The dangers of sugar

My husband is a history teacher, and he tells me that the new colonists were quick to realize the benefits of growing the four most addictive crops at the time:  tobacco, sugar, coffee, and chocolate.   When we think about refined sugar, we think about its taste and the quick burst of energy it provides us.  We don’t often think about the fact that sugar,  in many ways, is a poison that our bodies react to unfavorably.  It provides nothing our bodies need, and in fact, it depletes our bodies of necessary nutrients as our bodies work to eliminate the refined sugar from our systems.  Studies link refined sugar to the rise in diabetes, the increase in heart attacks, and even to thyroid problems.

What sugar does

In baked goods, though, sugar is priceless.  It controls the temperature of our ingredients for timely baking; it causes fermentation so our desserts can rise properly; it helps with the “browning” necessary for tasty baked goods; it absorbs liquid to keep our cakes moist; and it even breaks up gluten to yield those tender, flaky desserts we crave.  To think of replacing sugar with something else can seem almost like a sin to many people, and I know folks who won’t even try a dessert made without sugar, because they’re convinced  the dessert simply can’t be as good.

I can tell you, though, that cooking without sugar is not as difficult as it seems, and the desserts are definitely worth trying.

Replacing sugar with fruit

There are many, many different substitutes on the market which people can try, but I confess that I prefer to use one of three options:  Ripe, sweet fruit or vegetables; Agave; and Truvia (Stevia).  Whenever possible, it really is best to simply use fruit.  With fruit, you can get all of the nutrients and fiber that your body needs, along with the sweetness derived naturally.  When baking, simply replace half of the sugar called for with a fruit puree of your choice.  Milder purees like applesauce work well in just about anything.  Pureed bananas, peaches, mangos, prunes, pumpkin, figs, etc… work well in recipes which require stronger or similar flavors.

Replacing sugar with Agave or Truvia

If you want to eliminate the sugar altogether from a recipe, though, I like to use Agave or Truvia.  Don’t be fooled, though – simply because they’re less refined than sugar does not make them absolutely better.  What they do have going for them, though, is that you can use substantially less of them than sugar, reducing how much “sugar” you’re putting into your body.  For most recipes replacing the total amount of sugar with half the quantity of Agave or Truvia is a good place to begin.  For many recipes, you may even find that you can reduce by even more, depending on how sweet your sweet tooth is.

Tips for Agave

Here are the tips you need:  Because Agave is a liquid, you need to make sure you’ve balanced your wet to dry ratio.  For baked goods like cakes and breads which use a lot of sugar, two options work best:  Either increase your flour amount by ½ cup or decrease your liquids by ½ cup.  If you’re making something like muffins or pancakes, though, where the sugar amounts are actually quite small, you don’t need to make any adjustments at all.

Tips for Truvia

Working with Truvia is a little bit trickier.  Most folks like to simply use the stevia/sugar blends because you can just substitute a one to one ratio for the full sugar, which reduces how much sugar you’re putting into your baked product.  If you want to completely eliminate the sugar, though, you can use half the amount of Truvia as the sugar called for, but you’ll need to increase your dry ingredients (usually the flour amount) to compensate for the missing sugar.  This isn’t necessarily a straight ratio, though.  Usually, you’ll only need to replace about half of the missing sugar to compensate.

A trick I like to use:  Use identical bowls of the same shape and size, one for your dry ingredients, and one for your wet.  If you’re making cakes or cupcakes, you’ll find that the two amounts will normally match in depth and amount.  If you’re making muffins, cookies, or breads, the dry ingredients will usually be slightly more than the wet.  After you’ve experimented a few times, you’ll become quite adept at “eyeballing” and knowing whether you need to add or subtract from one bowl or the other before mixing them together.

If you’re cooking with Agave or Truvia, it’s always best to start with a small amount and add as necessary.  For example, my children like their Brussels sprouts to have a little sweetness to them.  Simply adding half a teaspoon of Agave to an herbed olive oil marinade is more than enough to satisfy them.  The mantra to remember is:  Less is best.

Replacing sugar with Coconut Sugar

On the market these days is coconut sugar which has a low glycemic index because it’s from coconuts. What’s nice about coconut sugar, if you’re not allergic to it, is that it works the same as brown sugar in a recipe so you can simply substitute one for one. I often will decrease the amount because I don’t like things overly sweet but you can experiment and see what taste preferences you have.


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