Now that summertime is here, it’s tempting to reach for cool and refreshing treats such as ice cream, smoothies, and frozen yogurt. It’s also the most popular time of year for cookouts and picnics, which typically involve bringing a refreshing drink to cool off the crowd or a sweet dessert to finish off the meal! If you are looking for a healthier alternative, try natural sugars that offer nutritional benefits not found in white sugar. Natural sweeteners are not necessarily lower in calories than sugar when compared ounce-by-ounce, but they can often be used to reduce the overall amount of sugar in a recipe or dish. Remember, though, as far as your body is concerned, a sugar is still a sugar regardless of the source.
Agave is a natural plant-derived sweetener that can be found in the form of a syrup or nectar, with a taste similar to honey. Nutritionally, agave is slightly more caloric than sugar, weighing in at 60 calories per tablespoon versus 48 calories per tablespoon of sugar. However, agave is 1.5 times sweeter than regular sugar, so you can use less of it to achieve the same level of sweetness. Another benefit of using agave is that it has a lower glycemic index than other sweeteners such as honey, sugar, and maple syrup; therefore, it raises your blood sugar at a slower rate, which can help stave off hunger.
Maple syrup is another plant-derived sweetener with nutritional benefits. It rings in at 52 calories per tablespoon, but these calories are not empty ones! Maple syrup is a mineral powerhouse, providing iron, calcium, zinc, and manganese, as well as over 50 antioxidants. However, make sure to purchase maple syrup in the pure form without any artificial ingredients.
Stevia is virtually a calorie-free natural sweetener derived from the Stevia plant, which is native to South America. It can be found in the form of a powder or extract, at zero calories per tablespoon. Using stevia as a sweetener is beneficial because it has a negligible effect on blood sugar and can be used in very small amounts, as it is up to 300 times sweeter than regular sugar.
Fruits are another great source of natural sugar that can be used to sweeten foods such as smoothies, oatmeal, cereal, and yogurt, or used in recipes for breads and other baked goods. Pureed bananas, applesauce, pureed dates or berries can be used to replace some of the sugar in recipes, while increasing the content of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Fresh squeezed citrus juices can be added to water to add natural sweetness and extra flavor.
Spices and extracts are low-calorie natural sweeteners that greatly enhance recipes in small amounts. Cinnamon is high in antioxidants and has been shown to reduce inflammation, blood sugar, and blood triglycerides. Nutmeg can help prevent cavities and provide anti-inflammatory compounds while vanilla and almond extracts are tasty additions to sweeten many recipes as well.
Whether you are using regular sugar or one of the natural sweeteners listed above, it is important to use moderation with all types of sugars. With some experimentation and maybe even a little trial and error, you can find a natural sweetener that can be used instead of regular sugar to add sweetness and increase nutritional value to your favorite foods and recipes.
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