar, a.k.a. maple sugar, is maple syrup that’s been dried by stirring over low heat. Both maple options are great on hot cereal, in apple pie, gingerbread, salad dressings—any dishes that can accommodate maple flavor. Combined with soy sauce and mustard, it makes a delicious marinade for salmon. It’s a family favorite!
  • Molasses. Healthful, rich in minerals, and with a thick, strong, dark flavor, molasses is a byproduct from the refining of sugar from sugarcane or sugar beets; it’s also known as sorghum or treacle syrup. Buy organic only; the unsulfured version tastes best. While molasses is still mostly sugars, it’s a solid nutritional performer, with calcium, potassium, magnesium, chromium, copper, iron, and more. Those holiday ginger cookies, pies, and yams love molasses— baked beans do, too.
  • Sucanat, Rapadura, and Muscovado sugars are different ethnic preparations of cane sugar, with all its molasses intact (where the nutrition is). They’re great substitutes for brown sugar, loaded with potassium, vitamin A, magnesium, chromium, zinc, and other nutrients. I love them all, with their unique flavor undertones. They bake and cook perfectly!
  • Turbinado Sugar is a partially refined extract of sugar cane, with about 2/3 of the natural molasses processed out. Turbinado looks like light brown sugar with extra-large crystals. It makes a decent substitute for beginners because its larger crystals take up more space in the measuring cup, and contain a bit more moisture than regular sugar. So, even if you measure the same amount, you’re actually getting about 1/5 less. You may already be familiar with the brand Sugar in the Raw, which is available in packets in local coffee shops everywhere.
  • Palm Sugar. Totally natural, made from the sap of various palm trees (sometimes labeled “coconut sugar�?). It comes in a gooey paste, small molded discs or blocks, or granules. It can be light brown, dark brown, or anything in between, because it’s a cottage industry product, not a consistent, factory-made item. Palm sugar is a lovely fragrant, flavorful sugar, with hints of toasted coconut and caramel deliciousness that’s not as sweet as cane sugar or as full of molasses flavor as dark muscovado, It works well with many recipes. You can grate it into a substitute for granulated sugar, or mix with a little boilingwater to make a versatile syrup sweetener for baking and cooking. It adds exquisite and delicate exotic flavors. Make sure you get 100 percent palm sugar, with no other added sweeteners.
  • Date Sugar. Make sure it’s unrefined—made from finely ground dried dates, period, so it’s got fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It’s almost twice as sweet as sucrose, so you’ll want to cut the recipe’s sugar at least in half. Good for things like banana bread, coffee cake, bread pudding, spice cakes, and ginger cookies that can handle fruity undertones.
  • Agave Nectar, extracted from the agave plant. About 50 percent sweeter than sucrose, but its glycemic index is about 40 percent lower, so you can use it as a syrup on whole wheat waffles or hot cereals and get less of an insulin reaction. Also good in tea. If you’re making a recipe that starts with creaming butter and white sugar, try replacing some or all of the sugar with the same amount of agave nectar, and add a little extra flour to the recipe to absorb the wetness.
  • Erythritol is from a family of sweeteners (polyols) naturally present in melons, pears, and grapes. It’s made commercially by fermenting sugar. Polyols definitely look and taste like sucrose, but don’t cause cavities, don’t cause an insulin reaction, and are almost calorie-free. The better known ones—sorbitol, maltitol, and xylitol—can have a drawback of GI discomforts and gas. But erythritol is different. When used in moderation, it has all the benefits of polyols, without GI upset. Its delicate, clean taste makes it a great substitute for white sugar.
  • Stevia. This herb, native to Paraguay, has been available in the US for decades, but the strong licorice and saccharine aftertaste turned many people off. Newer processing methods allow for the removal of the offending compounds, leaving a bright, clean taste that’s 300 times as sweet as table sugar—with zero calories, zero carbs, and a glycemic index of zero. Stevia is extremely heat-stable, meaning that you can cook with it, but a little goes a long way, so look for a recipe book to get some guidance. The herb is safe for all, including diabetics, and there’s no guilt, and no sugar blues rebound. Anything with molasses will have a stronger, more distinctive flavor that will add character to holiday favorites like pumpkins and other squashes. Maple syrup/sugar and many honeys also have distinctive tastes that tend to be a little lighter. For the brightest, cleanest taste closest to that of sugar, choose erythritol or stevia. For use in cold drinks, choose a crystal form. In hot drinks you can use crystals or syrups (including honey). For baking, crystals are the preferred form, because they provide bulk and structure as well as sweetness.

If you do use honey or a syrup, reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe. There’s a wonderful world of sweetness awaiting you, and you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying it with all these choices available to you



Br J Nutr. 2005;94:643–646.

Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007;61:349–354.

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004;89:2963–2972.


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Laboratory tests show that Krill Oil has 48x the antioxidant power of regular fish oil! Learn about the many anti-inflammatory benefits of this amazing omega-3. Read More...


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Healthy Tidbits

In this century, the world will have more people living into their 80s and 90s than ever before, with the number of people 80+ set to quadruple between 2000 and 2050.


Increased life expectancy is largely due to improvements in public health, and healthy ageing is linked directly to health in earlier stages of life.


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