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White and refined, or unrefined and muscovado – whether beet or cane – the popularity of sugar has plummeted. Hence the success of Sarah Wilson's recipe book, The I quit sugar cookbook, which became a New York Times bestseller following its release.
Market research also confirms that the percentage of consumers seeking alternatives to sugar is definitely increasing: this is the age of natural sweeteners and healthy sugar substitutes. Not only are they flavour-packed with unusual nuances of taste and cultural appeal, but they offer a nutritional form of sweetness that satisfies the desire for gourmet quality combined with healthy eating.
Now we are going to take a look at some of the most popular, but above all, the most interesting natural sugar alternatives.
Not to be confused with the maple syrup (explained hereunder), agave syrup is not extracted from any magnificent tree, but a humble cactus plant. It has a low glycemic index and is ideal for adding to herbal teas and coffee, making biscuits and even for adding to roast vegetables to enhance their natural sweetness. White or dark, it may also be a highly processed ingredient, extremely rich in fructose.
Arenga palm sugar
Extracted from the sap of the Arenga pinnata, a type of palm grown in Indonesia in a volcanic mountainous area. The juice is harvested from the branches manually before being heated and reduced to a dense syrup which becomes increasingly solid to the point of crystallisation. It looks like a soft muscovado sugar and tastes like caramel, conferring a fruity aromatic note to food. Its cultivation provides a livelihood to the local population, as well as boosting reforestation as an alternative palm tree to the oil producing variety. Finally, it is rich in iron.
Malt is obtained from the germination of many types of grain, such as corn, wheat or rice, all of which are good for the organism. In actual fact, the only type of authentic malt is the one obtained from barley. The others are called syrups. It is used for making desserts, as well as yogurt and beverages. When added to the mixture or dough, it also facilitates the action of the raising agent and gives colour and aroma to cakes and flatbreads.
A real sugar in grain form that is obtained from the bark of birch and beech trees. This is the well known xylitol (which may also be extracted from some types of fruit and vegetables, such as strawberries and raspberries). Its health-giving properties are not quite so brilliant as those of other sweeteners, but it does contain 40% less calories than ordinary white sugar (whose taste it recalls) and, a factor of no minor importance, it is good for the teeth since it contributes to their remineralisation.
Golden in colour with a taste similar to that of brown sugar, but with notes of caramel and spices, it is obtained from the sap of coconut palm flowers which, when evaporated, are made into blocks. Rich in iron and zinc, it also contains inulin, a water-soluble fibre made of fructan which, as a prebiotic, facilitates health-giving bacteria.
Made from nothing but dates and water, it contains all the excellent properties of this palm fruit, rich in magnesium, iron, phosphorus, calcium and vitamin B; it is anti–cholesterol, anti–inflammatory, aphrodisiacal and anything else you care to name. It adds a rich, sensual note of flavour that surprisingly does not taste too strongly of dates.
This old acquaintance of ours, maple syrup, is, together with honey, the most popular alternative to sugar. It contains multiple nutrients, comprising as many as 40 antioxidants. And that's not all: of all natural sugar alternatives, it is the one with the lowest calorie content. It occupies a place of honour in all the trendiest diets of recent years: paleo, raw food diets and veganism in particular.
Also known as “green sugar”, stevia rebaudiana is a plant of South American origin whose dried and pulverised leaves are 150 to 450 times sweeter than common sucrose. After decades of controversy regarding its potential genotoxity, it has now been acquitted. It has a most unusual aftertaste – as well as being exceptionally sweet – vaguely recalling that of liquorice. Many people, however, do not find it very pleasant.