Most of the white sugar here in Germany is produced from domestic sugar beets. The manufacturing process – which requires that the sugar be refined multiple times – removes all nutrients from the original product other than the energy content (400 kcal per 100 g). The lack of nutrients in processed white sugar means that it doesn’t fit in so well with Clean Eating.
Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative sweeteners out there: coconut blossom sugar, rice syrup, agave syrup, and more all promise a healthier way to add sweetness to your life. (By the way, a syrup is a viscous, concentrated sugar solution produced by boiling sugar-rich liquids, such as fruit juices or saps, until the water evaporates, leaving behind a sticky, sweet, fluid mass.) Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols are often lumped in with this group as well – so today, we’re going to take a closer look at all of the alternative sweeteners out there so you can make the best choice for yourself.
Sugar alternatives that I use:
- Kokosblütenzucker und Kokosblütensirup
- Reissirup / Reissüße
- Reife Bananen
Sugar alternatives that I no longer use:
- Zuckeraustauschstoffe / Zuckeralkohole (xylitol / birch sugar)
- Künstliche Süßstoffe (e.g. aspartame)
Sugar alternatives that I use:
Coconut blossom sugar* has quickly risen to stardom among alternative sweeteners. Although the crystallized juice of the coconut palm consists almost entirely of sucrose, which is what comprises white sugar, and contains just as many calories, it has a lower glycemic index (35) and thus does have the same drastic impact on blood sugar levels. (Coconut blossom syrup* is the thickened liquid version of the coconut palm sap.)
In contrast to white sugar, coconut blossom sugar also contains vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium, zinc, and potassium, as well as the fiber inulin. A further advantage of this alternative sweetener is that it can easily replace white sugar due to its similar consistency and can be used as a substitute in baking without needing many adjustments. It should be noted, however, that coconut blossom sugar is not quite as sweet as white sugar. And despite its name, coconut blossom sugar* does not taste like coconut – rather, it has a slightly malty, caramel-like flavor with a hint of vanilla.
Coconut blossom sugar was declared the most sustainable sugar in the world by the UN due to how it is produced – look for organic products with a fair trade symbol.
To produce rice syrup, the rice is ground, cooked, and then strained. The solids are discarded, and the liquid is cooked until it thickens into a syrup. Rice syrup is mainly used in Asian cuisine and has its own distinct flavor. It’s rich in minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and iron and gets its sweetness from maltose and dextrose. Since the body must convert these into simple sugars before they enter the bloodstream, rice syrup has only a minimal effect on blood sugar levels.
Rice syrup has a mild sweetness – it’s only about half as sweet as white sugar – and has a slightly nutty, malty flavor. Since rice syrup does not contain fructose, it is one of the few sugar alternatives suitable for people with fructose intolerance. When shopping, make sure that only rice and water are included in the list of ingredients, as some products are “cut” with white sugar. Powdered rice sweetener,* which is made from dried rice syrup, has a fine consistency that makes it a great alternative to powdered icing sugar.
Maple syrup, which is produced in Canada (primarily Quebec) and the U.S., is the boiled and thickened juice of the maple tree (sugar maple and red maple). In the spring, maple sap forms under the bark of the maple tree, which is then tapped so that the sap can be collected in buckets. Maple syrup is approximately 67% sugar – mainly sucrose, fructose, and glucose – and has a glycemic index of 55. It contains minerals such as potassium, iron, and magnesium. It is somewhat less sweet than white sugar, and has a distinct, somewhat caramel-like flavor. The lighter the color of the maple syrup, the more delicate the flavor; darker syrups are more robust. Be sure to read the list of ingredients when shopping – look for “pure” maple syrup (and never “pancake syrup,” which often contains no maple syrup at all)!
Honey is one of the oldest sweeteners – for at least 10,000 years, the delicacy been nourishing human beings around the world and for a long time, it was the only really sweet food that existed. Honey, which is produced by honey bees from flower nectar, consists of 80 percent pure sugar and contains fructose, glucose, sucrose, and maltose as well as oligosaccharides.
