Clean Eating Substitutes for Sugar

Its not unhealthy to crave something a little sweet once in a while, as long as we satisfy it in the way that nature intended. Nature has provided well to enable us to enjoy sweetness in ways that are truly natural and not harmful to our health.  The bees produce honey, the maple tree produces maple sugar, and the coconut tree produces coconut sugar. So you actually can have your cake and eat it too 😉

I will admit that I will sometimes substitute Splenda Brown Sugar in any recipe that calls for sugar if I am in a rush, but this is a definite cheat. Splenda Brown Sugar has less calories than sugar or brown sugar, but it is not clean –I justify it in that it is less damaging that real sugar (still no excuse!). Now that I have gotten my confession out of the way…. 🙂

A much better choice is coconut sugar. It looks and tastes a lot like brown sugar, but it is 100% clean eating compliant as long as its organic and unrefined. Like with a lot of wholesome, healthy foods, its more pricey than regular sugar, but remember: your health is worth it!  More on coconut sugar below, along with numerous other clean eating sugar substitutes.

Coconut Sugar

This is made from sap of the coconut palm. When organic and unrefined, this rich, brown sugar-like sweetener also packs a lot of great nutrients and is low on the glycemic index at around 35. It has just as many calories as regular sugar, but is made up mostly of sucrose and is low on fructose and glucose, which is a big improvement.  It also has a neutral flavor that’s closer to cane sugar and works really well for baking, where other sugar substitutes (like liquid ones) do not.

Raw Honey

Raw honey refers to honey that is in exactly the same form in which it existed in the beehive at the time of extraction – it is 100% natural, unprocessed and unpasteurized. The only processing it will have been subjected to is straining, at most. Raw honey contains significantly more nutritional value than pastuerized honey, and most people find it has better taste and aroma. It has just 21 calories per teaspoon. It has an average GI of 55.

Most of the commercial honey on grocery store shelves has been pasteurized and heavily filtered. Unless it is specifically labelled as “raw honey”, you can assume it is pasteurized, not raw.

You’ll find unpasteurized honey in health food stores and natural food stores, and you can often buy local raw honey at farmers markets. Some grocery stores are starting to stock it in the natural foods or organic foods aisle, and in rare case right next to pasteurized honey, but remember it must clearly be labelled as raw honey.

Pasteurized honey is smooth and uniform in color. Raw honey is milky in color and may have granules that can be melted, if desired.

Pasteurization is the process where honey is heated at high temperatures. The problem with this is that this processing breaks down a lot of the honey’s nutritional value. This is done to reduce crystalization and keep the honey from becoming granulated, giving it a clearer, smoother appearance (in other words to make it look prettier to consumers). It is also claimed that the pasteurization processs is done to kill any yeast or microorganisms that may be present so as to prevent it from fermenting.

Raw honey contains all of the nutrients necessary for good health: vitamins A, C, D, E and high concentrations of the B-complex vitamins including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid. Raw honey also has beneficial enzymes and other nutrients. Heating honey at high temperature during processing breaks down its nutritional value. Raw honey has not been heated about 118 degrees F.

High heat kills most of the enzymes and some vitamins contained in natural honey, so pasteurized honey doesn’t have as many health benefits as raw honey. One of the enzymes raw honey contains is amylase, which aids in digestion by helping predigest breads and other starchy foods, according to Benefits of Honey. Raw honey also has better taste, aroma and a darker color than its pasteurized counterpart.

Raw honey is packed with minerals and enzymes, and is a perfect substitute for sugar in almost all situations. Researchers have found that raw honey, specifically, contains probiotic bacteria that help support a healthy digestive system.  Contrast that against the harmful effects of sugar on your health.

Honey has antibacterial properties, provides instant energy, fights free radicals, among other health benefits.  Placed directly on a wound, raw honey has very effective healing properties, and in a cup of warm water or milk is very soothing on a sore throat or cough.

While allergic reactions to honey are rare, it can happen if the pollen an individual is allergic to is present in the honey. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to honey can range from itching to anaphylactic shock. Some people believe consuming small amounts of local honey daily will help prevent seasonal allergies. Honey should not be given to an infant under one year of age or people with a compromized immune system because botulism can be contracted from the clostridium bacteria that may be present in honey.

