Agave is a liquid made from the spiky-looking agave plant. It’s about 1 1/2 times sweeter than sugar so less of this sweetener is needed. Diabetics can often metabolize agave better than refined sugar as well. My kids and I love agave and its light, almost flowery, scent so we use it often. When we use it in a traditional recipes, we reduce some of the other liquids to achieve the right texture. It’s also great in tea and is often used as an alternative to honey. Agave comes in several versions including raw as well as a dark, unrefined version that has retained some of the plant’s minerals.
- Image via flickr user ayelie
Less Refined and Processed Sugar/Evaporated Cane Juice
Brands such as Wholesome Sweeteners and Sucanat offer sugar that has been less refined. Vegans can rejoice in these products since the traditional refining process often uses bone char to remove the color from sugar (yuck)! Sucanat is basically dried sugar cane juice: it has still been processed, but it retains its molasses content as well as some vitamins and minerals. It’s still, in essence, sugar and can be substituted interchangeably, but it’s in a slightly more natural form. Raw cane sugar is also not heavily refined and has a higher molasses content and an earthier taste.
- Image via flickr user knitsteel
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is favored by macrobiotics, who generally steer very clear of refined sugars of any sort. I wouldn’t recommend using brown rice syrup everywhere you would typically use sugar as it does have a very specific taste. It is also very sweet, which again means you can use less in a recipe. Brown rice syrup is great in small amounts in certain dishes including those that can benefit from a caramel flavor, such as these totally addicting peanut butter rice crisp treats.
- Image via flickr user Glass_House
It’s not just for pancakes! Maple syrup is a great alternative to sugar, imparting a rich taste to dishes. It is on the pricier side (and with the warm weather this year, will probably be an even higher price for the next few years), but it’s much less refined than regular sugar. We use maple syrup in vanilla cakes to give some depth to a more traditional flavor. One interesting fact: despite few maple syrup companies having organic certification, the vast majority of maple syrup is produced in forests where no pesticides are used.
- Image via flcikr user alsjhc
While honey is off the table for most vegans, it’s another sugar alternative that’s made locally across the country. Farmer’s markets often have vendors selling honey alongside their produce, which is a welcome change from many refined sugars which are shipped all over the world during the refining process. Honey has wildly different tastes (from light and floral to much deeper, almost smoky flavor) and is wonderful drizzled on fruit or mixed with plain, unsweetened yogurt (soy, coconut milk or regular). We also occasionally use it as a substitute for corn syrup. Honey (especially raw) is not recommended for infants.
- Image via flickr user SingChan
Maple Sugar and Coconut Sugar
Maple sugar and coconut sugar are deeeelicious. Coconut sugar is also considered to be a good sugar alternative for diabetics and has a much lower glycemic index than refined sugar as well as a high mineral content. The downside: they are way more expensive than regular refined sugar. So, if you have the type of angelic family that has a dessert only once a week, it may be in your budget to splurge for these sugar alternatives. But if you’re like most of us and find yourself baking regularly for birthday parties, teacher appreciation days, etc, these sweeteners might break the bank. Save them for special treats where their flavor can be savored!
- Image via flickr user Kyle McDonald
Other Refined Sugar Alternatives
Fruit contains natural sugars. What this means for your tot’s body is that it knows how to handle the sugars sensibly, releasing energy in a more gradual way (instead of the infamous refined sugar highs and lows). Of course, this isn’t a reason to give your child unlimited juice refills. Instead, seek out fruit juice-sweetened products such as jams and cereals that rely on the naturally occurring sugars. You can always experiment with ways to add fresh fruit juice to one of your own favorite recipes.
I have never made sweet treats with Stevia, which comes from a South American herb, or its derivatives, but it’s becoming much more mainstream. Stevia’s history in the United States has been a little fraught with controversy, and its approval process with the FDA is ongoing. Right now it is approved if listed as a dietary supplement or as a food additive if in extract forn. In any case, it’s extremely sweet (up to 300 times sweeter than sugar!) and has no calories, a glycemic index of zero, and no carbohydrates. It has been used for hundreds of years in South America as a sweetener, too.
Lead image via flickr user cocoinzenl