Tuesday, December 1, 2009

4 Alternate Natural Sweeteners

Refined sugar, whether it originates from cane or beet, contributes only empty calories to our diet. Sometimes, in our efforts to improve our diet and therefore our health we are looking for a natural option to sweeten our food that will add nutrients not just calories.

There are four options that I would like to briefly explore here.
  1. Rapadura
  2. Honey
  3. Agave nectar
  4. Stevia.
Rapadura is evaporated cane juice. In some places it is called Panela or Jaggery. If the label says it is 100% evaporated cane juice then it is the same as rapadura. It is made by extracting the juice from the sugar cane by using a press. The juice is then evaporated and dries into granules. It has a different texture from sugar as it has not been heated and spun to produce the crystals of sugar.
Rapadura still has the all the nutrients that are in the cane juice. It is metabolized more slowly than refined sugar and does not cause your blood sugar to spike. In other words it has a low glycemic index rating. For a comparison between the components of rapadura, raw sugar and refined sugar click here.
I use rapadura in much of my baking. I find it very successful in cakes and biscuits. I always reduce the quantity of sweetening of any recipe so I might use 1/4 -1/3 cup of rapadua when the recipe asks for 1 cup sugar. Others might prefer things sweeter so experiment and see what suits you.

Honey is said to be 25 to 50 percent sweeter than sugar. I can be used in all forms of cooking. I sometimes use it in some cake recipes. In large quantities it can cause a spike in blood sugar levels. Raw honey contains enzynes and other health giving substances that are damaged by heat. As raw, unheated honey is usually more expensive it is a good idea to use it only when not heating it and to use cheaper heat treated honey for cooking purposes.

Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is relatively new on the supermarket shelves. However it is made from a plant that has been used for food in Mexico for thousands of years. The agave is a large spikey succulent type plant.
When the plants are 7-10 years old the leaves are cut off, leaving the core of the plant called the pina. The sap is extracted from the pina, filtered using enzymes and heated at a low temperature (under 118F), giving the resulting agave nectar.
Agave nectar has about the same calories as sugar but is sweeter so less is used.

Stevia is a shrub that is native to Paraguay. While the leaves of this plant can be 30 times sweeter than sugar extracts from the leaves called steviosides are said to be about 300 times sweeter than sugar. The body does not metabolize the stevia leaf or any of its extracts so there are no calories. It doesn't raise blood sugar.
Raw herbal stevia contains nearly 100 identified phytonutrients and volatile oils. Most of these will be nonexistant in the refined extracts. On the down side many stevia products leave an aftertaste.

Make Your Own Stevia Extract
If you have access to stevia leaves you can make your own extract. Combine a measured portion of stevia leaves or herval powder with pure USP grain alcohol (eg Scotch) and let sit for 24 hours. Filter and dilute to taste using pure water. Reduce the alcohol content by heating vely slowly to allow the alcohol to evaporate off.
To make a water based extract. Pour boiling water over the leaves and allow to steep, strain when ready. This will now extract as much of the sweet glycosides as the alcohol. Either extract can be cooked down and concentrated into a syrup.

Stevia can be used for any cooking where sweetening is the only use. It does not caramelize, brown or crystalize like sugar does so it is not suitable for anything that needs these properties.

If you have a favorite natural sweetener please share it with us by leaving a comment.

Be healthy


  1. I recently visit your blog and reading this post it is very helpful information thanks a lot for sharing such a informative information.


  2. Now extract as much of the sweet glycosides as the alcohol. Either extract can be cooked down and concentrated into a syrup.

  3. Stevia is great! I use SweetLeaf Stevia! in fact, I just had some liquid English toffee flavored stevia on some cooked ham! It was yummy! It smelled good while it was cooking, too! It has 0 calories, 0 carbs, and a 0glycemic index!