As food habits go, sugar consumption is a brutally tough one to break. The sparkly powder has crept into so many processed foods that it's become omnipresent and, in many cases, undetectable.
What's more, sugar is associated culturally with comfort, love, and innocence, and as such is one of the last socially acceptable vices. And as a term of endearment, "stevia-pie" just doesn't have the same ring.
Still, there are good reasons to explore the world of alternative and natural sweeteners. And sales figures show we are doing just that.
Sales of alternative sweeteners are at $1.1 billion, according to a May report from the Ohio-based market research firm Freedonia Group. And demand is projected to grow 3.4 percent annually through 2013, the report shows.
We're using more alternatives because we know the health risks posed by refined sugar: raised insulin levels, weight gain, diabetes, tooth decay, increased triglyceride levels, premature aging, and more.
"I noticed for myself that I was really sensitive to sugar, just as some people are sensitive to caffeine," says Allison Lubert, a nutritional counselor and co-owner of Sweet Freedom, a sugar- and allergen-free bakery due to open this month on South Street.
"My heart would race and I would be completely depleted of energy after I ate it. The more I ate it, the more I would crave it. As soon as I cut out sugar, I had more energy, my mood was more stable, and I was able to keep my weight at a stable level."
Even as we recognize the potential problems that are linked to sugar as well as processed and artificial sweeteners, our cravings for sweet foods seem physiologically tattooed after generations of eating them. And those cravings are not easily diminished.
For this reason, natural alternative sweeteners, once sold and consumed only in health-food circles, are catching on with the general public. The calorie-free herbal sweetener stevia, for one, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2008. Analysts at Mintel International predict that the stevia market could exceed $2 billion by 2011.
Agave nectar, the processed sap of the agave plant, has also taken hold in many households and in packaged products including energy bars, ketchup, soda, and granola. Other natural sweeteners on the rise include brown rice syrup, yacon syrup (a thick, molasseslike substance made from a South American tuber), date sugar, and palm and coconut sugars.
The downside to most alternative sweeteners is that it takes a dedicated consumer to seek them out and use them on a regular basis.
They're expensive, too. Agave averages $5.50 for 11 ounces and yacon syrup is $12.99 for 8 ounces, compared to $1 for a pound of sugar.
They also can be difficult to find. Stevia, in the form of Cargill/Pepsi-manufactured packets labeled Truvia, is the exception, and is now on display at most markets, though liquid concentrated stevia is usually available only at health-food stores. Whole Foods Markets carry agave, yacon, and brown rice syrups; palm sugar can be found in Asian groceries and at Essene Market.
And despite their natural provenance, alternative sweeteners are not always healthier per se. Some have more nutritional benefits than others, but nearly all sweeteners are still treated as sugar in the body, meaning any excess calories will be stored as fat. And while agave syrup, for example, is higher in calories than sugar, less of it may be used per serving because its taste is sweeter.
Consumers also have to watch for claims of low glycemic index made by products, as they can vary widely.
On the plus side, unlike bitter and fake-tasting artificial sweeteners of the past, today's natural sweeteners each offer a specific flavor profile that can actually enhance the taste of desserts, drinks, and baked goods.
Agave, favored by many bartenders, can be substituted for simple syrup to sweeten beverages. It can also be used in savory dishes where a pinch of sugar is called for, in applesauce, chutney, or barbecue sauce. Light agave is fairly neutral and "clean" in taste like sugar, while amber and dark agave nectars lend more of a distinct caramel flavor, and make a nice topping for pancakes and waffles.
Choosing which sweetener to use is largely a matter of taste and application for most people, but those with diabetes or prediabetes should consult their doctors. For the record, the American Diabetes Association does not recommend one sweetener over another.
At Sweet Freedom, cookies and cakes are made with agave nectar and coconut or palm sugar.
"Agave lends itself well to recipes that involve any kind of liquid, like a ganache or glaze. We use it in our frosting. Coconut sugar is great; many vegans and raw-foodists like it. It has a sweet but subtly caramel taste to it which lends itself to use in muffins, banana bread, or anything with cocoa," Lubert says.
At 10 Arts in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, pastry chef Monica Glass uses agave nectar for desserts like a coconut custard, while at home she experiments more widely with yacon and brown rice syrups.
"For customers, I would use an alternative sweetener not as a sugar substitute per se, but because it would add another dimension of flavor to the dessert," Glass says. "But at home I avoid refined sugars for health reasons. I use agave, yacon syrup, and brown rice syrup in my muffins, granola bars and yogurts."
To swap out refined sugar for natural alternatives, follow some basic guidelines.
"If you're converting a recipe with sugar to a liquid sweetener like maple or brown rice syrup, you want to use less liquid somewhere else to compensate for the moisture," says Dana Fore, Essene's bakery manager.
"Sometimes the baking time will be a little longer, especially with brown rice syrup because it can create a gummy texture."
Because agave is sweeter than sugar, the general rule of thumb when substituting is to use about 25 percent less than the amount of sugar a recipe would call for.
