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Natural alternatives to sugar

sugar cube

We all know that eating too much sugar can be bad for our health. Excessive sweet stuff is linked to higher risk of developing cancer, heart disease, obesity and insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes. At Nourish, we don’t advocate replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners as we prefer to eat natural, unprocessed foods as much as possible. But there are alternatives to the usual bag of refined white sugar that we tend to pick up with our shop.

It’s important to note that honey, syrups, nectar and crystals are all still sugar, and so have the same effect on our body as processed white or brown cane sugar (more on that, below). What they do bring to the table is a greater depth of flavour, which means that we can often use less of them in our cooking, so reducing the sugar content of a dish. And unlike the empty calories of cane sugar, some have added nutritional benefits.

Have a look at our sugar guide and discover a new world of sweet flavour to add (sparingly) to your cooking.

What sugar does to our body
Sugar is rapidly absorbed, causing a surge in our blood glucose levels that our body then counters by flooding our system with the hormone insulin. It’s the classic sugar high, followed by a crash, and it can hit some some people harder than others – if you’re especially sensitive to fluctuations in blood sugar; or for women, if you find sugar has more of an impact at certain times during your menstrual cycle. The result is that we can feel unwell or lethargic and we end up wanting to eat more. Its almost as if the body can never reach that ‘I’ve had enough feeling, so you end up eating more sugar to try to satisfy the craving.

There’s a false idea that sugar ‘feeds’ cancer (you can read more about that here) but it is true that steroids, which are often prescribed during cancer treatment, can cause real sugar cravings. That’s a problem if you give in to a binge and then end up feeling even more shattered afterwards.

When sugar is eaten in small quantities or as part of a meal that also contains protein, complex carbohydrates, fibre and fat, this effect is significantly lessened. In other words, if you have a balanced savoury meal first, then occasionally have some dessert, this won’t cause the same ill effects. Also, by eating a meal beforehand, your appetite will be more satisfied and sugar cravings reduced, so you are likely to eat less overall.

honey

Honey
Available in an amazing variety in flavours, textures and colours. Choose unblended, unheated and untreated varieties as these retain more antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Don’t feed honey to babies under 12 months old as their digestive system isn't fully developed and honey contains a form of bacteria that can be harmful to infants.

maple syrup on crumble

Maple syrup
Made from boiling down the sap of maple trees. Grade B is darker in colour and more assertive in flavour than Grade A. Check the ingredients on the bottle as there are lots of artificially maple flavoured syrups with no maple content.

Maple crystals
Made by evaporating the water from maple syrup.The crystals are light in colour and can be used in cakes instead of refined sugar. They work very well with chocolate.

dates

Date syrup
Made from boiling down dates and water, then filtering to produce a smooth syrup. You can buy with no preservatives or added sugar – or make your own. It's delicious drizzled over ice cream or frozen yoghurt.

Date sugar
Made by drying and pulverising dates to form a powder. It can be temperamental to cook with but is a lovely sweet accent to add to many dishes, including fruit compotes.

molasses

Black treacle
Strongly flavoured, thick and black, this is the by-product of the successive boiling of sugarcane. Many beneficial minerals are preserved through the process, but any chemicals used in processing are also retained, so organic molasses is preferable. We use black treacle in the delicious ginger cake recipe in our Nourish Afternoon Tea.

pomegranate

Pomegranate molasses
Ruby in colour, fragrant, tangy and viscous. Made by boiling down the juice of pomegranates. Wonderful for adding colour and depth to many dishes, such as roasted vegetables, salad dressings and stir fries. Widely available in Middle Eastern food markets.

Brown rice syrup
Thick, sticky and pale in colour. Made by sprouting and cooking brown rice in water; enzymes are used to breakdown starches into simple sugars. Less sweet than sugar with a natural light caramel flavour. Great for adding sweetness to homemade flapjacks, cereal bars and granola.

agave

Agave nectar
Very sweet, with little depth of flavour. Traditionally made by extracting the sap from the leaves of the agave plant and boiling to make a thick syrup. Most agave available for purchase is now heavily processed, involving heat, enzymes and filtering. Use it instead of honey in marinades or to add a touch of sweetness to smoothies.

Sorghum/Sorghum molasses
Extracted from sorghum grass and evaporated to produce an amber-coloured syrup. Lighter than molasses with a complex flavour. Works well with oats in flapjacks and cookies, and in fruit cobbler.

brown sugar and cinnamon

Whole cane sugars
Cane sugars vary in terms of quality, processing and integrity. Less processed varieties such as dehydrated sugar cane juice (succanat) and rapadura sugar are strongly flavoured and dark in colour, as they contain all the molasses in the cane. Turbinado, demerara and muscovado sugars are also less processed than white cane sugar. Generally, the darker the colour, the richer the taste.

Jaggery
Used in Asia and Africa, jaggery is an unrefined sugar, usually derived from sugarcane juice, palm sap, or dates. The juice is reduced and set into blocks. It has a caramel and molasses flavour. It can be used in curries and Burfi, an Indian fudge-like sweet made with condensed milk.

Coconut sugar
Made from evaporating the sap of flower buds on coconut palm trees. This sugar has a mild flavour with caramel notes. Use it in place of darker sugars, such as demerera.

A word on sweeteners
Simply replacing sugar with sweetener when cooking – and particularly, baking – isn’t always possible and won’t produce ideal results. It’s better to look for recipes that use the specific sweetener you are interested in.

Alternatively, substitute sugar or sweeteners with naturally sweet foods. Fruits and some vegetables (berries, apples, citrus, stone fruit, carrots, tomatoes and sweet potatoes), and dairy foods, are naturally sweet. The high fibre content of fruit and vegetables means the sugar they contain is released more gently into our system, so you’re less likely to feel a rush followed by a classic sugar crash. They also contain a wide variety of beneficial vitamins and minerals that aren’t available in sugar and sweeteners.

Tips for low-sugar cooking
Dates and figs have a high sugar content and soft, succulent texture. Used in small quantities, they add intense sweetness to dishes and can help curb a craving for processed sugar.

Use flavour-packed chestnut flour, ground almonds or desiccated coconut, instead of conventional wheat flour, to a cake or biscuit recipe. They have a slightly sweet taste, so you can reduce the amount of sugar in the ingredients.

In baking, try swapping sugar with puréed dates, cooked apple, grated carrot or mashed banana, which will add natural sweetness.

Bought ketchup and jars of tomato sauce usually contain sugar, but you can make your own by sauteeing onion, garlic and tomatoes until soft and thickened. They’re naturally sweet and require no added sugar.

Related article
Diabetes: let's not sugar coat the risk

Related video
Does sugar feed cancer

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1 comment


  • Thanks for an excellent post Jane, is it available in book form? I am always keen to learn about new ingredients, especially those that take the place refined sugar and would love to read a paper version.

    Lynne Pardoe on

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