For people with a sweet tooth, these lesser-known substances are not only low-calorie, they also boast nutritional benefits.
We know that cutting down on sugar is a good idea, but it can be tough without substitutes. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose aren’t a great solution because of side effects, which include headaches, migraines, shrunken thymus glands, degenerating liver and kidney function, and mood disorders.
Besides boosting nutritional intake, the following natural sweeteners are the perfect replacement for refined sugar and artificial sweeteners.
What: Stevia is a South American plant. The leaves contain the substance stevioside, which makes stevia more than 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Benefits: Zero calories and zero carbohydrates, with none of the side effects of artificial sweeteners. Replacing sugar with stevia helps regulate blood sugar levels and encourages weight loss.
Use: Stevia comes in the form of liquid drops, powdered dried leaf and tablets that can dissolve in food or drink. To use it in baking, substitute the loss of bulk from sugar with pureed fruit instead, then sweeten with stevia.
What: Coconut water, coconut flour and coconut milk have all been in the spotlight recently. Now coconut sugar is muscling in on the scene. Coconut sugar is made from the sap of coconut flowers. This sap is heated and, after evaporation, coconut sugar is created.
Benefits: Its low-glycaemic load ensures you don’t get a blood sugar spike. It’s also rich in minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, potassium and phosphorus, as well as antioxidants and phytonutrients.
Use: You can measure it in the same way as refined sugar — by the spoon, cup or weight. You can even make a confectioner’s sugar substitute by adding one tablespoon of arrowroot powder to one cup of coconut sugar in a food processor and blending until silky.
What: Monk fruit (‘lo han guo’ in Mandarin) is a small, green gourd that looks like a melon. It is found in Southeast Asia and southern China. It contains compounds called mogrosides, which are 300 times sweeter than cane sugar. According to lore, the fruit was first used by Buddhist monks in China in the 13th century, hence the name. Used as a sweetener in Asia for centuries, it is only now becoming available in the West.
Benefits: In traditional Chinese medicine, it is esteemed for relieving cough, colon cleansing, diabetes, weight loss, clearing excess heat from the body and general strengthening, earning it the nickname The Immortals’ Fruit. At the end of spring and the beginning of summer, many Chinese families brew the dried fruit into a tea to treat coughs, lung infections and colds due to the seasonal weather change. Monk fruit extract has zero calories and zero carbs, leaving blood sugar levels stable. Its mogrosides are also powerful antioxidants.
Use: Available as liquid, granule and powder, the extract may be dissolved into food and drink.
What: Sometimes called yacon nectar, this caramel-coloured liquid comes from the yacon tuber, which grows in the Peruvian Andes. It is ground to extract the juice, which is heated to form a syrup. It’s about half as sweet as honey or maple syrup. Because of its relatively high cost, this low-calorie, low-glycaemic substance is used not solely as a sweetener, but primarily for its health benefits.
Benefits: The yacon tuber contains fructooligosaccharides (FOS), short- and medium-chain sugar molecules that cannot be digested by the body. FOS passes through the stomach into the intestines. There, they act as food for beneficial bacteria and yeast to flourish, helping digestion and boosting immunity. Yacon syrup also has an almost-zero glycaemic index, so it’s suitable for diabetics. Studies have demonstrated its benefits in regulating blood sugar and insulin levels and improving cholesterol levels.
Use: Use it in baking, smoothies, desserts, sauces and dressings similar to honey, maple syrup or molasses. Try it drizzled over squash, oatmeal and yogurt, or to sweeten coffee and tea.