With honey, it is important to pay attention to quality – look for raw honey, which retains more of its original minerals since it is unheated. Cheap honey (e.g. from the supermarket) is often heated. Try to buy directly from beekeepers at farmers’ markets, since high-quality honey varieties can contain up to 245 natural components. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so you won’t need to use as much; it’s also rich in vitamins and minerals, is anti-inflammatory and helps heal wounds. It’s better not to use honey for baking, cooking, or hot tea – temperatures hotter than 40°C can reduce the honey’s beneficial qualities. Honey varieties with higher levels of glucose – such as forest honey and blossom honey – are thicker and gooier, whereas those with more fructose, like acacia honey, are more fluid.
Dried fruits like raisins, dates, plums, and figs are probably the healthiest alternatives to conventional white sugar. Dried fruit is the result of a drying process in which water is extracted from clean, ripe fruit, leaving behind a moisture content ranging from 18–25 percent.
Drying is usually carried out in special drying appliances or – in hot climates – in the open air under the sun. Due to its low moisture content, dried fruit has a particularly long shelf life and contains a high concentration of minerals and fructose. Since the color of the various types of fruit is often easily lost during the drying process, Sulphur is sometimes used to preserve the color; but those these fruits may look prettier, it’s better to eat the untreated, unsulfured versions.
Dried fruit can be used in many ways: on its own as a sweet snack or in combination with nuts to make energy balls. There are nearly infinite possibilities when it comes to making sweets and baked foods, but they also work in savory dishes as well: try them in Asian sauces, dip, and chutneys, as well as Middle Eastern dishes, bread, salads, and stir-fry.
Dried plums contain a number of vitamins and minerals, especially potassium, vitamin K, and B6. They are also a source of manganese and copper, which play an important role in protecting body cells against oxidative damage. Since dried plums are rich in fiber, they also help promote healthy digestion.
To make dried plum purée, soak 500 g dried plums overnight in 200 ml of water and blend the next day. Stored in the fridge in an airtight container, the dried plum purée will stay fresh for up to four weeks.
Dates, a botanical berry sourced from the date palm, are a staple food among desert nomads and have been cultivated for over 5000 years in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Dates are most commonly available in dried form, but they are also sold fresh and frozen. They have an intense, caramel-like flavor. With their natural sugar content of 60–70%, they are a source of quick energy and can be enjoyed in moderation as a healthy alternative to candy and white sugar. Dates contain minerals such as magnesium and potassium, which benefit the heart and muscles. They also contain iron, folic acid, zinc, and calcium, as well as vitamins A, B, C, and D.
Dates can also be used to sweeten other foods – look out for these date products:
- Date sugar* (crystalline): To make date sugar, fresh dates are pitted and then steamed – which supports the sugar conversion process – before being dried out and ground into granules. Note that date sugar is not water-soluble.
- Date syrup*: Dates are pitted and boiled in water, pressed, filtered, and thickened into syrup. In addition to its strong aroma and sweetness, date syrup has a fruity and malty taste. It is ideal for smoothies, drinks, and energy balls (mixed with nuts and grains), and to flavor savory dishes. It has a glycemic index of 103 and, with its natural sugar content of 60–70%, is a great alternative to white sugar.
- Date purée: Soak dates overnight in water (200 g dates, 300 ml water) and purée or blend the following day.
Bananas are naturally sweet (yet have a low glycemic index of 30) and are rich in potassium, magnesium and vitamin B6. When baked, 100–120 g of ripe bananas can replace 100 g of sugar: simply mash the bananas with a fork. If you use mashed bananas in baking, make sure to reduce the other liquids in the batter by 25%, since the bananas contribute moisture to the final product. Ripe bananas are easy to digest and a good energy source. They’re also great even when they’re super-ripe and almost completely brown – just use them to make my banana bread!
Applesauce can serve as a great replacement for sugar – just use 100–120 g of applesauce for every 100 g of sugar. With a glycemic index of just 38, apples cause only a minimal rise in blood sugar levels. The high fiber content fills you up and ensures that the sugar is released slowly into the bloodstream, which curbs cravings. Make sure you check the container when shopping to ensure that there’s no added sugar in your applesauce.
