Low Glycemic Sweeteners
Like it or not, we humans are hardwired to love sweet things. Our cave-person ancestors could count on sweet fruits to provide a much-needed energy boost if they ever encountered wild beasts and needed to flee. Even mother’s milk is almost twice as sweet as dairy milk, setting the stage for emotional associations between sugar and comfort from the moment we’re born.
Today, though, with so many studies exclaiming the negative health effects of too much of the white stuff, many of us are turning to other, naturally sweet options as a way to decrease our sugar intake. I always choose lower glycemic sweeteners that won’t cause huge spikes in blood sugar, both for the health benefits and for the fact that they often provide some nutritional value along with their sweetening power. In addition, many of these options are suitable for diabetics.
But how are we to navigate between coconut sugar, stevia, yacon syrup, and more? This primer will help you understand the unique qualities of these healthful sweeteners and how to use them to their best advantage.
Stevia is my favorite low glycemic sweetener since it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels at all (it boasts a glycemic index, or GI, of 0). It’s ideal for diabetics. In addition, stevia is calorie-free but tastes up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia is available as either a concentrated powder or a liquid. For your healthiest option, be sure your stevia is made from a pure extract of the stevia rebaudiana plant and hasn’t been combined with fillers or other highly-processed ingredients. Because it’s so concentrated, stevia works best in combination with other sweeteners, so you can lower the overall glycemic index without compromising texture or taste. In most recipes, I replace up to half the sugar with a small amount of stevia, using another natural sweetener for the other half.
Coconut Sugar or Coconut Palm Sugar
A relative newcomer in North America, this traditional Caribbean sweetener offers a fairly low glycemic index (around 35) in a delightful granulated base that can easily replace white sugar. Coconut sugar also has a lovely caramel flavor that enhances most baked goods. While most sources suggest replacing white sugar one-for-one with coconut sugar, take note that coconut sugar is slightly less sweet, so you may wish to up the volume just a bit. (I use 1¼ cups coconut sugar for every cup of white sugar.) It also tends to remain granular, so be sure to mix it with the wet ingredients to allow it to dissolve before mixing it into your recipe (or grind first in a coffee grinder). Coconut sugar pairs naturally with butterscotch, caramel, or chocolate flavored desserts.
Derived from the same source as coconut sugar (the coconut palm tree), coconut nectar is a thick, sticky syrup that can replace honey, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, or agave nectar one-for-one. It’s a bit stickier and thicker than agave or maple syrup, so you may need slightly more when substituting those with coconut nectar. The flavor is very similar to coconut sugar as well, adding caramel or butterscotch undertones to your recipes.
This very low glycemic sweetener (some sources say the glycemic index is as low as 0) is derived from the roots of a tuberous plant found in and around the Andes mountains. It’s often compared to molasses, although the flavor of yacon is not as sweet and is also slightly tangy. One benefit of yacon is that it contains natural sugars called fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which help to feed the “good” bacteria in your digestive tract. I recommend using yacon in combination with other sweeteners, as its slightly piquant flavor on its own might be too powerful for some palates. Yacon works well with robust or strongly flavored baked goods such as chocolate, carob, or spiced confections.
Agave’s reputation has undergone a bit of a shift in recent years, as more people express concern about the high fructose levels it contains. That fact hasn’t deterred many vegans, though, who continue to use it as one of their main sweeteners. If used in moderation, I think agave can be a useful, fairly low-glycemic sweetener that allows for more flavor variation than coconut nectar or yacon syrup since agave’s own flavor is extremely neutral. I often use agave nectar for delicately flavored or colored desserts such as lemon, banana, or vanilla cakes, muffins or breads. Use agave wherever you’d use maple syrup or honey.
Lo Han Guo
Derived from a melon-like fruit that is native to southern China, Lo Han Guo (called monk fruit in English) is, like stevia, considered a zero calorie and zero glycemic natural sweetener. It doesn’t affect blood sugar levels (and is, therefore, also suitable for diabetics). The pure extract, like stevia, can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar so only a tiny amount is needed. When used in baking, you’ll need to adjust your recipe to accommodate the decreased amount of dry ingredients if you opt for Lo Han Guo instead of sugar.
Ready to give some of these lower glycemic alternatives a whirl? Here’s a perfect early summer recipe that’s naturally sweetened.
No-Bake Apricot Swirl Cheesecake Tarts
For the filling:
- 1 cup raw cashews , soaked for 6 hours (or overnight), rinsed and drained
- ½ cup unsweetened plain or vanilla almond milk
- ¼ cup coconut oil , melted
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons light agave nectar
- 20-40 drops plain or vanilla liquid stevia , or to taste
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Pinch of fine sea salt
For the crust:
- 1¾ cups raw pecan halves or pieces
- 2/3 cup raw natural almonds (with skin)
- 2/3 cup dried unsweetened shredded coconut
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon whole chia seeds , ground to a fine powder in a coffee grinder
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- 2 tablespoons yacon syrup
- 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
- 50-70 drops plain or vanilla pure liquid stevia
- Up to 2 tablespoons plain or vanilla unsweetened almond milk , as needed
For the apricot swirl:
- 3-4 small fresh apricots , pitted and cut into quarters
- 2 teaspoons chia seeds , ground to a fine powder in a coffee grinder
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 10-20 drops plain or vanilla pure liquid stevia
Make the filling:
- Place all ingredients for the filling into a high-powered blender (such as a Vita Mix) and blend until silky smooth.
- This may take a while and you may need to push down the mixture with the tamper, scraping the sides several times.
- Transfer to a bowl and allow to sit while you prepare the crust.
Make the crust:
- Place the pecans, almonds, coconut, cinnamon, chia meal, and salt in the bowl of a food processor.
- Process until it resembles a fine meal.
- Add the yacon syrup, grated ginger, and stevia.
- Process just until it comes together into dough. Do NOT add the almond milk unless absolutely necessary.
- Try pinching the crumbled dough between your fingers. If it sticks together, it’s fine, even if it appears a bit dry.
Make the apricot swirl:
- Place all of the swirl ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth.
- The mixture will be semi-liquid but should firm up as the chia absorbs the moisture.
Assemble the tarts:
- Divide the crust dough among 4-6 tart tins (4-6 inches each), pressing into the bottom and up the sides.
- Fill with the cheesecake filling, dividing it evenly among the pans.
- Using a ½ teaspoon measuring spoon, dollop the apricot spread haphazardly over the top of the cheesecake filling, leaving some white spaces.
- Using the tip of a sharp knife, pull it through the apricot mixture in different directions to create a marbled effect.
- Place the tarts in the refrigerator and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight to allow the cheesecake filling to firm up. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
Written by Ricki Heller
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