How to make healthy choices every day

So Sweet: Sugar Alternatives

My boyfriend loves candy, but it doesn’t love him back. He buys licorice and wine gums on his way home from work, rides his bike hands-free, and eats his treats until he arrives home with a stomachache.
I thought that I would challenge him to live sugar-free for a week, in hopes that he would see how great his life would be without the dietary crack that rots his gut. I also thought it would be good for me, considering that since I’ve been in Denmark (re: land of Danishes), I have somehow let sugar slip into my food from time to time. I’m only human, after all.

But, to be fair, giving up sugar is extremely difficult, especially when you’re hooked. I thought I would lessen the blow by making a sweet treat without sugar, something to nibble on so that complete deprivation wasn’t at the forefront of our minds.
Since so many people are becoming aware of the ill-effects of sugar, food product developers are turning towards healthier sources of sugar, and manufacturing products that are gentler on our bodies and that even retain many of their original nutrients.
Two of my favorites are Agave Nectar and Brown Rice Syrup. Both of these whole-food products are low on the Glycemic Index scale, meaning that neither of them cause huge fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels making them ideal for diabetics, people trying to lose weight, and those trying to reduce their risk of heart disease (that should include you). These alternatives are also great for kids since they won’t cause the crack-like behavioral changes that sugar often does. Yay.

Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup, also known as rice syrup, is a sweetener derived by culturing cooked rice with enzymes (usually from dried barley sprouts) to break down the starches, then straining off the liquid and cooking it until the desired consistency is reached. The final product is a rich, thick syrup about half as sweet as sugar, with a very caramel-like flavour. It is great to pour over pancakes, use in coffee or tea, or substitute for other sweeteners in baking.
You can find brown rice syrup at all health food stores and even large grocery store like Loblaws, in the natural food section. High-quality rice syrup should only contain brown rice and filtered water. I like Lundberg brand, pictured.

Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is probably my favorite alternative sweeter because it is so easy to use. Unlike honey or brown rice syrup, it is very viscous, so it dissolves easily into anything you add it to. I like to use it in salad dressings and smoothies for a touch of sweetness. It tastes very similar to honey, especially the lighter versions. The darker syrups are filtered less, and the solids left in the syrup make for a stronger nectar, with a flavor sometimes compared to maple syrup.
Discovered by North Americans in the 1990s, Agave was introduced to provide a healthy alternative to those concerned with glucose consumption. It is made from the natural juice (aguamiel) of the agave salmiana, the same plant that gives us tequila. It is harvested from live plants in the high desert region of Central Mexico, where a wealth of the plants grow wild.
My favorite brand, and one that seems to be readily available, is Madhava Agave Nectar, pictured. I like this company because they produce a raw, organic nectar, and they promote fair business practices by paying their harvesters a fair price.

The cookies were a hit with the candy-holic and I think that they will become a teatime staple in the house. They are soft and chewy, with a good texture from the oats, and a “bright” flavour from the lemon zest. Try to use a really grainy flour with this recipe, as the high fiber content will not only add nutrients, it will also further to slow down the “sugar” effects, however minimal, as fiber takes a long time to digest.

Sugar-free Thumbprint Jam Cookies
2/3 cup agave nectar or brown rice syrup (you can also use honey*)
1/3 cup warm coconut oil (or clarified butter)
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups whole grain flour (I used spelt)
3/4 cup rolled oats
1 Tbsp. organic, all-natural cornstarch (or arrowroot, kuzu etc.)
Scant 1/2 tsp. fine grain sea salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
Zest of one un-waxed lemon
Your favorite jam or preserves (make sure it is fruit sweetened!) – berry goes nicely.

1. Preheat the oven to 350F, rack in the top 1/3. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a large mixing bowl pour the warm, melted coconut oil over the honey and whisk in the vanilla extract. In a separate medium bowl combine the flour, oats, cornstarch/arrowroot, sea salt, baking soda, and lemon zest. Add the flour mixture to the honey and stir until just combined. Let the dough sit for 2-3 minutes. Stir once or twice again – the dough should be quite stiff.
3. Roll the dough into balls, one level tablespoon at a time, and place an inch or so apart on the prepared baking sheets. These will spread. Use a (damp) pinky finger or the back of a very tiny spoon to make a well in the top of each ball of dough. Fill each “well” to the top with 1/8 teaspoon of jam.
4. Bake for 7 – 9 minutes or until the bottom and edges of the cookies are just golden. Resist the urge to over-bake, these tiny guys dry right out.

*The flavour of these cookies will vary depending on which sweetener you use. I haven’t tried it with the brown rice syrup yet, but I think that they would have a much more mellow, more caramel-like taste. Maple syrup could also be used, as well as honey, but keep in mind that these sweeteners are relatively high on the Glycemic Index scale, and if you’re trying to avoid high-glucose foods, use the agave nectar or brown rice syrup.

Yes, avoiding sugar completely can be a challenge, but you can do it, and luckily there are foods to help ease the transition. Try these cookies out. It’s recipes like this one that remind me that my life isn’t so scary without the white stuff, and yours doesn’t have to be either. After all, you’re sweet enough, aren’t you?

recipe source:
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12 thoughts on “So Sweet: Sugar Alternatives”

  • Thanks for the interesting read about some sugar alternatives. I actually didn’t know about brown rice syrup, or that it could be good to use to substitute for other sweeteners. I’m kind of interested to learn more about what this tastes like when compared to others.

  • Hi – yes I have the same concerns about ‘agave nectar’ as all the above comments. Thought it was good but did come across an article or two saying it wasn’t that good an alternative. I would also like some clarification from Sarah or any other reader here about xylitol ? Is this safe ? I thought so as per a naturopath, but then read about how it isn’t natural ? All the same I might make these biscuits but use the brown rice syrup. I have also noticed from articles I have read that cooking with honey makes honey quite toxic ? Sarah if you could clarify …. many thanks & I love your photography ! Quite inspired 🙂

    • I can only answer about the honey. Cooking honey does not make it toxic. It just removes it’s healing properties, kind of like when you cook sauerkraut.

  • Do you still believe agave nectar is an ideal sweetener? There are so many articles out there now, saying how harmful it is considering it is very high in fructose, and I don’t understand why that’s bad. Your opinion?

  • Hi Sarah,

    I want to follow up Rebekah’s comment – I have been reading numerous articles that say that agave nectar isn’t what it is cracked up to be. I trust you and your opinions about healthy living so I wanted to know what you thought about it. Thanks!

  • These were delicious. I used half brown rice syrup and half maple syrup and a splash of almond extract for good measure since I was for once lacking a lemon in the house. Served them for a house full of guests this weekend and they loved them. Thanks Sarah!

  • Just stumbled across your blog…how beautiful! The sentiments, the food and the photography. What a treat! Thank you.

  • Thanks Sarah. I just made these for my little boy and he loved them. They worked well with honey (which is all I had in the cupboard today)

  • I have a question,despite it’s low glycemic index, I have heard that Agave Nectar isn’t any better than HFCS because it is processed by the liver instead of the pancreas. Is this true? And how does coconut sugar measure up?

  • Ah sugar…once you have that little taste it makes you wanting more. It is a hard thing to give up. And if you have even just a little bit it’s not hard to eat more. I don’t eat candy, but my downfall has always been baked goods. I’ll have to try your recipe.
    I’ve seen Agave Nector in the health food store and never asked what it was or how to use it.

    One thing I never put sugar on is my oatmeal. And, I’ve discovered the Chia seed. It’s the most amazing seed. Could you let everyone know about this seed?

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