Healthier alternatives to white sugar abound

How Sweet It Is

Stevia rebaudiana bertoni powder, natural sweetener

A report issued by the World Health Organization in 2003 linked increased sugar consumption with cancer, diabetes and obesity.  More recent studies suggest over-indulgence in the sweet stuff may also increase the risk for heart disease and stroke. There’s good reason for Canadians to be concerned—refined sugar consumption in Canada increased from just over 37 kilograms per person in 1998 to nearly 45 kilograms in 2002.  Quite simply, we are addicted to sugar because it makes things taste good.  Does this mean we have to sacrifice that divine sweet taste for the sake of our health?  No.  By simply avoiding sugar-laden, processed foods and using the healthier sweeteners I’ve listed below, you can have your cake and eat it to.



Stevia, a plant native to Central and South America hails from the sunflower family.  The leaves have 30-45 times the sweetness of ordinary table sugar. And an extract made from the leaves can be as much as 300 times sweeter than sugar! But unlike sugar, stevia is non-caloric and has no deleterious effect on blood sugar levels. In fact, in Brazil, stevia is approved as a treatment for diabetes.  It is also reputed to aid digestion and lower blood pressure. Sold as either an extract or a powder, Stevia can be used safely and effectively as a substitute for sugar in any of your recipes. I prefer to use the extract for liquids and custards and the powder for baked goods.  It is best to consult a stevia/sugar conversion chart (available on the net) before adapting your recipes. (Stevia is available in grocery/health-food stores.)


Brown Rice Syrup

Brown rice syrup is a gluten-free, natural sweetener with the consistency of honey. It is made by cooking brown rice with a special enzyme preparation that breaks down the starches in the rice. The result is a smooth, delicately sweet liquid with a buttery caramel flavour that makes it an ideal choice for baking.  Because brown rice syrup consists of 50 percent complex carbohydrates, 45 percent maltose and 3 percent glucose, it does not cause rapid spikes in blood sugar the way table sugar does. In addition, because it is made from brown rice it contains a number of important nutrients like magnesium and zinc. It is 20 percent less sweet than sugar however, so I add 1 1/4 cups for every cup of sugar I’m replacing in a recipe. Keep in mind this usually requires you to also add an extra quarter the flour. (Widely available in most health food stores.)


Yacon Syrup

Yacon syrup is a delicious sweetener derived from the tuberous roots of the yacon plant, a native of the Andes. The syrup, pressed from the roots, has a dark brown colour and a bold sweet flavour reminiscent of molasses. While most other tubers store carbohydrates as starch, yacon stores carbohydrates as fructooligosacarrides (FOS). Because the body cannot process FOS, they pass through the system without leaving behind absorbable sugar compounds. This makes yacon syrup a terrific alternative sweetener for diabetics. FOS also act as prebiotics, which encourage the growth of good bacteria in the gut.  In addition they enhance the absorption of B vitamins. Yacon syrup contains ample amounts of potassium and antioxidants and has a very low glycemic index. Its rich flavour adds just the right amount of sweetness to plain yogurt or oatmeal. Unfortunately it is too costly for everyday baking.  (Available at Lifestyle Markets and Whole Foods.)



This sweet golden liquid might just be everyone’s favourite sugar alternative. Honey contains an array of vitamins and minerals including small amounts of calcium, copper, niacin, potassium, riboflavin and zinc.  It is also rich in falconoid and phenolic acids that function as antioxidants in the body. Preliminary research suggests some of these acids may help prevent colon cancer. Recent studies have also revealed that honey enhances calcium absorption, promotes the growth of good bacteria in the intestines and boosts the immune system. And natural honey causes a significantly lower rise in blood sugar than sucrose (table sugar). It is delicious in muffins and cakes, salad dressings and any sauce requiring a hint of sweetness.  Due to honey’s extraordinary sweetness, use 2/3 to 1 in place of refined sugar.  Local producer Babe’s Honey offers many varieties, each with its own unique taste. Their Blueberry Blossom is my current muse in the kitchen.

By Pam Durkin

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