Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly contribute a guest post to The Baltimore Sun's health blog Picture of Health (baltimoresun.com/pictureofhealth), which is reprinted here. The latest post is from Elaine Pelc.
Browsing the baking aisle for sugar is no longer an easy venture. The sugar we are all used to is now surrounded by alternatives on the shelves. Figuring out what these products really are and how to use them can often be an overwhelming task.
Here are some tips to make that trip down the aisle a little easier and provide you with enough knowledge to get experimental and try some of them out.
Most sweeteners fall into one (or two) of the following categories: natural sweeteners, artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols.
Some of the more common calorie-containing options are honey, molasses and the syrups from barley, malt, brown rice, cane, corn and maple. A few of the newer additions are agave and coconut sugar.
Agave nectar is derived from agave plants and is typically sweeter and less viscous than traditional syrup or honey and can be used as an alternative. Agave can also be used to sweeten beverages, to top yogurt or to bake with. When using agave in baking, the finished product may come out darker and stickier; turning the oven temperature down and using part sugar, part agave in the recipe can help. Agave is sweeter than sugar, so adjustments need to be made when substituting it. Agave is also a vegan alternative to honey.
Coconut sugar is produced from the flower buds of the coconut palm. It has a similar consistency to sugar, however is slightly less sweet like brown sugar and has a slight hint of caramel.
While these products do contain sugar and calories and may not be ideal for people with diabetes, they may not cause the same highs and lows that people may experience with sugar or highfructose corn syrup.
Stevia is one of the more common calorie-free sweeteners. It is derived from the stevia plant, but the products you find in the store may fall into the artificial or natural sweetener category. That's because the majority of the stevia products contain a highly purified form of stevia called Rebaudioside A (Truvia, PureVia and Stevia in the Raw). Whole-leaf stevia and crude stevia extract have not been approved by the FDA. Stevia can be used during baking and there are products out now that can be substituted for regular sugar in equal quantities. Some people notice a slightly bitter licorice taste associated with stevia.
Lo han kuo, also known as monk fruit, is one of the newer options. It is derived from an ancient Asian fruit that is 200 to 300 times sweeter than cane sugar. This sweetener is available as Monk Fruit in the Raw and as Nectaresse.
These sweeteners may also be considered natural. They are naturally occurring in certain fruits and vegetables; however they can also be manufactured. While these products are sugar-free they are not always calorie-free. Sugar alcohols or polyols are commonly used in commercial products and can be easily identified on the ingredient label by the "ol" endings — glucotol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, glycerol, lactitol. Consuming large quantities of sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, so consume foods containing these ingredients in moderation.
The two most common sugar alcohols available for consumer purchase are erythritol (ZSweet, Sweet Simplicity, Zero), which is calorie-free and xylitol (XyloSweet, XyloPure, Miracle Sweet).
Sucralose (Splenda,) aspartame (Equal,) saccharine (Sweet 'N Low) and acesulfame potassium (Sweet One) are synthetically produced and are not absorbed during digestion. Therefore they are calorie-free and often recommended for people with diabetes, as they do not affect blood glucose levels. However these products typically taste different from sugar and some people are more sensitive than others. These products have historically been used in preparation of commercial "diet" products.
While all these natural and artificial products can generally be used in place of sugar, they cannot always be substituted in equal amounts and may not always deliver the same final product. Most products listed above have conversion charts on their packaging or on brand websites.
I've tried a fair amount of the items listed above. The calorie-containing substitutes work well, but be aware that they do offer a different flavor than sugar. I tend to be very sensitive to the flavor difference caused by artificial or calorie-free sweeteners, but I have not noticed a flavor difference when using monk fruit and erythritol and have enjoyed using them in baking and to sweeten beverages.
For people with diabetes, non-calorie sugar substitutes are necessary, but they might not be the best idea if one is using them strictly to cut calories for weight loss. Research has shown that replacing sugar with non-calorie sweeteners does not assist with weight loss. While this may sound counter-intuitive, the sweet foods, whether sweetened with sugar or a substitute, still stimulate cravings that typically lead to increased food intake. So even with the use of these sugar alternatives, you still need to pay attention to what you eat and exercise portion control.
For more information and tips on using these sugar alternatives in baking check out the following links: allrecipes.com/howto/baking-with-sugar-and-sugar-substitutes/; and intheraw.com.