Is sugar just sugar? Not for the culinary-minded.
Unless you are a world-class patissier, you probably don't need to be using white sugar as much as you are. White sugar is cheap and readily available, so it has made its way into our home cooking, our packaged foods, and pretty much any and all special occasions. One of the constant refrains you'll hear from both real doctors and TV doctors, governmental agencies and your kooky hippy neighbor down the street (ahem, me), is that we are eating way too much sugar. A diet high in sugar increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, chronic diseases, and even skin disorders like acne or early aging.
However, while sweet is a taste that is overabundant in the modern world, it's still a crucial flavor in creating balanced savory dishes. Particularly bitter foods like kale, collards, broccoli and even chocolate and balanced and enhanced by a kiss of something sweet. As you look to cut out Double Stuf Oreos, don't forget that quality sweeteners can be the key to unlocking and enhancing a lot of good-for-you food like those leafy greens.
Most importantly, using natural sweeteners instead of white sugar gets your palate used to a "less sweet sweet" so you set yourself up for a lifetime of consuming less sugar overall, rather than an extreme no-sugar diet that you do for 2 months and then give up.
Here, I'm sharing my favorite natural ingredients that provide sweetness like white sugar, but are lower in sugar, have more nutritional benefits like vitamins, minerals and fiber, and have interesting and complex tastes on their own.
Anyone who has attended one of my cooking classes knows that I've got a pretty good thing going on with maple syrup. I love using a sweetener from the temperate region (as opposed to tropical) since I live in Chicago and I love its robust, woodsy flavor. Maple Syrup is the boiled down sap from sugar maple trees and it comes in different grades from "fancy" (my favorite: very light tasting, almost fruity) to grade B (the most smoky, maple-y tasting) depending on when it was pulled during the sugaring season.
High in manganese, riboflavin and zinc, maple syrup provides a little nutritional boost whereas white sugar is refined to the point where it virtually just contains sugar. Try using maple syrup in baked fruit desserts, for glazing walnuts, for marinades and for balancing out the bitterness is dark leafy vegetables like sauteed collard greens or a raw kale salad.
Honey, like maple syrup, can be used in a variety of recipes. Raw honey is thicker and more opaque than processed and filtered honey and still contains traces of pollen and propolis. Raw honey is a powerful antimicrobial agent too and in studies has been shown to heal small burns better than store bought ointments when applied topically. (Healing small burns is definitely a topic of interest to me, as someone who spends a good amount of time in the kitchen!)
If you have the opportunity to buy local honey, go for it! It's great to feel connected to your local environment and economy. Plus it gives you something to shop for at the farmer's market, even if you aren't much of a cook. Those local to Chicago can check out Bike-a-Bee or the Westside Bee Boyz for organizations that also have an environmental interest in supporting local bee populations.
Raw honey is a perfect addition to smoothies, dressings, energy bite snacks and cocktails. Added to tea or an herbal infusion, like my Lemon Ginger Turmeric Infusion, it's soothing to the throat.
Coconut sugar is my go-to substitute in any recipe that calls for a crystallized sugar. It's crystallized sap from the coconut tree and therefore has no coconuty flavor, although it is smoky and more robust than white sugar. I'd say it's similar to brown sugar but less moist and a often a little clumpy.
Try using coconut sugar in natural baked desserts, but don't expect the exact same result as if you were using white sugar since coconut sugar is less refined and therefore less predictable. I think it's perfect for fruit crumbles or even roasted vegetables if I want to get a little caramelization on them.
I grew up eating dates as a solo snack, so I sometimes forget that they can be a great sweetener to other foods. Pureeing them in the food processor can get you a sweet, sticky paste that will hold together granola bars and other snacks and one or two dates often give a smoothie a sweet boost. Try adding chopped up dates to an earthy green salad to cut some of the bitterness. Dates are rich in fiber, which our modern diets greatly lack, so they are a great way to add more to your diet in unexpected ways.
If you are a date-lover like me, check out Middle Eastern grocery stores where you can find dozens of varieties of dates. Typically the refrigerated ones are the stickiest, sweetest and juiciest so look there first. A Whole Foods or Trader Joe's type grocery store will typically have either Deglet Noor or Medjool date varieties. When in doubt, go for the Medjool to avoid a tough or dried-out date.
Bananas truly are one of the most versatile foods in a whole foods kitchen: they can act as binder, a thickener and can make recipes creamy without dairy. And of course, being a tropical fruit, they also add tons of sweetness to recipes. One of my favorite food bloggers, Sarah B of My New Roots, says that she could write a whole cookbook about them!
Bananas are not only an affordable and accessible way to add sweetness, but are also high in potassium, Vitamin B6 and fiber. Mashed bananas are perfect for oatmeal, brownies, breakfast bars and smoothies. Frozen bananas popped in the food processor also make a great substitute for ice cream.