Sugar is best kept to a minimum in your diet in order to decrease your risk for diabetes, heart disease, and to help you lose weight or prevent weight gain. There are a slew of alternative sweeteners out there, but they're not all created equal. All artificial sweeteners — including aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium and saccharin — should be avoided due to evidence linking these sweeteners to a possible increased risk of cancer.
When looking for natural sweeteners, there are a few important things to consider. It’s wise to use sweeteners that are naturally derived, minimally processed, not contaminated, and contain some nutrients and antioxidants. Here are my top five natural sweeteners:
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Molasses is what’s left over during the process of refining of sugar cane into white sugar. Molasses is perhaps the most nutrient rich of all sweeteners, providing a significant amount of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6.
Dates naturally taste very sweet and thus are a great way to sweeten desserts. Dates contain vitamin B6, vitamin A, potassium and calcium. Use dates in puddings, bars and date balls with nuts and coconut.
Honey has antibacterial properties and is a source of antioxidants derived from the pollen collected by bees. Darker honeys have higher antioxidant value. It’s best to use raw or unprocessed honey for higher nutrient and antioxidant content. Use honey instead of refined sugar in tea, yogurt or dessert recipes.
Not to be confused with the “pancake syrup” that graces many breakfast tables and is made from high fructose corn syrup and caramel coloring, real maple syrup is made by boiling the sap of maple trees into a concentrated and sweet syrup. People mostly associate maple syrup with pancakes and waffles, but maple syrup is a delicious sweetener for use in homemade ice cream, to sweeten some plain yogurt or in other lightly sweetened desserts instead of refined sugar.
Maple syrup contains small amounts of calcium and zinc and a significant amount of riboflavin. Riboflavin is essential for helping you derive energy from the food you eat, and also has antioxidant functions.
Stevia is a calorie-free sweetener that's about 100 times sweeter than sugar and is naturally derived, coming from a South American shrub. Stevia is the only safe calorie-free sweetener currently available, given the health risks associated with artificial sweeteners. Stevia can be used in a variety of desserts, as well as tea and coffee.