The couple spoonfuls you stir into your morning coffee; that glaze on the sweet and spicy ribs you love so much; and even the bit you sprinkle on your fruit. The amount of sugar you're eating throughout the day can add up quickly. And with newspaper headlines constantly alerting us to the dangers of consuming too much sugar, it's hard not to look for a way to balance your sweet tooth with your health concerns.
That's where things get tricky. Everywhere we turn we are bombarded with sugar options. So which do you choose? Each has its pros and cons. Your decision depends on what you're looking for, whether a thick syrup to keep your sticky buns sticky and your teeth in good health or something to sweeten up your jamon con piña while keeping your family's blood sugar in control. Give these 5 sugar substitutes a shot in your next shot of espresso.
This syrup comes from the wonderful plant that also blessed us with tequila, mezcal, pulque, and sunburn relief. Agave is low in glucose (but high in fructose) and contains less calories and more minerals than sugar, making it a moderately healthier option for people who must watch their sugar intake.
Use: Unlike other syrups (yeah, we mean you, honey), agave syrup dissolves easily and quickly into cold liquids. It also has a mild taste and very sweet punch, which make it excellent for cocktails. Try Julian Medina's Mezcalita de Piña cocktail made with Piedre Almas Mezcal, pineapples, jalapeños, and syrup for a sweet sip that bites back. Agave syrup also does well when baking. To avoid a sticky situation be sure to use only about 2/3 cup of agave for every 1 cup of sugar called for in a recipe and reduce the liquid by 1/4 cup. It also makes a great 1:1 replacement for honey or maple syrup, so go ahead and drizzle it all over those Mini Buñuelos with Cream!
Coconut Palm Sugar
Coconut sugar is made when sugar producers extract sap from the flowers of coconut palms and heat this liquid until the water has evaporated, leaving just light brown granules. Though it has been a staple in Southeast Asia for centuries, only recently has it received attention from American populations for its possible health benefits. Unlike white sugar and certain other sweeteners, coconut sugar does contain nutritional value. According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Philippines, coconut sugar is a good source of B vitamins and magnesium, and contains significantly more calcium, zinc, and iron than brown sugar and refined white sugar combined. However, diabetics should use coconut palm sugar sparingly since it does contain about as many calories and carbs as regular sugar.
Use: Good news for those of us that don't do well with fractions: a simple 1:1 sugar to coconut palm sugar ratio does the trick in any recipe. Do remember, though, that this type of sugar is sometimes more coarse than white sugar, so mix a little extra to dissolve. Its subtle caramel taste is similar to that of brown sugar, making it a great substitute in your next Jamon con Piña. Or if you can't wait until your next family get together to give coconut sugar a shot, mix it in to your morning Cafe de Olla for a vitamin boost and a new depth of flavor.
Brown Rice Syrup
This thick golden brown liquid sweetener is made by adding barley enzymes to cooked brown rice in order break down some of the complex starches in the grains, sweetening the mixture. It's then strained and reduced to a consistency parallel to that of honey. It also has similar caloric count to white sugar, but does not cause the sudden spike in blood sugar levels because the molecules in this syrup are more complex and release sugar gradually.
Use: To substitute for sugar, use 1 and 1/4 cups rice syrup for 1 cup sugar, and use 1/4 cup less of another liquid in the recipe. Note from the conversion rate that rice syrup is not as sweet as sugar, meaning that a recipe made with rice syrup instead of sugar would be equally sweet but would have more calories. Why use it then? It has a unique taste similar to that of butterscotch and sesame and works very well as a binding agent, especially in these Coconut and Macadamia Granola Bars. It also adds an extra dimension to classic savory Latin dishes like Cuban Black Bean Soup, and other bean dishes from the Caribbean that call for a tiny bit of sweetness.
Yacon, a root vegetable native to the Andes, has been cultivated for centuries, partially because of the sweet dark brown syrup it helps produces. A study published in Clinical Nutrition reported that obese participants who drank yacon syrup everyday saw improvements in overall health. Encouraging though this is, these findings were correlational and claims haven't been investigated by the FDA. However, we know for certain that it provides us with potassium and fiber, is very low in calories, and contains complex sugars that are safe for diabetics in small quantities.
Use: The conversion rate is roughly 1/2:1, yacon syrup to sugar. Feel free to add a little more to taste, but remember that unlike other natural sweeteners, yacon syrup does have a strong taste reminiscent of dates and raisins. This flavor may not be for everyone; we suggest trying it modestly first, perhaps instead of molasses in this Fried Cheese with Sweet Dipping Sauce and then moving on to Chile Pork Medallions with Smokey Apple Dressing. In general, this syrup works well with warm spices like cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, so a spoonful or two into a batch of Pumpkin Spice Cookies would not go amiss!
These substitutes certainly sound alluring; there is a lot of variety, they are relatively cheap, readily available, have virtually no calories, do not spike blood sugar levels, and some, though heavily processed, are derived from plants (Stevia extracts) or sugar (Splenda).
Use: As you know, artificial sweeteners dissolve quickly, making them ideal additives to drinks (Coconut Mojitos, anyone?), especially if diabetes or weight gain is a concern. But cooking with them does take a little trial and error. First of all, don't go dumping these into everything without checking labels! Artificial sweeteners are all significantly sweeter than sugar, though exactly how much sweeter often varies, so look for conversion tables on the packaging. Also, don't be fooled by the "good for baking" labels; avoid using artificial sweeteners in any baking recipe that calls for yeast as its main leavening agent, otherwise you'll end up with hard, dense breads and doughs. However, artificial sweeteners do work well in pretty much every yeast-less recipe, like these Baked Churros, for instance! Finally, remember that some sweeteners have strong after tastes, so shop around to find one that suits your palate.