Sweet on you [updated]

“I’d love to try those truffles, but they’d go right to my thighs.”

“I adore chocolate, but it makes me break out.”

“Don’t let my ass see that dessert tray!”

Many people feel that sugar doesn’t complement their bodies. They may even feel — or joke — that their wayward parts (the thunder thighs and pizza faces) plot to lure in sugary sweets to perpetuate their own existence. Yet we’re drawn to sweet things. That makes sense, because they taste damn good! And our bodies do need sugars — just not necessarily the processed kind.

As a valentine to readers, I’ve decided to do a little run-down of natural, unprocessed sweeteners. Note that this is based mostly on my informal research. So take this sweet stuff with a grain of salt!

Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar
Made from the sap of maple trees, which are tapped in the early spring as the sap rises into the branches. The clear sap is boiled down to create the amber liquid we all know. The syrup is sweeter than sugar and has a distinctive taste. Because it’s a thin liquid, it’s better for sweetening drinks (lassis, coffee, etc.) rather than solid baked goods (cookies, cakes). Maple sugar is boiled-down and crystallized syrup, so it’s even more concentrated.

Honey
This, of course, is made from flower nectar and produced by bees. It’s also sweeter than sugar, so you can use less if you’re following a recipe. It’s also more viscous than maple syrup, so honey can work more easily in cookies, cakes, and other baked goods as well as in drinks. Honey has the added bonus, many say, of numerous health benefits. It contains antibodies that give it the helpful quality of longevity. In fact, honey supposedly will NEVER go bad. If you buy local honey produced at an apiary with the same kind of vegetation as in your area, it can help prevent or lessen pollen allergies.

Agave Nectar
Made from the same agave cactus that gives us tequila!  Like honey and maple syrup, it’s also liquidy and sweeter than sugar. The raw version of this amber sweetener is processed at 118 F or less, which is supposed to preserve the enzymes and other goodness in food. So unlike maple syrup, it’s not boiled. It has the least marked flavor of the alternative sweeteners, in my opinion, so it can act like a chameleon and slip into pretty much any recipe. The consistency is thicker than maple syrup but not as thick as honey. I haven’t tried it in baked goods, but they say you can use it instead of sugar.

Stevia 
This is made from the leaves of the stevia plant. I nibbled on one of these leaves once. It’s crazy how sweet they are! I’ve seen it most often as a white powder that can only be sold as a “dietary supplement” because of some FDA noodling (update: it’s been approved as a sweetener).  Even though it seems super natural, the flavor of the powder, which overpowers sugar 16 to one, tastes fakey to me. Maybe because it takes a lot of processing to get it from a green leaf to the tiny crystals you find in those packets. I’ve also heard it’s not as healthful as it’s cracked up to be. Use and substitute at your own risk.

Xylitol
I admit I haven’t tried this one. And I’m suspicious of anything that sounds like the active ingredient in horse tranquilizer. If you don’t have an overactive imagination like me, go for it. This sweetener apparently has the added bonus of preventing cavities. Ironiola!

ZSweet
Again, something I haven’t tried myself and something whose active ingredient, erythritol, sounds like something pharmaceutical. Maybe not a horse tranquilizer this time, but perhaps something you’d be forced to inhale by an anesthesiologist.

Dried Fruit
This can be a great sweetener that is also a whole food. A raisin or dried apricot hasn’t been extracted or boiled down from anything, yet it can really sweeten up a dish. I used to cook at a retreat center whose dessert chef made everything without sugar. It’s amazing what you can do with the things above and/or some pureed fruit. I like throwing raisins, dried cranberries, dried apricots, and dates into oatmeal, cold cereal (including homemade granola), sweet rice, and trail mix.

SuCaNat and Turbinado/Demerara Sugar
These are less processed forms of sugar, bringing you the sweet stuff before it’s gotten so far from the cane. I use turbinado or the stuff billed as “natural” sugar a lot.

What about brown sugar? That stuff isn’t necessarily a good alternative. It does have some of the compounds originally present in sugar before it’s processed, but it’s been extracted and then added in later as molasses.

What about Splenda, Equal, and the little pink packets? I say ditch ‘em. They do add sweetness without processed sugar, but because of the health problems linked to them (from headaches to cancer), I don’t consider them viable sugar alternatives. They also taste gross.

Happy sweetening!

Oh, and if your thunder thighs are really crying out for some real sugar, check out my deeelish chocolate truffle recipe. Mwahahahah…

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