What You Need to Know About Cooking and Baking with Sugar Alternatives, Including Agave, Honey, and Stevia
If you're looking to cut down on your refined sugar intake, these products could be a smart swap.
As the old song goes, just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Although refined sugar can certainly put a skip in your step—and add sweetness to cakes, cookies, and your morning cup of coffee—the granules add up. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day and nine teaspoons (38 grams) for men. However, the average American consumes 17 teaspoons (71.14 grams) every day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. From agave to honey to palm sugar, we're breaking down the differences between sugar alternatives.
It's five o'clock somewhere—many people associate agave, which comes from the agave plant native to the southern United States and Latin America, with tequila. But there's so much more to agave than margaritas. Agave nectar has a very low glycemic index, or GI, because almost all of the sugar is fructose. This means that it's less likely to make your blood pressure spike in the way that regular sugar does. To bake with agave, use 2/3 cup for every one cup of granulated sugar called for in a recipe. Using agave may change the texture of your baked goods but it will still add plenty of sweetness. It has a similar composition to high fructose corn syrup, so it makes a suitable substitution (pecan pie, anyone?). You can also do a 1:1 swap of maple syrup, molasses, or honey using agave. Mix agave syrup in this Strawberry Slushie or these Banana, Berry, and Buttermilk Popsicles.
Whether you drizzle it on toast or stir it into a cup of tea, honey is one of the most popular alternatives to sugar. Honey has the same amount of calories as agave and is sweeter than sugar, so you generally don't need as much honey to achieve the same amount of sweetness. Because honey is sweeter and denser than granulated sugar, you can substitute one cup of sugar for just 2/3 to ¾ cup of honey. It adds just the right amount of sweetness in salad dressing (try it on our Kale-and-Apple Salad) or these sweet and spicy Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Honey-Chipotle Glaze. Of course, it's used in desserts, too—honey is the perfect smooth sweetener in Basil-Yogurt Panna Cotta with Grapefruit Gelèe or these Apricot-and-Cream Cheese Squares.
Palm sugar comes from the sap of palm trees (you may also find coconut palm sugar, which is a variety of this unrefined sweetener that comes from coconut palm trees). It has a light amber color and a similar caramel flavor to that of brown sugar. It's generally less sweet, softer, and more crumbly than regular granulated sugar, and while it can be used as a substitute for brown sugar, the flavor won't be exactly the same. The coarse texture may alter the consistency of the baked good, too. Palm sugar is particularly popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Try cooking with palm sugar in our recipe for Lemongrass-Skewered Shrimp in Lettuce Cups or Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chile Caramel.
Brown Rice Syrup
You guessed right: Brown rice syrup does, in fact, come from brown rice. It may also be labeled as rice malt syrup or simply rice syrup in the grocery store, but they're the same product. Its thick consistency is similar to maple syrup, molasses, or corn syrup, so you can use it in place of either ingredient but know that the flavor will be a bit nuttier and darker. It's excellent for binding ingredients and can help create a fudgy, moist dessert. Try baking with brown rice syrup in this Vegan Chocolate Cake or these Vegan Granola Bars.
There's a big difference between the stevia you buy at the grocery store and the stevia plant you may grow at home. The products sold at the grocery store, such as Truvia and Stevia in the Raw, don't contain whole stevia leaf. They are made from a highly refined stevia leaf extract called rebaudioside A (Reb-A). They're best used for adding sweetness to a cup of coffee, a mug of tea, or bowl of oatmeal. While you can use it in baking, Stevia is much sweeter than regular granulated sugar so we don't recommend using it in place of sugar in a recipe.