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Natural Sweeteners


(my back courtyard on a Sunday morning)

I took refined white sugar out of my diet 6 years ago when I decided (correctly) that consuming it was contributing to a general free-floating feeling of anxiety and some ridiculously vivid nightmares. The initial detox from any substance that alters your brain chemistry is difficult, of course, but these days I fill my after-dinner cravings for "dessert" with dates and raisins. When it comes time for baking, though, I prefer natural liquid sweeteners over something processed (such as Stevia or Truvia). My main 4 delicious, easily available choices are below. Please note that I'm not advocating wild and abandoned consumption of these goodies. (Although some would say I've been caught eating out of the honey jar with a spoon, they can't prove it.) Natural, minimally processed sweeteners still have calories and should be indulged in with moderation--spoon or no spoon....

Honey is by far my favorite choice because of the flavors. Depending on what flowers the bees harvested, the taste can vary from floral to fruity. My parents keep me well-supplied with glass quart jars of raw wildflower honey from Mississippi, which is hands down the best I've ever tasted. Honey has a long medicinal history as a holistic treatment with anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, although proper modern studies are only available addressing the use of honey in wound care (Manuka honey) and in suppressing coughs. Honey also contains antioxidants called polyphenols. The darker the honey, the higher the antioxidant concentration.

Molasses tops my oatmeal regularly. This super-dark, super-thick sweetener is an acquired taste (Luckily, I grew up eating it. It was what we used to stick together our "popcorn ball" treats.) due to the high content of minerals that gives it a metallic tang. In fact, one tablespoon of molasses contains 4% of your daily iron, 4% of your daily calcium, and 12% of your daily magnesium.

Agave nectar has become ubiquitous these days. Easy to find, this traditional Mexican sweetener has a light, clean taste and is sweeter than honey. A little goes a long way, and I mainly use it when I want something that is flavor-neutral in a dish, say, if I need to sweeten my tomato-based sauces a bit.

Maple syrup is another great favorite for the sheer flavor, and this concentrated tree sap also contains those wonderful polyphenolic antioxidants.

There are other, more exotic options: brown rice syrup, barley-malt syrup and fruit juice concentrates can also be useful. In general, you can substitute 3/4 cup of any liquid sweetener for 1 cup of white sugar in most recipes, although sometimes this requires some experimentation. Chances are, even your less than perfect attempts will be sweet.

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