The development of artificial sweeteners has given people the notion that if they eat artificially sweetened foods, they will naturally lose weight. The growing problem of obesity suggests that no-sugar (and often lower-calorie) foods are not the panacea of America's weight crisis. Often, when opting for artificially sweetened foods, people just eat more.
In addition, there is constant controversy about the safety of artificial sweeteners. The FDA has approved sugar substitutes such as saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K and sucralose as safe sweeteners but these artificial substances are still scrutinized and blamed for many illnesses from cancer to migraines.
Good old sugar is also maligned as the cause of obesity and disease – which is why artificial sweeteners have become so readily consumed. Even though it suffers a bad rap, sugar does play a functional role in baking. It adds tenderness, preserves moisture, and can act as a leavener. However, its role does not come without calories and, regardless of functionality, sugar can still impact blood sugar.
Natural alternatives to sweeten your foods are, perhaps, better choices. If the questions of safety have you shying away from artificial sweeteners and you don't want to rely on sugar to add sweetness to your diet, opt for a natural sweetener on this list. Granted, these sweeteners are not calorie-free, but they may just make your baked goods satisfying enough that you won't feel the need to overeat.
Barley malt: Half as sweet as sugar and exuding a strong molasses-like taste, barley malt can be substituted one to one for sugar. Its taste and texture make it a natural for gingerbread, fruit breads, chocolate sauces, baked beans and jerk marinades. For each cup of malt, reduce liquid by 1/4 cup for baked goods recipes.
Brown rice syrup: Minimally refined from malted brown rice and various enzymes, this mildly sweet syrup makes a delicious drizzle for waffles, pancakes and crepes, especially when blended with yogurt, cottage cheese, or ricotta. For most sweet recipes, it is not an adequate substitute for honey or sugar because stronger flavors will overpower its delicate sweetness.
Date sugar: Made from intensely sweet dehydrated dates, date sugar can be used in baked goods but first needs to be dissolved in hot water. Reduce the liquid in the recipe by the amount of hot water used. Because of date sugar's powerful flavor, use 2/3 cup date sugar for each cup of sugar called for in a recipe.
Demerara sugar: Made from evaporated cane juice sugars, these minimally processed coarse crystals taste like molasses or caramel. The texture of demerara makes it a must for sprinkling on scones, cookies, pie crusts, and other desserts that call for a light crunch.
Fruit juice concentrate: This fruity sweetener can replace sugar in baked goods and adds a delicate fruit flavor. Use 2/3 cup juice concentrate to replace 1 cup sugar and reduce the liquid by 1/3 when modifying recipes.
Honey: Honey, one of the least processed sweeteners, can replace sugar in most recipes – as long as you like the distinctive taste of this flowery syrup. Use half as much as the sugar specified in recipes or adjust to your tastes and for every cup of honey used, reduce the liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup.
Note: Honey should not be given to children under one year old due to potential allergic reactions.
Maple sugar: Basically dehydrated maple syrup, this nutty flavored sweetener can be used in equal amounts in place of sugar. For best results, add 1/8 teaspoon baking soda per cup of maple sugar.
Maple syrup: When replacing sugar in recipes, use 3/4 cup syrup to each cup of sugar and reduce liquid in recipe by 3 tablespoons.
Molasses: A byproduct of sugarcane, this thick, earthy syrup comes in light, dark, and blackstrap varieties. Blackstrap has the strongest flavor, the least sweetness, but has higher levels of iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium as compared to other sweeteners. Molasses is a hallmark ingredient for gingerbread, spice cakes, and gingery or spicy cookies. When replacing sugar in baked goods, use 1 1/4 cup of molasses for every cup of sugar and reduce the liquid in the recipe by 4 to 5 tablespoons.
Sucanat: A combination of organic blackstrap molasses and evaporated cane juice, sucanat adds a mild molasses taste to baked goods. It can be used in a one to one ration when replacing sugar.
Most of these natural sweeteners can be found at whole foods markets and some can be found in the health foods or baking aisles in many supermarkets.
Visit these websites for more information on sweeteners:
For a collection of sweet recipes using natural sweeteners
Questions and answers about artificial sweeteners and cancer
For more on artificial sweeteners
Role of sugar in baking