How to Substitute Honey in Baking

When baking with honey, there are a three things to note:

  1. Honey browns more quickly in the oven or (or if using for pancakes in a frying pan). The solution is baking honey-sweetened batters at a lower temperature.
  2. Honey is heavier, denser and wetter than sugar. Increasing the quantity of leavening just slightly helps to counteract this.
  3. Honey is sweeter than sugar AND has a stronger flavor. Decreasing the amount of honey in a recipe that originally called for sugar will prevent your baked goods from being too sweet, which doesn’t allow other flavors to come through.

Conversion Chart

Below some convenient conversions to help you adjustment your recipes when substituting honey for sugar. Note that the chart refers to reducing the liquid in a recipe. This really only applies in situations where you have a very liquidy batter – like pancake batter, or often with recipes that call for milk.  Honey makes baked goods more moist, so it is helpful to reduce milk or other liquid ingredients to compensate.

  • 1/4 cup sugar–> 3 T. honey reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees
  • 1/3 cup sugar–> 3 T. + 1 tsp. honey reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees
  • 1/2 cup sugar–> 1/3 cup honey add 1/4 tsp. baking soda, reduce potential liquid by 1 T., reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees
  • 1 cup sugar–> 3/4 cup honey add 1/2 tsp. baking soda, reduce potential liquid by 1/8 cup (2 T.), reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees
  • 2 cups sugar–> 1 cup + 6 T. honey add 1 tsp. baking soda, reduce potential liquid by 1/4 cup, reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees

Pure Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is as natural and unprocessed as it gets. Its packed with B-vitamins, iron, manganese, which is essential for energy production and antioxidant defenses, and zinc, which promotes immune health.  It has a fairly low GI of 54 . It but is high in calories, at about 51 per tablespoon.   It adds not only sweetness but also extra flavor to most things, whether smoothies, oatmeal, drinks or desserts. It will introduce a little bit of that maple taste, so keep that in mind, but generally its not strong enough to really be detected specifically as maple syrup.

I used to make super healthy home made chocolates for my mom using cocoa powder and coconut oil, sweetened only with maple syrup and she so enjoyed them. I’d sometimes flavor them with peppermint extract, or her favorite – rum extract!  My motivation for these little treats was that she was suffering from dementia, and there are theories that coconut oil may help slow or even halt the progression of certain dementias, including alzhiemers.  My mom did not have Alzheimers, and sadly we did not find a lasting improvement due to these chocolate treats, but nonetheless, it was great to be able to give her a healthy homemade treat every day. The cocoa powder they contained was also very heart-smart.

Stevia

Stevia  powder comes from the South American herb Stevia rebaudiana. It has zero calories and is a healthy, natural sugar substitute. Its fairly concentrated in terms of sweetness, so its best to use diluted in water. One half-teaspoon can equal the sweetness of one cup of refined white sugar.  With so many consumers following clean diets, and others simply becoming more aware of the harmful side effects of sugar, many grocery stores are now stocking Stevia either in their natural foods section, the baking section, or near the sugar.  If you can’t find it at your local grocery store then look for it at health food stores or natural food stores – they will certainly have it.

Sucanat

A straightforward replacement for granulated sugar, it retains its molasses content, making it the closest thing to pure cane sugar. One teaspoon has 16 calories.
Find it: Health and organic food aisle at supermarkets, health food stores.

Maple sugar flakes
They’ve got the winning taste of pure syrup with a pleasing crunch at just seven-and-a-half calories per teaspoon – half the calories of refined sugar.
Find it: Large grocery and superstores.

Organic evaporated cane juice
It’s similar in appearance to sugar though a bit darker since it’s not as processed or refined. You can use it as you would white sugar, though it has a deeper molasses-like flavor.
Find it: Health food stores.

Date sugar
Date sugar is unique in that it isn’t made from dehydrated plant juices. Rather, it’s the product of finely ground dried dates. Since it has a tendency to clump and is not water-soluble, this very sweet, minimally refined option works well in place of brown sugar.

Sugar Substitutes Not Recommended

Agave

Agave is sometimes suggested as a natural sugar substitute, but it comes with a definite downside, so you are much better of sticking with the choices above.

Agave is a syrup that comes from the same plant Tequila is made from (so far so good…:).  Aside from its sugar-like sweetness, it has a neutral flavor and a low glycemic index which is good (meaning it may not spike blood sugar as much as other sweeteners). It’s 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, so you need to use a lot less.

BUT.  Agave is pretty high in calories, and worse, it’s higher in fructose – the type of sugar linked to diabetes, heart disease, and a favorite fod for cancer to feed on.

So best advice is to stay with one of your other options. I mention it here simply because leaving it out may cause some to think it was overlooked, when in fact, it is very intentionally not recommended.