We have reached the final segment of my three part “Is Sugar Bad For You?” series. For parts one and two click here: Is Sugar Bad For You? and here: Is Sugar Bad For You? Part 2: Glycemically Balanced Eating . In my first post, I told you I was going to talk about this in two parts… then I got to the second part and realized I had soooooo much to say that I needed a third.
So here I am again!
I often get asked which sweetener is the best one to bake with. I’ve played with this one for years. I am definitely a sweet-treat-loving person! A day without dessert is sad day indeed. I love my sweet treats, and I love to bake. But I also like to be healthy. Can I have it all?
Are there sweeteners that are healthier than others?
This is such a tricky question, and the answer is…. sort of. Maybe? Let’s delve in.
First of all, we’ll start with this tidbit.
All sugars are going to do one of two things:
- provide your body with the tools to create energy.
- be turned into/stored as fat
Energy, or fat. That’s it.
No matter which type of sugar you eat, this is the end result!
All sugars are made up of glucose and fructose.
- We know that glucose raises your blood sugar.
- Fructose messes around with your liver.
Too much of either isn’t great.
While there may be some benefits to using sweeteners other than white sugar, after sugars go through the stomach and enter the small intestine, your body doesn’t differentiate which type of sugar you ate. For real. It does not care.
This is KEY.
Let’s recap. You eat something sweet. Your body at this point will just evaluate how much sugar is already in your system.
- IF there is relatively little sugar in your body, and you need to replenish your glycogen stores, the sugar you just ate will be used right away to create energy. Yay! This is good.
- IF you already had a ton of sugar that day, and your glycogen stores are fine, your body will store the sugar as fat. This is a simplified explanation of how weight gain from too much sugar happens!
Too much of ANY sweetener can lead to weight gain. Sugar, honey, agave, whatever, it all leads down the same road.
That said, the healthiest sweeteners to use in baking would be fruits or vegetables (like sweet potato, or pumpkin, not broccoli!), because they give you the sweetness you want and also some antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and a little fibre.
(Speaking of fibre, let me just take a quick detour here and say that FIBRE is so very important for weight loss).
Fibre helps to slow metabolism, so you’ll feel a little fuller after eating fruit than after eating a chocolate bar. Maybe you’ll feel too full to eat said chocolate bar.
The fibre in fruit slows its digestion down, so that the sugar spike in your body is not as high after eating an apple as it would be if you ate candy.
You get even more fibre from vegetables, which is why sweet potatoes make a nice option for baking. You’ll definitely get more nutrients from fruits and veggies than other ”natural” sweeteners.
I do realize, though, that baking with sweet potatoes has its limits.
I bake a lot with dates and date paste (basically just dates pureed into a paste with water in the food processor), because of their high fibre, potassium content, and the fact that they taste like a healthy version of caramel! But, as with sweet potatoes and pumpkin, dates don’t lend themselves well to EVERY recipe.
So, other than fruit and vegetables, are there other healthy sweeteners?
Let’s do a run-down of some common sweeteners and we’ll see. We’ll start with the devil of all sugars, white sugar.
White sugar combines glucose and fructose to make sucrose (table sugar). It has little nutritional value. It’s made from sugar cane or sugar beets that have been processed to extract the sugar. This process strips the nutrients. White sugar is easily broken down and causes an insulin spike in your body right away.
Given all this negative energy around white sugar, you may see holistic nutritionists pushing Unrefined Sugars over white sugar.
There is a bit of debate about this.
Some say that unrefined sweeteners are the next best choice for sweeteners after fruit or vegetables, because they provide some minerals and vitamins. Others say the amount of minerals and vitamins these unrefined sugars provide are too small to make a difference.
Let’s pause for a sec.
What’s an unrefined sugar?
Basically refined sugar has been stripped of its nutrients, whereas unrefined sugar keeps some of the nutrients, such as magnesium, iron, and calcium. While both forms of sugar still have calories, refined sugars are considered empty calories, because you get only the calories and no other benefits.
