Sugar has recently become public enemy number one, overtaking saturated fats, trans fats and probably nuclear warfare. Sales of fizzy drinks and baked goods will now plummet and we’ll all be nibbling on celery sticks during our 3pm slump. Dentists across the country are wondering how they’re going to pay the rent now we’ve all stopped guzzling full strength coke and have perfect smiles.
Only it isn’t quite that simple. Yes, we all know we should probably cut down on the amount of sugar we consume. But, yes, we do still want someone to pass us that last chocolate brownie.
The World Health Organisation recommends adults consume no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day. So, if we want to have the occasional pint of cider (5 teaspoons) or gin and tonic (3.5 teaspoons), we’re going to need to cut the sugar from somewhere else. Thankfully the world of alternative sweeteners has come a long way recently. Here’s our low-down on some of the best sugar swaps available…
The Stevia plant has been used as a sweetener for years in Asia and South America. Stevia is native to Paraguay and purified extracts from Stevia leaves can be used in all manner of food and drinks. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar but calorie free with no sugar and no glycaemic index (i.e. it will have no negative effect on blood sugar levels). It isn’t cheap but as you only need 1 teaspoonful in place of 225g of sugar it lasts a long time. It isn’t easy to swap into cakes and biscuits where the texture and chemistry of a large amount of sugar is intrinsic to the recipe. Instead, why not add it to chocolate and double cream to make dark chocolate truffles. Roll in cocoa powder or freeze dried blackcurrant powder.
Xylitol, another plant based sweetener, is just as sweet as sugar but contains 30% fewer calories. Our bodies naturally produce small amounts of Xylitol and it is found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. The Xylitol we buy is generally manufactured from hardwoods like birch. It is absorbed by our bodies more slowly than sugar and so has less effect on blood sugar levels. Handily, Xylitol comes in white crystals so you can often make a straight swap for sugar when baking. It doesn’t caramelise though, so don’t use it if the recipe requires your sugar to melt. This also means your bakes won’t colour and might be a little dry, so you might want to use it in moist chocolate recipes like brownies. Why not swap cocoa for cacao powder while you’re at it, for extra anti-oxidants.
Fruit & veg
The WHO recommended daily sugar levels refer to ‘free sugars’ – that is, sugar, honey, syrup and fruit juices. The natural sugars present in whole fruits and vegetables don’t count towards this limit. So an easy way to sweeten a bake is to cram it full of fruit and veg. Vegetables like beetroot, carrots and parsnips are naturally very sweet. In fact sugar beet accounts for about a fifth of the world’s sugar production. Try adding beetroot to a chocolate cake – it makes it amazingly moist, an even richer colour and adds fibre and vitamin C. What’s not to love?
If you’ll be cooking some tart fruit such as cooking apples or rhubarb, why not try adding sweet cicely leaves. It’s an airy ferny type of plant with pretty little white flowers that has been used for centuries to sweeten fruit. It has an aniseed flavour and reduces the acidity of the fruit so you need to use much less sugar.
A cup of unsweetened apple sauce contains around 100 calories, compared with 770 in a cup of sugar. It’s also full of vitamin C and antioxidants and, importantly, it tastes good. Use apple sauce in some banana oatmeal cookies and you’ll also get low GI oats and vitamin B6 from the bananas – you know what they say – ‘a cookie a day keeps the doctor away’, right?!…