Best Natural Sweeteners to Delight Your Holiday Sweet Tooth

Josey Murray

Written by Josey Murray | Edited by Carol Coutinho

With the holiday season approaching, the cookie jar is about to be full at all times with delicious wintry treats. Holiday cookies bring joy with their loads of frosting and delicious amounts of sugar, but is that really what is best for our bodies? We’re here to help you find the best natural sweeteners for your holiday baking. Not only will these natural sugar substitutes make you feel better about eating all of those cookies for breakfast, but some will also provide you with nutrients of their own. Keep reading if you want to find out the glycemic index for all of these natural sweeteners and what the heck the glycemic index even is.

Happy Eat-Sweets-All-The-Time-Season!

Is it just me or does the holiday season make you want to eat gingerbread cookies all the time and dip them in hot chocolate? Sweet, spicy gingerbread with a cute little vanilla icing smile, dipped in a steamy cup of hot cocoa.

That’s what I thought – it’s not just me.

But I also know that it’s not just me when I say that processed sugar does not make me feel good. It makes me feel bad, straight-up bad. Every time I tell my brother that something is up with my body he asks me two questions – are you drinking water and are you eating processed sugar. I’m always intensely frustrated by his comments, but I have to be honest, he is on to something.  

gingerbread man on top of marshmallows

Why Should We Avoid Processed Sugar?

Added sugar is pretty much present in all processed foods, whether it seems like it should be or not. It’s in canned soup,  ketchup, packaged oatmeal and bread. Whether or not you’re eating “dessert” or something “sweet,” you’re ingesting lots of sugar during the course of your day, which I for one think is not fair in the slightest. Not only can I not get a venti caramel frappuccino from Starbucks anymore, I now have to watch out for sugar in my soup! (You can still have a frap, by the way, because balance is everything and restriction is dumb.) No wonder we eat too much sugar!

 

 

How can something so good be so bad? And what is so bad about it anyway?

 

The refined sugars we are talking about include high fructose corn syrup and processed white sugar. Added sugar increases your risk of heart disease. Too much of it raises blood sugar and leads to chronic inflammation. There is a link between lots of refined sugar and type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, liver disease, and some cancers.  They also have no beneficial components – that’s the idea of them being empty calories. They aren’t nourishing our bodies in any way. (6)

Sugar and sweetness aren’t inherently bad; it is the highly processed aspect of it and the huge amount we consume without knowing it that makes it harmful. We have to become more diligent consumers by checking the labels of the food we buy and substituting processed white sugar for natural substitutes whenever possible.
Healthline has outlined how to spot the secret added sugar in your supermarket food: 

“The most common are high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, cane juice, rice syrup, molasses, caramel, and most ingredients ending in -ose, such as glucose, maltose, or dextrose.” (12)

The added sugar in processed food is another reason to base your diet around whole foods. You won’t find many added sugars in the produce section or at the farmer’s market.

 

White Sugar

What is the glycemic index?

I’m going to leave this one up to the experts:

“The glycemic index (or GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar (glucose) levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested, absorbed and metabolized and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar (glucose) levels. Low GI carbohydrates – the ones that produce smaller fluctuations in your blood glucose and insulin levels – is one of the secrets to long-term health, reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It is also one of the keys to maintaining weight loss.” (3)

A database maintained by the University of Sydney can show you the glycemic index of any food you wish. It shows you the GI, the serving in grams, the carbohydrates per that serving, and the glycemic load. While the glycemic index evaluates the quality of the carbohydrate, the glycemic load takes into account the serving size and therefore the quality and quantity of the carbohydrate. (4) It is essential to remember that none of these numbers provide us with the full picture of the food, and you can’t determine whether a food is “healthy” or not based solely on these numbers.