But like I said, some experts believe you’d have to eat a ton of these unrefined sweeteners to get the benefits, which would negate the whole being healthier thing.
So here are some common Unrefined Sugars:
Honey has slightly more calories per tbsp than sugar, but since it is sweeter, you can use less. It’s also slightly lower on the Glycemic Load scale. See my previous post for a detailed description of why this matters! Honey has trace amounts of vitamins, antioxidants, antimicrobials, and has anecdotal effects on reducing allergies.
I use honey over white sugar because I like the taste, and I can buy locally-made honey, which is better for the environment than buying sugar from far away countries.
*If you are vegan, Brown Rice Syrup is a good honey replacement in baking. It’s less sweet than honey and works as a great binding substance. On its own, it doesn’t taste that fantastic, however, so I wouldn’t suggest pouring it into your coffee.
I love using maple syrup as a sweetener. Note that I mean pure maple syrup and not table syrup, which is all kinds of bad. Like honey, maple syrup contains some minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. Enough to make a difference? I dunno. It is lower on the Glycemic Load scale, which is a point in its favour, but I really use it over white sugar for the same reasons I use honey: I like the taste and, living in Canada, I can get local maple syrup easily.
This still processed sugar (from coconuts) and has the same amount of calories as white sugar, but has some minerals, and is also lower on the glycemic scale than white sugar. I use it in baking when I need the consistency of white sugar and subbing with a liquid sweetener would alter the consistency of the final product.
So knowing all this, I still don’t eat white sugar. Even while I recognize that these other sugars are not miracle foods, I still prefer to use unrefined sugars. It may be for nothing, but it makes me feel better! At the very least in terms of my carbon footprint.
So if white sugar isn’t that much worse than other sugars, what to do?
The most impactful thing I do to cut sugar is to just reduce the overall amount of any sweeteners I take in.
So that means that,
a) I bake my own treats, rather than buying store bought treats with extra sugars, and
b) if I’m baking, I’ll just reduce the amount of sweetener called for in the recipe.
The best, best sweeteners to use are fruits, such as bananas, apples, dates, and sweet potatoes. There may be small benefits to using unrefined sweeteners over white sugar.
Ultimately, the best thing to do is just cut the overall amount of sugar in your diet, and use ANY sweeteners sparingly.
The best type of sugar is the one you eat relatively little of!
I still like to bake, and bake often for my kids. So here’s the granola bar recipe I give them, which is much lower in sugar than store bought bars, even ‘organic’ ones:
Homemade Chewy Granola Bars
I like to reduce the sugar and add healthy extras, such as hemp seeds and ground chia, to give these bars a boost!
- 2 cups Quick Oats
- 1/2 cup Crispy Brown Rice Cereal
- 1/4 cup finely chopped Cashews or Almonds
- 1/8 cup roasted Pumpkin Seeds
- 1/8 cup Hemp Seeds
- 1/8 cup raw Sunflower Seeds
- 2 tbsp Dark Chocolate Chips ((vegan, if needed))
- 1 tbsp Ground Chia Seeds
- 1/4 cup Butter ((grass-fed, if possible))
- 1/4 cup Almond Butter
- 1/3 cup Honey ((sub with brown rice syrup if vegan))
- 1/2 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
Line a square 8×8 baking dish with parchment paper. Set aside.
MIx dry ingredients (including chocolate chips) in a large bowl.
In a small pan on the stove, melt butter over medium-low heat.
Whisk in almond butter and honey. Heat until lightly bubbling, whisking constantly, then remove from heat and stir in vanilla.
Pour liquid mixture over dry, stirring vigorously until well combined. The chocolate chips will melt. Be ok with this.
Press mixture into parchment-lined pan, and press down hard with the back of a spoon or fingertips. Really press to make it adhere together.
Refrigerate to set, about an hour.
Cut into bars and store in the fridge in an air-tight container.