Sugar alternatives that I no longer use:
To make a sweetener from the agave cactus, the plant’s juice – up to 900 liters per cactus within three to four months – is extracted from the “heart,” filtered, and boiled down to form a syrup. 100 g of agave syrup corresponds to approximately 125–150 g sugar. Due to its low glycemic index, agave syrup has long been a favorite among alternative sweeteners; however, since it comprises around 90% fructose, which has gotten a bad rap, it has come under more scrutiny in the recent past.
Fruit syrups are made from boiling juices until the water evaporates; 5–7 liters of juice yields about only one liter of syrup. Dates, grapes, apples, and pears are the most commonly used fruits to make fruit syrup. If the temperature gets too high or the juices are pasteurized or sterilized, the vitamins are lost. The minerals, however, remain intact.
Stevia, a powder that comes from the stevia plant and is often sold in a liquid form, was only approved for the European market in November 2011 – and then only as a nutritional supplement, not a food product. Expectations were high: stevia, which is roughly 300 times sweeter than sugar, is not only calorie-free with no significant effect on blood sugar levels, but it also doesn’t cause cavities. And yet, just like sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners, stevia can disturb metabolic processes. This is one of the reasons that the “stevia boom” has failed to materialize. Another reason, however, is that stevia, which was advertised as a pure plant-based sweetener with a light licorice aroma, is only available as a highly processed industrial product, since a complex chemical process must be used to extract the stevioglycosides from the stevia leaves. For this reason, Stevia is not approved for organic trade.
Sugar substitutes and sugar alcohols occur naturally in fruits such as apples, pears, plums, berries, and watermelons, as well as cheese. Sugar alcohols – including xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, maltitol, and lactitol – are produced using complex chemical processes. Our bodies can have difficulty processing sugar alcohols: in larger quantities (30–50 g), they can cause flatulence and abdominal pain and have a laxative effect. Xylitol – also known as birch sugar because it’s naturally found in birch bark – is one of the most commonly used sugar alcohols. It’s often found in toothpaste, mouthwash, and chewing gum because studies have shown that it fights bacteria and helps protect teeth against cavities and tooth decay. Gram for gram, xylitol is just as sweet as white sugar, yet it has 40% fewer calories and has little effect on blood sugar levels. However, it is suspected that the combination of sweetness and low energy content confuses the body and, similar to artificial sweeteners, causes cravings. (Note that it’s also poisonous for dogs and should always be kept away from them!)
Artificial sweeteners are chemically produced and are much sweeter than refined sugars: acesulfame K and aspartame are 200 times sweeter than sugar, saccharin is 300 times sweeter, and sucralose is 600 times sweeter. Since they have virtually no calories, they are often regarded as “good” sugar alternatives. Yet studies indicate that artificial sweeteners harm our bodies by disturbing metabolic processes, since the sweet taste prepares the body for a high caloric intake that then fails to materialize. This can lead to cravings for “real” sugar, which is what we are trying to avoid!
Even if these alternatives are healthier than white sugar, sugar is still sugar! All sugars should be consumed in moderation – to figure out which, if any, of the sugar alternatives are right for you, pay attention to your body when you consume them and see how you feel. Maple syrup, fruit syrups, and rice syrups are probably the most mineral-rich, but the tastes are also quite distinct.
Although I primarily used agave syrup and raw cane sugar in the past, today I mainly use dried fruits, coconut blossom sugar, or coconut blossom syrup when I want to sweeten something. Certain sweeteners also work better in different products – in baking, for example, on pancakes, or sweetening tea. Try them out and see what you like – or even better, explore the world of flavors beyond “sweet!” :-)
Ich bin Hannah Frey, Gesundheitswissenschaftlerin, Bloggerin und Kochbuch- und Ernährungsratgeber-Autorin. Ich helfe dir dabei, dich auch im stressigen Alltag mit wenig Aufwand gesund zu ernähren. Ich möchte dich zu einem gesunden Leben motivieren und inspirieren. Deshalb findest du hier jede Menge schnell zubereitete, einfache und alltagstaugliche Rezepte aus natürlichen Zutaten und ohne raffinierten Zucker – aber mit 100 % Geschmack!