Glycemic Index of Table Sugar: 65    (11) 

 

 Benefits of Eating a Low Glycemic Diet

Low glycemic foods can improve cholesterol levels, promote fat loss, reduce the risk of cancer, and reduce the risk of heart disease. (10According to the University of Sydney, eating low-glycemic food all the time is not necessary. There is something called a “second meal effect” where the effects of a low glycemic food carry over to the next meal. What a deal! Even though this effect is true, they still recommend one low glycemic food with each meal. The key to eating a high GI food is to combine it with a protein and another low glycemic food – balance is always key!  (5)

Natural Sweeteners and Their Glycemic Index

Monk Fruit

Monk fruit, named after the monks who first used it in southern China, has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, traditional Chinese medicine uses it in hot drinks to help sore throats. The sweetness comes from the dried monk fruit which is used as an extract. It has no calories, no carbohydrates and no fat, making it particularly alluring to the fitness and clean eating community. Since it doesn’t increase blood sugar, it is safe for those with diabetes. 

Monk fruit is safe to use in your baking since it is stable at high temperatures. Be aware that using monk fruit sweetener may alter the appearance, texture, and taste of a baked good – but sometimes change is good, especially if it means I can eat more cookies than usual. (1)

 

Monk Fruit

Something to be aware of is that not all monk fruit products are just monk fruit. Some contain other sweeteners to make the sweetness more equivalent to that of table sugar, as monk fruit is around 200 times sweeter than table sugar. (8)

Holiday Recipe Recommendation:  Seven Layer Magic Bars

Glycemic Index: 0

 

Maple Syrup

Okay, just to make something clear before we start, I’m talking about real maple syrup, not pancake syrup that is literally just high fructose corn syrup.
maple syrup

Maple syrup reminds me of New England falls, pancakes, and sweet slow mornings with my friends and family. Unlike regular sugar, it isn’t completely empty calories; it contains a good amount of zinc and manganese. Its high amount of sugar though doesn’t make it practical to eat maple syrup just for the minerals, despite its glycemic index being lower than sugar.  Its flavor, however, is undeniably incomparable.

Conversion Tip: 1 cup white sugar = ⅔ to ¾ cup maple syrup (13)

Glycemic Index: 54  (11)

Buckeyes are a favorite holiday candy in my family. A creamy sweet peanut butter ball covered in chocolate, what could be better? Regular buckeyes contain an insane amount of powdered sugar, but these ones use just a few tablespoons of maple syrup.

Recommended Holiday Recipe: Naturally Sweetened Buckeyes

 

 

Coconut Sugar

 

Coconut sugar is a personal favorite of mine. With a rich brown color and warm scent, it’s reminiscent of brown sugar. Usually produced in Southeast Asia, it is made from coconut blossoms not coconuts. (2)
Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than table sugar, possibly because it contains a fiber called inulin that slows the absorption of glucose. Like maple syrup, it isn’t completely empty calories. It contains iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, and short-chain fatty acids like polyphenols and antioxidants. (9)
coconut sugar
Conversion Tip: You can use the same amount of coconut sugar that you would table sugar. 

Glycemic Index: 54

 Holiday Recipe Recommendation: Healthier Gingerbread Cookies

gingerbread cookies

Dates

The fact that a fruit can be used in all of my desserts to sweeten things up makes me feel so good. Dates are crazy good by themselves, but when added to a sweet treat instead of table sugar, they reach a whole new level of cool. Dates add a caramel-like flavor to your desserts. You can get the sweetness of dates in the form of date sugar, date syrup, or date paste. You can even make your own date paste. 

Given that dates are a fruit, they do contain fiber that slows the absorption of glucose. If you want to slow the absorption even more, pair your date with a protein (may I suggest, a date stuffed with some nut butter for an afternoon craving). 

dates
Quick Tip: Date sugar doesn’t dissolve easily. It’s perfect for baked goods, but not so perfect for drinks. (15)

Glycemic Index: 44-53

Holiday Recipe Recommendation: Naturally Sweetened Holiday Truffles 

Vegan Chocolate Mousse

Raw Honey

All of the above sweeteners are great to use in baking. However, honey shouldn’t be used with heat; it destroys the beneficial components. Instead of being beneficial to your health, it causes mucus to form when heated. Keep honey to a sweet topping or glaze for your holiday baked goods. (14) If you want to use it in your warm beverage, don’t add it in until your drink is cool enough to sip. 
Fresh Raw Honey
 

 

I can’t wait to get in the kitchen to see how I can use monk fruit, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and dates in my holiday desserts.

Keep us updated on how satisfied your holiday sweet tooth is with these delicious sugar alternatives by tagging us @cookandculture.

Happy baking!

Buckeyes

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