In baking, agave causes foods to brown more quickly, so it helps to lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
As brown rice syrup is less sweet than sugar, use 11/2 cups of brown rice syrup for every cup of sugar in a recipe. Stevia should be used sparingly, about 1 teaspoon in place of a cup of sugar. Date sugar should be reduced by a third, and palm sugar can be used as a one-to-one substitute.
Chile-Rubbed Agave Chicken
Makes 4 servings
3 tablespoons pure ground
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/3 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 chicken breast halves,
with skin and bone
(about 10 ounces each)
11/2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons agave syrup
Lime wedges, for garnish
1. Mix together the ground chile, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne, and salt. Using a small paring knife, working with one breast at a time, cut the meat away from the bones in one piece, keeping the skin attached. Place a boned breast between two pieces of plastic wrap, and pound gently with a flat meat pounder until the breast is about ¾ inch thick. Rub the chile mixture all over the chicken.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil is hot but not smoking. Place the chicken in the skillet, skin side down. Cook until the underside is well browned, about 4 minutes. Turn and cook until the other side is browned, about 3 minutes longer. Add the stock and agave syrup, being careful that the liquid doesn't boil over. Lower the heat to medium-low and cover. Cook until the chicken feels firm when pressed in the center, about 3 minutes longer.
3. Transfer chicken to dinner plates and pour the juices over. Serve immediately with the lime wedges.
Yacon Spice Cupcakes With Concord Grape Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 20 servings
21/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room
1/3 cup packed muscovado
sugar (or dark brown
1 cup yacon syrup
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup unsweetened grape
1/2 cup butter, room
8 ounces cream cheese,
5 cups sifted powdered
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 350. Line 20 muffin tins with paper baking cups and set aside. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, spices, salt, and baking powder; set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the yacon syrup and beat another minute. Add the eggs one at a time, incorporating completely, and then add the vanilla. Add the flour, mixing only until just combined.
3. Combine the boiling water and baking soda, whisking to dissolve. Add to the batter and mix to incorporate completely.
4. Fill the prepared cupcake papers about ¾ full. Bake until golden and done, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely before frosting.
5. Make the frosting: Place juice in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer until reduced to a syrup, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
6. Place butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat at medium speed until creamy. Add half of the powdered sugar to the butter and cream cheese. Beat until combined. Add the grape syrup, beating until well combined.
7. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then add the rest of the powdered sugar, salt, and vanilla. Beat until combined and then turn the mixer to high speed and beat for a minute or two until light and fluffy.
8. Frost cupcakes as desired.
Per serving: 379 calories, 3 grams protein, 61 grams carbohydrates, 43 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 59 milligrams cholesterol, 354 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Thai Sticky Black Rice and Mangoes
Makes 6-8 servings
1 cup Thai sticky black rice,
jasmine, or long-grain rice
2/3 cup palm sugar
1 cup canned coconut milk,
shaken if necessary
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ripe mangoes, peeled,
pitted, and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
and/or flaked coconut
1. Put the rice in a medium bowl and add enough warm water to cover by 1 inch. Let stand for 1 hour, then drain in a large sieve.
2. Bring 1¼ cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add drained rice and 3 tablespoons palm sugar, and stir to dissolve sugar. Lower the heat to low and cover. Simmer until the water has been absorbed, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, until rice is tender, about 20 minutes.
3. While rice stands, bring coconut milk, remaining ½ cup palm sugar, and salt just to a boil in another saucepan over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour 1/3 cup water into a small bowl, sprinkle with cornstarch, and stir until dissolved. Gradually stir cornstarch mixture into simmering coconut milk and return to a full boil, stirring constantly. Remove coconut sauce from heat and stir in vanilla.
4. Fluff rice with a fork and stir in about half of the coconut sauce, enough to coat and moisten the rice without being runny. Let rice stand until sauce is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Reserve remaining sauce. (Rice can be prepared up to 6 hours ahead, stored at room temperature. Do not refrigerate or the rice will harden.)
5. To serve, pack the rice in a lightly oiled ½-cup measure and unmold in the center of a serving plate. Surround with mango slices, and spoon a tablespoon of reserved coconut sauce over and around the rice. Repeat with remaining rice, mangoes, and sauce. Sprinkle each with sesame seeds and coconut, if using, and serve immediately.
Spiced Caramel Corn
Makes 6 servings
1 teaspoon clarified butter
½ cup unpopped popcorn
½ cup brown rice syrup
½ teaspoon ground
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon pure chile
1 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1 cup mixed toasted nuts and seeds
1. Heat the butter in a large, heavy pot over high heat. Add the popcorn and cover with a lid. When the corn starts popping, shake the pan constantly to prevent the kernels from burning. When the rate of popping falls off dramatically, immediately remove pot from the heat and remove the lid.
2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In another large pot, stir together the syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg, chile powder, and salt, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Resist stirring with a spoon; instead, carefully swirl the mixture for 5 minutes, until actively bubbling, starting to reduce, and deeply fragrant.
3. Stir in the nuts, seeds, and popcorn, and mix gently until everything is well coated. Turn out onto the prepared baking sheet, gently spread it out, and allow it to cool.