Stevia ranks as one of the top sugar replacements in terms of its low glycemic index, virtually non-existent caloric value, and ability to pack the sweet punch. Stevia comes in liquid and powder form, and a little goes a long way. One or two drops of liquid stevia (or packets of powder) are sufficient to sweeten any tea, smoothie, sauce, soup, or dessert. The downside? Stevia isn’t a bulk sweetener, so don’t count on it to add any texture to muffin or cake batter. Some people also dislike the “bitter” aftertaste it sometimes gives when used in incorrect quantities. I am personally a huge tea drinker and always have stevia in tow to give me the sugar taste I love without the sugar kick and subsequent crash.
Coconut palm sugar
Some of my favorite raw chocolates use palm sugar in lieu of regular sugar or agave. With the increasing controversy surrounding agave in health-food circles, palm sugar has become the next big thing. Palm sugar is derived from the nectar of the coconut palm tree. When it first hit the market, buzz reported that it had a relatively low glycemic index rating, but now reports show that it’s just as high in raising blood sugar levels as regular table sugar is. But, it bears micronutrients that are beneficial to the body and thus a better alternative to its white sugar counterpart. Additionally, palm sugar provides the grainy bulk and texture that stevia fails to do.
Honey is a better alternative to sugar, as it packs a very sweet punch. In its raw, unadulterated, unprocessed form, honey provides the body with nutritional benefits. Its antimicrobial properties help kill disease-causing bacteria and can aid in subsiding stomach pains, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and can also be used to treat minor wounds. Regardless of these benefits, however, honey is high in calories and will raise blood sugar levels similar to the extent that white sugar does. Teaspoon for teaspoon, honey offers 49 calories versus sugar’s 24 calories. The benefit of honey is that it is more natural, less processed and provides some health benefits, but if looking to cut the calories, slash a sweet-tooth, or lose some weight, honey isn’t the best option. Honey can be used in liquids, such as tea, salad dressings, and sauces, as well as solids, such as baked goods.
Maple syrup has a similar consistency to honey and can thus be used for the same purposes. It has, however, a distinct taste that will change the profile of any dish. I like to use maple syrup for exclusively sweet dishes, such as dessert puddings, baked goods and to drizzle atop ice-cream. However, some savory dishes depend on honey as a mainstay, such as maple-glazed baked sweet potatoes with sage or maple-glazed roasted meats (such as chicken and turkey). Maple syrup is packed with manganese and zinc and thus a healthier alternative to sugar. It has a high glycemic index and should be avoided in excess.
I love eating dates alone to give me that mid-day pick-me-up I sometimes need. Dates offer a range of health benefits – they are high in Vitamin A, potassium, antioxidants, iron, copper, and dietary fiber. Dates are wonderful in that they mimic the taste of caramel and are best to use dishes that benefit with that added flavor. I like to use mine in homemade puddings, ice-creams, and granola bars. Dates have a relatively high glycemic index and shouldn’t be eaten in excess by those looking to lose subtle weight.
Bananas are another way to sweeten a dessert with a food, rather than a sweetener per se. Adding a banana to a smoothie, yogurt, or any pancake/muffin/cake batter is a great way to bring sweetness to a dish that invites the banana flavor. In fact, banana is in and of itself a dessert! Simply freeze peeled and chopped bananas and toss them into the food processor for a good 3-5 minute spin to create a fluffy, palette-satisfying ice cream!